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David Arthur Walters

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Back to The Future of Tennis

9/16/2010 10:01:00 AM

by David Arthur Walters

The Miami Beach Commission revisited what Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower said was the most important thing in the world.


Miami Beach, Florida

Fireworks were expected at the Miami Beach Commission Meeting last Wednesday, over the Commission’s revisiting of the controversial tennis issue, what kind of surface Flamingo Park Tennis Center’s 17 presently clay courts tennis courts should have when the tennis center along with the park is revamped.

Civic leaders who claimed to represent the best interests of the South Miami Beach High School tennis teams wanted 5 of the Flamingo Park courts to be hard because they said the kids just had to have hard courts whereon to practice and hold tournaments, there being no courts at all at the high school; therefore, the Commission was initially inclined to a mix of 12 clay and 5 concrete courts. That did not sit well with most of the adult tennis players who had enjoyed the 17 clay courts at Flamingo Park for years, and who recalled that when the facility did have a few hard courts, nobody wanted to use them, so players were either forced to play on them against their will or they had to wait in line to play on the clay courts.

After considerable testimony from members of the public overwhelmingly in favor of clay courts, the Commission had changed its mind and voted for all clay courts. But at a later Commission meeting, with no advance notice to the public that the matter would be taken up again and that its previous decision might be changed, the Commission voted for a mix of 12 clay and 5 hard courts after proponents of the change said opponents did not care about kids. The way the new decision was made was considered to be a “dirty trick,” probably in violation to the rules of order if not the law even though City Attorney Jose Smith said it was quite all right. Commissioners Ed Tobin and Michael Gongora objected, and Gongora, whose objections Mayor Matti Bower tried to drown out as if he were being a bad boy in need of a scolding, vowed to have the issue raised again.

It was Ed Tobin who made the motion last Wednesday to rescind that tricky decision and thus restore the previous status quo of 17 clay courts. Michael Gongora seconded the motion. Members of the public yelled “Yes!” and “No!” One citizen opposed stood up and hollered that she wanted to make her own motion. Eventually the hubbub raised by a few citizens’ vocal dissent to the motion caused the Mayor to gavel them down.

The Honorable Mayor, who had voted in favor of the previous change, from 17 clay courts to 12 clay and 5 courts, and who was therefore accused of being part of the “dirty trick,” was doing a remarkably cool job chairing the Commission this Wednesday, especially in view of the fact that her husband had passed away the previous week. But after the motion to rescind was made, she had an angry fit from the chair, saying she did not want a vote on the issue, nor did she want to hear from the public, because as far as she was concerned the matter had been settled. She claimed that the Commission should have the spine to stick by its decisions instead of vacillating back and forth and giving the public the impression that every decision it made was tentative, thus inviting continual dissension instead of final settlement. She referred to the flurries of email flying around over the last change of legislative mind, and cried out that the tennis court surfacing issue had become “more important than the budget or anything else, the most important thing in the world!” Almost in tears she said she had tried to reach a consensus behind the scenes, reaching out to the High School and its neighbors to see if the hard courts could be placed there.

The Honorable Mayor is known for her occasional emotional bouts, but this episode was spinning out of control, into wild hysterics. City Manager Jorge Gonzalez interceded to calm things down so that everyone could get a reasonable grip on the situation in its entirety. He explained the course that had been embarked on to obtain a consensus that would please both hard and soft court advocates. Part of the parking lot at the high school could be removed to build tennis courts there because the school no longer had a driver education program. Still, the courts would infringe onto the adjacent public golf course by several feet. A neighborhood association for one of the neighborhoods adjacent to the golf course had previously worried about the presence of tennis courts; what their impact on green space would be, and whether or not night lighting would exist and disturb the surround. That neighborhood association needed to be brought into the consensus; that was in the works. Nevertheless, construction of the Flamingo Park refurbishment including the tennis courts could proceed, saving the court surfaces to the very last.

