Serving Up the Past and the Future at Orange Lawn

Serving Up the Past and the Future at Orange Lawn

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — Bruce Schonbraun is an avid collector of tennis memorabilia. He owns hundreds of antique rackets and old tournament programs. Recently, he added to his collection an entire tennis club, the faded gem Orange Lawn, once one of the most prominent sites on the international tennis tour.

The club, which sits on a hill just 20 miles west of Manhattan, is not a memento to admire on a shelf. For Schonbraun, it is a multimillion-dollar reclamation project that he wants to use to revitalize grass-court tennis in the Eastern United States.

Schonbraun is a tennis-obsessed real estate developer who grew up hitting balls over chain-link nets on the public courts of Jersey City. He heads a group that recently purchased the 138-year-old Orange Lawn Tennis Club in an ambitious plan to restore it to its former glory.

“This is a passion play,” he said. “It’s about restoring one of the finest tennis clubs in the country to its old grandeur, and we hope to bring in a tournament sooner rather than later.”

That won’t be easy, given that club memberships of the sort Orange Lawn offers have been trending downward and pro tennis tours have become much more internationally focused than they were in Orange Lawn’s heyday. A small amateur tournament might be a better fit.

Schonbraun said the club has been in negotiations with the United States Tennis Association for a father-son grass-court doubles tournament here, and there is hope of adding a national amateur grass-court tournament soon. Other ideas include a masters tournament with big-name former players, like John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Pat Cash, as well as a men’s or a women’s professional tournament.

Grass was once the primary surface for the original sport of lawn tennis, but Orange Lawn is one of roughly 14 remaining clubs with grass courts left in the United States. The only remaining major grass-court tournament in the country is held in Newport, R.I., shortly after Wimbledon each summer. Creating the space and conditions for a small grass tournament in South Orange would be challenging, but it has been done before.

Orange Lawn Tennis Club was once the site of an important stop on the international tennis tour.
Kevin Hagen for The New York Times
The biggest stars in tennis used to play at Orange Lawn, including, from left, Bill Tilden, George Lott, Bruce Barnes, A. H. Charin Jr., Martin Plaa and Robert Ramillon.
Bettmann, via Getty Images

For decades, Orange Lawn played host to one of the premier events leading to the United States national championships (later known as the United States Open). Yellowing photographs and a framed list in a plain typeface modestly document the history of the tournament to anyone who leans in close enough to see them near the main entrance.

The list of great champions is unobtrusively displayed, but Bill Tilden won here in 1929 and Arthur Ashe was victorious decades later, as was Rod Laver, Chris Evert, Billie Jean Moffat (later Billie Jean King) and McEnroe.

Known as the Eastern Grass Court Championships (and later called the Mutual Benefit Life Open), the event was the perfect tuneup for the United States championships in Forest Hills, Queens, and at other grass-court sites before that.

In 1890, The New York Times reported on the tournament in the style of the day: “The weather was all that could be desired, and brought out a large number of the society people of the Oranges,” the article said.

After the United States Open switched to clay at Forest Hills in 1975, the Orange Lawn tournament followed suit, and the specialty the club once offered — the 10 shining emerald grass courts — were no longer seen as a valued asset. Interest faded, and the last tournament was held there in 1983, on its clay courts.

The main clubhouse at Orange Lawn, which will be renovated.
Kevin Hagen for The New York Times
It is hoped that the renovations at Orange Lawn will help drive membership sales.
Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

In recent years, the club has suffered the same fate as so many other clubs in the United States.

The days when member-owned country clubs served as second homes for businessmen spending long hours playing, eating and drinking at them are mostly gone. Today, as people tend to spend more time with family, memberships to country clubs have decreased, fees have risen and the facilities have fallen into disrepair.

Until the lines are painted and the nets are erected in late May, the grass courts at Orange Lawn together look like a vast, unmanicured putting green. Once they are set up, and dew clings to each blade of grass on a summer morning, they glisten like an emerald carpet.

The rest of the club, which includes the main building, a cafe, paddle ball courts and the lawn in front, is unpretentious, if not a bit scraggly from lack of attention.

As a way to consolidate finances and enhance their facilities, many member-owned clubs have sold to private ownership groups. Part of Schonbraun’s business is to refurbish dated country clubs, and about two years ago, Orange Lawn hired him as a consultant to redevelop the premises, reduce debt and increase membership.

After several months, the board members asked Schonbraun, whose sons David and Michael played at Princeton and Colgate, to buy the club outright. He put together a four-person ownership group, with him at the head, and since the group took over, badly needed construction has begun on the facilities.

The group hired Aaron Krickstein, a former No. 6 player in the world, to be its touring pro, meaning he would do clinics and exhibitions and give lessons on the courts that he had played on many times over the years, though never in a main tournament.

Tennis is serious business at Orange Lawn Tennis Club.
Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

“That place has such a history,” Krickstein said, “and like a lot of clubs, it has gravitated downward. But when Bruce contacted me, I felt like it would be O.K.”

While noting coming changes, Schonbraun said at least six of the 10 grass courts, and perhaps all of them, would remain.

In recent years, the grass has suffered with the financial cuts. Maintaining pristine grass courts is labor intensive and costly; a significant portion of the budget goes to their upkeep.

The groundskeeper and botanical expert is Steve Irvin, the nephew of the former baseball player Monte Irvin. He has been at the club for about 35 years and looks forward to the capital infusion he hopes will mean better care of the courts, the way he did it 10 years ago.

“The courts are an iconic part of the club and New Jersey,” Irvin said. “It’s been neglected a little bit because of the budget. I love the courts and I love when people play on them. For them not to be used would be a crime.”

It’s not just about the grass. Tom Bass, left, Bill Mack, Steve Fenster and Pete Chappelear play on one of the platform tennis courts at the Orange Lawn.
Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

The grass is mostly bent and some poa, the varieties found on many golf courses and used in South Orange since 1880. It is cut to five-sixteenths of an inch every other day once the courts are laid out in late May, and the lines are continually adjusted to prevent wear in specific spots.

The grass, which plays fast and low, like the hard, quick Wimbledon courts of old (Wimbledon changed to a slower and bouncier grass surface years ago), is treated with reverence, especially after rain, when members must stay off it to avoid turning the wet courts to mud.

To Schonbraun, all that care is worth it to recapture some of the glory of what used to be a mecca of lawn tennis in America.

“In our minds,” Schonbraun said, “this is always going to be the grand place to play grass-court tennis.”

Published at Thu, 26 Apr 2018 20:53:00 +0000

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