Varnon/My Turn: Clay court connoisseur

It’s spring. The tulips are in bloom, asparagus is back at the farmers markets, and this week, the nets have gone up on the tennis courts. What’s that you say?

I have lived in Greenfield for 14 years now and over those years, I’ve become a bit of a Greenfield exceptionalist. One item on my list of things that set Greenfield apart is the fact that we have nine public clay tennis courts. I would like to suggest that this is relevant to you, even if you’re not a tennis player, because it says something about the place where we live.

In the tennis world, clay courts are associated with Europe. The French Open (which starts Sunday and lasts for two weeks) is tennis’ grand slam of clay and the culmination of what in the international pro tennis circuit is known as the European clay season. In Paris, they don’t call the surface they play on clay, they call it “terre battue” or “beaten earth.” The French are quasi-religious about their tennis. Perhaps this is because a seminal moment of their revolution happened on a tennis court (“the tennis court oath”).

American tennis, by and large, is played on hard courts, which are really painted concrete. It’s the most modern of playing surfaces, easy to maintain, and is compatible with other playground sport surfaces, like basketball. The U.S. Open is played on hard courts. Thanks to the “tennis boom” of the 1970s and 1980s, you can go to any city in the United States and you’ll likely find a public park there with a tennis court, and that tennis court will be a hard court.

Almost anywhere you go around the country, if you want to play on a clay court, you will have to go to a members-only club. And most of those courts are not red clay, but the artificial green clay popularized by tennis court manufacturer Har-Tru.

The fact that Greenfield has publicly accessible natural red clay tennis courts means two things: one, that Greenfield was prosperous enough in the early 20th century to build tennis courts before the hard court boom and two, there has been a tennis community in town that both has cared enough to keep the courts from going fallow and has been egalitarian enough to keep those courts in public hands. This says something in tennis terms, but it also says something bigger about what makes Greenfield special.

Eight years ago, my wife and I made a big investment in Greenfield. We took out a 30-year mortgage and bought a house here. At that time, I wasn’t actively playing tennis. But the house we bought happened to be two blocks from Beacon Field, and as I took my dog for walks around our neighborhood, I would often walk by the tennis courts and see people playing there. These people would come from all walks of life. There would be bicycles, pickup trucks and BMWs parked in the little dirt pull-off by the courts. The players looked like they were having so much fun, laughing, cheering each other on and engaging in a little good-natured smack talk.

And they were playing on clay.

There is something magical about playing tennis on a clay court. It’s organic. You get dirty on it. It’s easier on the knees. The ball bounces funny sometimes. And when the ball bounces, it leaves a mark, which is like nature’s instant replay. When you’re done, you sweep up the courts with a big brush, which is satisfying and ritualistic, like raking a Zen garden.

It was those courts that pulled me back into tennis. Eight years ago, I couldn’t have told you who won the French Open. This year, I’ve followed challenger-level tennis tournaments (tennis’s version of the minor leagues) to see what Americans would gain a wild card entry into the tournament.

This past weekend, I joined a dozen or two committed tennis players — many are members of the Greenfield Tennis Association, which raises money to help pay for the courts’ upkeep — who showed up at the Beacon Courts for the annual tradition of nailing down the lines.

The DPW lays down the lines (they are actual tape, not painted on) and secures them at the corners. But the grunt work of actually putting a nail in every four inches to keep the tape down is done by volunteers. It’s like a barn raising. We do it because these are our courts, they belong to us, the people, and it’s up to us to keep them going. Do you see the Yankee democratic urge at work here? I do.

Having nine public clay courts means we have more than Amherst, more than Longmeadow, more even than Springfield (Forest Park, jewel that it is, boasts eight public clay courts). Search for red clay tennis courts on the Internet and you’ll find that they’re rare, and they’re often described with reverence.

What does this mean, really? This means that right here, in our town, you can pick up a racket and a can of balls and walk on to the same clay surface that you’ll see on TV this week and play tennis. For free. No charge. And if you’re so inclined, you can look up the GTA, play in one of its fundraiser tournaments, be a part of our tennis community.

Andrew Varnon lives in Greenfield.

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