With all that in mind, the Mayor insisted that any action would be premature unless what could actually be done or not was definitely known. In her mind, the public had said enough about the matter. Still, she generously decided to allow the many members of the public who had shown up to speak their minds for one minute each, asking that they say something new. But not much new was said in the rehashing.

The testimony of the few people who had shown up to speak against all clay courts at Flamingo Park were overwhelmed by those in favor, thanks to the organized campaign of the local tennis association’s officers; according to its president, Rebecca Boyce, the organization has about 500 members.

It appeared that the opponents were primarily from the potentially objecting neighborhood. One young lady said she had twisted her ankle playing on a clay court. Another lady remarked that technology can make hard courts soft. A woman said she had learned to play tennis on hard courts and liked them a lot.  Another cited the number of hard courts at different locations that a tournament was played on. An elderly woman gave a heartwarming quote from Emerson about the inclusiveness of American society, and reminisced about her kindergarten experience with crayons, which she had taken up again as a senior citizen.

A gentleman in favor of all clay courts at Flamingo Park said that the public tennis center was not a high school facility and that it should serve the general interest of the public that wants all clay courts. Mention again was made of the fact that nobody wanted to play on the concrete courts when the Flamingo Park center did have them. Again it was said that tennis players suffer far more injuries on hard courts than soft. A player said he had put one foot on top of another while playing on a clay court, and fell down on his hip: he concluded that he would be speaking from a hospital bed if the court had been a hard one. Another gentleman said having tennis courts for high school teams at the high school would attract the attention of other youths to tennis, and having them there would be safer than carting them off to Flamingo Park – he did not mention the scandalous controversy over drug use near the center, and allegations of gay sex and prostitution in the tennis center locker room and the public bathroom in the same building.  A man who said he was an expert on tennis courts spoke; he had measured the temperature of both hard and soft courts on sunny and cloudy days; the results proved that the hard courts were insufferably hotter. The expert’s testimony brought to mind the videos of an addict cooking her crack on a Harlem sidewalk, and of a vagrant frying an egg in a Brooklyn parking lot.

After all this was said, the Commission arrived at a consensus that enough input had been had from the public, and that further discussion of the issue must be deferred pending the outcome of discussions with the high school authorities and the neighborhood association. Only then could something be done. The motion to rescind had almost been forgotten after the Honorable Mayor’s tirade and virtual nervous breakdown. Commissioner Tobin and Commissioner Gongora made a couple of feeble attempts to get it seriously considered, which drew blank faces from other commissioners. In the end, they “withdrew” the motion.

If the consensus wanted on the issue is not had, they may have cause for regret. As it stands now, there will be 5 hard courts and 12 clay courts at Flamingo Park. Wherefore many tennis players will be hopping mad about what they think was a “dirty trick” played on them, in addition to a fee increase to the management company whose principals have openly displayed contempt for them and their complaints about bad management. If residents are forced to play on hard courts or terminate their memberships, they will certainly remember this “most important thing in the world” when the elections roll around. Furthermore, when the word gets out, fewer visitors will use the courts.

It remains to be said that the issue here is not one of good or bad intentions. It is natural for one side of the teeter-totter to consider the other as inimical and even evil when the other side is on the rise. What we have here is a logical misunderstanding, not bad intentions. At the conclusion of a Miami Mirror interview with Victor Weithorn, the general manager of the Flamingo Park Tennis Center, he explained that some people wanted hard courts and some people wanted soft courts, so to have both is only logical, but when a few wheels start squeaking, the logic is lost by the Miami Beach Commission. It is obvious that more than a few wheels are squeaking, no doubt from a shortage of grease, so many that the secret Miami Beach Squeaky Wheel Association has reportedly been founded, and a revolutionary  Tennis Court Oath has been taken to unseat the several commissioners and install a brand new administration.

Undoubtedly Victor Weithorn, Commissioner Deede Weithorn, and several other notables notably in favor of a mix even if they vacillate, believe that a mix that gives the minority a piece of the action is democratic, and that sort of democracy is very American, indeed. We do not limit kindergartner’s crayons to the color red in this great inclusive nation of ours. So we have a patriotic premise: diversity is good; the pursuit of happiness requires a mix of opportunities for action and properties to possess, otherwise people will be at each other’s throats. A mix of anything is best in a good country. From that premise we may deduce our conclusion, which is already hidden in the premise, that a mix of tennis courts, which affirms the antecedent of the premise, that our mix is best, hence our country is good.

