SI Vault
John Underwood
November 11, 1974
Once, like gout, it afflicted only the rich, but today tennis fever is epidemic. And it will sneak up on you, too, if you don't watch out
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November 11, 1974

Now Everybody Has The Bug

Once, like gout, it afflicted only the rich, but today tennis fever is epidemic. And it will sneak up on you, too, if you don't watch out

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Tennis World opened—for 14 hours a day—last January to 95% occupancy. Memberships, the most expensive of which is the complete family package at $750 a year and $25 monthly dues, were soon past 1,000, with plans to cut them off at 1,400. The competition, also freshly minted and as lovely to look at, included Meadow Creek, the jewel inset of an exclusive housing complex for which General Manager Fonia Humphries spent a year visiting clubs across the country just to decide on a court surface; HeatherRidge, opened in conjunction with a condominium complex, where Irwin Hoffman is pro and 40% of the membership take lessons; and the newest, the West Hills Racquet Club in Lakewood.

If there is a clot in the tennis bloodstream, however, these country clubs may be it. Much of tennis' appeal has always been its relative inexpensiveness. Exercise on a low budget. Fun for peanuts. A man could play 10 tennis matches in 10 days for the price of one lost golf ball on a Sunday afternoon.

Cliff Buchholz likes to say that Tennis World provides "country club tennis at bowling alley prices," but at the prices ($8-to-$10-an-hour court fees during prime time) and the various fees and dues required for membership, his analogy is hardly apt. At the Denver Tennis Club (strictly tennis, all outdoors) a family membership costs $500, annual dues are $125 and there are no court costs. By comparison with either club, bowling is cheaper.

There is some doubt, too, that the investment is a sound one. Art Hagan points out that Tennis World is on land whose proximity to a gilt commercial complex and spa (Plaza de Monaco) makes it more a candidate for an office building with a parking garage on the roof than a lavish tennis club. Nevertheless, Buchholz says, Tennis World will return 20% on the investment, and that will be plenty to satisfy the tennis bugs who financed it.

Others have had their problems. Centre Court, under the aegis of Donald Dell and some of the WCT players, was at first bogged down in zoning problems, which have now been solved. Meadow Creek, whose appeal to begin with was snooty—"for the very fortunate few," its brochures read—and whose initiation fee was a fat $1,250, is shaky. Fewer than half the 400 family memberships called for have been filled. Roger Tilkemeier, the developer, was singing a worried song about being "underfinanced." He is now attempting to get a permanent loan and the banks have extended his construction loans to 1976.

For a visitor, with more casual woes, a voyage through these futuristic tennis enclaves is exhilarating no matter how many skeletons he may imagine hidden behind the slickness. When one who was wearing a white tennis outfit with pizza stains on the pants came to Tennis World on an August night, every court was taken and other hopeful players had their noses to the glass on the lounge floor. The visitor could not play, he was told, not being a member and not knowing anyone who was, but he suddenly itched to. He hung around.

He was not even put off when the icy blonde receptionist, who seemed annoyed that he had interrupted her phone call (apparently an important conference with her boyfriend), unsmilingly responded to his questions on potential membership. With slashing pencil, she reduced his options on the club's brochure and handed it over, making it clear he better get on the stick if he wanted to be a member.

The next day, when he stopped in at the West Hills Racquet Club, the visitor was even more tempted. A fine spray from the sprinklers dampened his pants as he went in, but once inside he was engulfed in a sea of blue-on-blue paneling, parquet floors and ultra-posh appointments. There was a television room for children, a nursery for infants. There was a superelaborate gym and a co-ed whirlpool bath (which the visitor noted was not occupied). Furthermore, he was told, there was no initiation fee and no monthly dues, just an annual $180 charge and court fees from $6 to $8 in prime time.

A young man who identified himself as an assistant pro escorted the visitor to the courts, where a bearded boy in a tie-dyed shirt was playing on the first court with an older man in whites. The assistant pro, explaining that he was only here for the summer, admitted politely that he did not know what the dress code was, or if one existed.

The visitor asked the assistant if the head pro might not be available for a chat.

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