FALL RIVER – For much of the 1970s and ‘80s, it wasn’t unusual to have to wait to use one of Fall River’s 42 public tennis courts. The city was caught up in the “Tennis Boom” that had swept across the country.
Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were among the most well-known sports celebrities in the world. Young girls and women had Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to look up to.
The Fall River Tennis Association, organized by the late Leo Strickman, Gary Drewniak and others, had operated a well-subscribed league in city parks and ran tournaments that drew players from around the region. Somerset started its own adult league in 1970, and the Somerset Racket Club opened with six indoor courts.
But the big-names stars’ playing careers began to fade, facilities became worn or closed, equipment prices soared; organizers’ died, lost interest or moved away and the boom was over. Many players found other things to do.
What came next was a dark period for tennis in the Spindle City. People stopped playing as often or altogether. A small band of hardcore players, many often from the same families, continued their courting passions.
Jeff Chace remembered what tennis once was in Fall River, and he was determined to bring the sport back to a level of prominence.
“I wanted to see the courts being used again,” Chace said. “I wanted to see people playing again, get the courts fixed and put rackets into young peoples’ hands and get them introduced to the game.”
Chace didn’t have any specific goals, other to get tennis back to activity it once was in the city.
In 2006, Jeff Chace formed the Fall River Community Tennis Association. He also looked to form a partnership with the United States Tennis Association’s New England section, to promote and develop the game of tennis in Fall River. The timing was right, as USTA New England’s regional community coordinator was now located just across the Taunton River: longtime Somerset Berkley boys tennis coach Doug Chapman.
The Fall River CTA, also known as FRCTA, got started with a kickoff Block Party at Bicentennial Park, held in conjunction with the USTA and Fall River Community Development-Recreation. The one-day event drew about 800 to the waterfront park.
“At the Block Party, we saw first-hand what the potential was for tennis in the city,” said Chace.
FRCTA got the rally going with an adult singles league and revived the long dormant Fall River Open, first at the Fetherdic Tennis Club. But the tournament quickly outgrew Fetherdic, a 110-year old three-clay court facility in the Highlands, and moved to the eight new courts that were built at BMC Durfee High School on Elsbree Street.
“The new Durfee courts were built at a good time for us,” said Chace, “and we still potentially had Fetherdic for other events.”
Chace put together a committee of fellow tennis enthusiasts, basically people that he played with, to map out a plan to put Fall River back in the game. It included, among others, Mike Plasski, who took charge of the adult league; Gary Howayeck, who took care of legal matters; Somerset Berkley girls tennis coach Peter Holt, who got the USTA Jr. Team Tennis program going; Dartmouth girls tennis coach Steve Charest, a local tennis pro, who conducted clinics and camps. Tom Medeiros, retired former boys tennis coach at Durfee, was hired as the program manager.
FRCTA now has two branches: FRCTA itself is about tennis programming; the Fall River Tennis & Education Foundation is about finding funding for scholarships, getting tennis into city schools and to ensure preference in enrollments for city residents can be maintained by fundraising. The foundation is a USTA National Junior Tennis & Learning chapter and a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization.
FRCTA’s mission has been to grow tennis, particularly through the schools and junior programs, in the city. It has been supported by grants from USTA New England, USTA Eastern Massachusetts and the New England Youth Tennis Foundation. They have also conducted annual fundraisers, with the support of the Dartmouth Indoor Tennis club.
This spring, FRCTA provided equipment and instructor training at three city elementary schools: Carlton M. Vivieiros, James Tansey and William S. Greene.
“If we can get the funding, we hope to get into all of the city’s schools,” said Chace, who has also envisioned having a middle school tennis league.
They are following up with a Kids 10 & Under Tennis program on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Durfee. The program is free to FRCTA’s city resident members and is $40 for nonresidents. It features USTA QuickStart teaching methods on modified 36-foot courts using foam and low-pressure red tennis balls.
There is an Adult Doubles League operating at the same time on the second bank of courts at Durfee.
FRCTA has also entered USTA Jr. Team Tennis teams in the Rhode Island/Southeastern Mass. Advance League, Southeastern Mass. Intermediate League and Winter Indoor League in the 14- and 18-and-under age groups in past years.
FRCTA is once again offering a Summer Tennis Camp with Steve Charest for boys and girls ages 12-17 at Durfee. This camp is for juniors interested in playing Jr. Team Tennis and high school tennis, and takes place Mondays through Thursdays from 1-3 p.m., through Aug. 16. The cost is $150 for Fall River residents, $300 for nonresidents. Scholarships are available based on need, through the FR Tennis & Education Foundation.
Many of Durfee’s players have participated in past camps, which helped the Hilltoppers capture the Big Three championship in girls’ tennis and share the title in boys’ tennis.
The past will continue to be honored with the annual Strickman Cup coed clay court team competition at Fetherdic, July 19-22. Teams include a 4.0 singles player, 4.0 doubles team and 3.5 doubles team. It is named after the late Leo Strickman, a city tennis organizer and enthusiast who coached high school tennis into his late 80s.
The summer’s premier event will be the Stop & Shop Fall River Open, August 13-19, at Durfee. Stop & Shop has returned as the title sponsor and continues to support FRCTA’s initiatives.
The Stop & Shop Fall River Open will include Men’s A, B and C singles, Women’s singles; Men’s and Women’s 45 & over singles; Men’s A and B doubles; Open mixed doubles; Junior 11-15 singles. The entry fees, due by Aug. 13, are $25 for singles, $40 per doubles team and $10 for juniors.
“We have come a long way, and the city’s courts are getting a lot more use,” said Chace. “We still want to get into all of the schools and to introduce tennis to anyone that would like to play. We are always looking for help, especially volunteers who would like to be involved in our school programs.”
Additional information on FRCTA is available at their website at www.frcta.com
or by calling Program Manager Tom Medeiros at 508-801-5761.