A significant small town debate over hard and soft courts
My Introduction to ‘The Future of Tennis at Flamingo Park’
First in a series
Guerilla Interview with Victor Weithorn
Tennis enthusiasts, commissioners of the City of Miami Beach Commission, and neighboring residents are presently embroiled in a heated controversy over, of all things, what sort of tennis court surfaces, hard or soft, should be installed at Miami Beach's famed Flamingo Park Tennis Center in South Beach.
They say the Center is "world famous" because it hosted the Orange Bowl International Tennis Tournament on clay courts for fifty years, from 1947 to 1996, and famous professional players have also played on it, leaving gracious compliments behind.
One might think that the argument over court surfaces is rather trivial, quite typical of a small town as well as the little things married couples argue over, but it is far more significant than many of the players suppose. Indeed, it is of national and world import. As we shall see over the course of this series, the future of tennis is at stake, and the events at Flamingo Park may very well have an enormous influence on that future.
Many journalists today get their information from what they read on the Internet or from telephone statements of officials and public relations specialists instead of hitting the ground to see how it bounces. I ventured over to South Beach's Flamingo Park Tennis Center to get the real scoop from its pro shop.
I pass by the Center every Sunday, anyway, on the way to the matinee movies at the Regal, and sometimes I stop at the Center for a snack. This time, and for the first time, I took notice of the fact that a brand new tennis center is definitely warranted, especially if the Center is to once again have the world-class courts it was once known for.
The young lady behind the counter was busy with customers, so I stood by, almost drooling over the shaved-ice machine – it was a hot and humid morning. A somewhat stocky, broad-faced, middle-aged man eventually came out of the adjacent office to ask her if she needed some assistance, and she nodded at me.
"Yes, sir, I have a question. I wonder what all the fuss about having hard and clay tennis courts is really about."
His blood pressure was obviously rising. I thought he was going to blow a gasket if not punch me in the face. He stared fiercely at me and did not reply, making it clear that my presence was not welcome, so I rephrased the question:
"What do you think about the clay versus hard court issue? I read something in the paper about it and don’t understand what the big deal is."
"There will be either hard or clay courts, or hard and clay courts. That's it," he said in an even, icy tone.
"But are you indifferent? What do you think about it?"
Another fierce stare and silence: I got the message: he wanted me gone.
"Is this tennis center run by the city?" I asked.
"It's privately managed," he muttered under his breath.
"Are you the manager?"
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I live in the neighborhood. I am a journalist and am curious about what is going on here."
"Let's see your identification," he demanded.
"Let's just say that I am a resident of Miami Beach and a taxpayer, and I am asking the manager what he thinks about clay and hard tennis courts." I was becoming exasperated by his unfriendly demeanor. I had addressed him in a friendly manner and asked my question politely, so I added, "Why are you so contemptuous towards me?"
"Why are you asking so many questions? Look, I'll give you a number to call, the Parks and Recreation Department, and you can ask them your questions."
He strode over to the side counter and searched its top.
"There used to be a card here."
Failing to find a business card, he took a scrap of paper and scrawled 'Parks and Recreation 305-673-7730'.
"There, they will be able to answer your questions."
"Who should I ask for there?"
"Call the number. Somebody will help you."
I handed him my Miami Mirror card, and said, "Thank you. I may to talk to the city manager about this hard and clay court thing, so who may I say I talked to here? What is your name?"
"Okay, thank you, I'll tell Mr. Gonzalez I spoke to you."
With that Victor surrendered.
"All right, come with me. I'll explain this to you. You obviously don't know anything about tennis."
"No, sir, I do not."
As a matter of fact, I had tried my hand at tennis at the behest of a 10-year old girl who taught me just enough to give me a licking every time we played. And I remembered the tournament in Kona, years ago: a top player was sued for getting angry and hitting a spectator - I think an attorney - in the head with a ball. And then I played a few times on the hard courts where I lived, at the Keauhou Surf & Racquet Club, with members of a jazz band whom I afterwards took to a Mexican restaurant where they all got sick and had to cancel their event that night. A visiting tennis pro retained me to recommend books and discuss literature with him, much to my amazement, for I was disgusted with my life as a bookworm and thought I would rather be in his tennis shoes. I know that female tennis pros tend to roar like lions and might get stabbed in the back. So I did know a little bit about tennis before I met Victor.
Victor took me to the courts and adopted an instructor's attitude, neatly summing up the issue from his perspective.
"These courts are made from crushed brick and are called clay courts. Adults tend to prefer the clay or soft courts until it rains, then they will move to hard courts. The sidewalk you are standing on is hard concrete. A hard tennis court is more regular surface to play on. The high school kids want to practice and play on hard courts because the major tournaments are played on hard courts. Playing on concrete results in more injuries to the joints, but the kids still need hard courts to succeed at tennis. Miami Beach High School does not have any tennis courts, so the kids want to have some hard courts here because we are close to the high school. We did have a few hard courts here at one time, but they were removed. You see the plaque over there? The Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships used to be played here, on clay courts, but they moved away, to hard courts, and might return to Flamingo Park to play on clay courts if there were enough clay courts, so our seventeen courts would have to be clay, and then the kids would not have the hard courts they need. So a proposal was made to add five hard courts on the end of the present center down there - you may remember that the old stadium there used to have some hard courts - but the historic preservation people wanted to preserve the grassy area there, so that was tossed out. So the most reasonable solution for the community given the circumstances we are working with is to have twelve clay courts and five hard courts. But what is reasonable, while we are standing here, is not reasonable when you get to the City Commission. Reason is not the rule there because there are always some squeaking wheels."
I noticed that during his summation Victor was always attentive to any approaching customers, making sure that either his assistant was attending to them, or interrupting his explanation to do so himself. I did not want to interrupt his business as it picked up so I thanked him for the information, shook his hand and left the premises.
It occurred to me that if I had showed up with a tennis racquet I would have gotten a far more friendly reception from Victor. I discovered later that day that Victor is Victor Weithorn, a seasoned tennis pro and tennis center manager. He loved tennis so much he gave up accounting for it and came down to Florida in the 80s to play. He is vice president and general manager of GSI (Green Square Inc) Bollettieri, an internationally renowned tennis school academy influenced by the principles of legendary coach Nick Bollettieri. Green Square Inc. has the management contract with the city for Flamingo Park Tennis Center. The Weithorn name is also familiar in Miami Beach because Miami Beach Vice-Mayor and Commissioner Deede Weithorn is Victor's sister-in-law.
Naturally, Mr. Weithorn is keenly interested in tennis players. He apparently does not think too highly of local busybodies who show up to ask stupid questions and don't know a damn thing about tennis.
But he should care a little more about people like me, for I might take a few lessons to find out how clay courts feel, and get hooked on tennis - if he only knew how many thousands of dollars I invested in dance classes after I got tired of reading books and financial statements!
Little did I know that my further investigations into what I thought was small-town mindedness would lead me to the discovery of story of global significance, at least to those who believe metaphysics has a physical foundation - the future of tennis. More on that later.