But that deductive logic does not prove that our premise is true. In fact logic only proves that we have followed the right or agreed upon method to get to our conclusion, and does not affirm the truth of the conclusion embedded in the presumption we began with. It will only tell us if our logic itself is at fault, in which case our proposition is false. What may be best for our country, in order to be good for everyone concerned, may not be a mix of things, but may be a certain thing, say, metaphorically, a green crayon for coloring grass.

What we need in the case of the tennis controversy is more inductive logic. Now some say that inductive logic is not really logical because it is not as ironclad as deductive logic. Inductive logic is more or less intuitive in the sense that we intuit or induce general rules of thumb from our direct experiences. Take the experiences, for example, of the many tennis pros and stars who say that learning to play on clay makes a better tennis player, a player who can win on any surface if he warms up on that surface, and they say that a soft or clay is safer to play on as well. Grown men and women will risk their health and even their lives playing games, but we naturally want our children to be healthy and to acquire the best skills before they choose to take such risks.

Take Rafael Nadal, for example, who won the U.S. Open last Monday on a hard court, after winning tournaments on grass and soft courts. In fact, he is only the seventh man in history to complete a career Grand Slam: titles at the French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Soft or “clay” courts are favored in Europe. Michelle Kaufman at the Miami Herald tells us that Mr. Nadal, a Spaniard, was just “Another Spanish clay specialist, everyone figured. No threat on grass or hard courts. Little did they know.”

But they should know, whether they play the noble game of tennis or not. Experience indicates that tennis players develop superior skills on slower, ‘clay’ surfaces, and are prone to fewer injuries. That is not to say that tennis players should not play on hard courts at all. They may play on cobblestone or dirt, as the rabble did in the vulgar days, if they so choose, or inside, on convertible wooden basketball courts, if they prefer them to separate inside courts, mindful of the noble matches in Europe. Recently acquired habits seem old, and they die hard, especially when they are deemed patriotic. In truth, when playing outdoors, players are better off on clay to begin with. In fact, America is returning to clay, which was the favored surface until economic issues brought concrete to the surface. Again, habits die hard: “Why, I learned on hard courts and I love them!” Some day that might be an unpatriotic statement.

Knowing what they know from experience, officers of tennis associations might reason from the bottom up instead of the top down, inducing a premise from the facts they observe, and advocate a return to clay, openly aligning themselves with the informal Return to Clay Movement in the United States, at least where children in public schools and public parks are concerned. Sports educators, Instead of citing the hard court tradition as justification for its continuation in the school systems, would be truer to the need of children for safety and skill development if they made sure that all hard courts are replaced by soft courts by way of attrition, and that all new courts on school premises be soft courts.

It is with that logic in mind that the Miami Beach Commission should make sure that there are 17 clays courts at Flamingo Park Tennis Center, and invite the high school teams to practice and have their home matches there if they do not have their own courts at the high school. If a consensus is reached to build courts at the high school, city money on hand for that purpose should not be distributed unless those courts are clay.

Now that is the logic of the thing. Perhaps the premise induced from experience is one of the new ideas Mayor Bower was begging for at the meeting. Yes, logic works both ways; one symbol for its dual process, bottom up and top down, is the Star of David, or meditate on the double helix if you prefer. Doing the right thing may be repugnant to those who do not want to experiment with dogmatic tradition. Well, then, let there be a consensus, rendering unto the paying Flamingo Park players what is rightly theirs, clay courts, and unto the high school teams what is theirs, either clay or concrete or both, according to the judgment of the best informed parents and teachers.

By David Arthur Walters



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Sports: Fact, Fiction and Fun by John Rayburn

An insiders look at major sports, stars, events, and off-beat competition...  
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