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‘Soft’ spot for tennis going away

Gorilla’s outdoor courts enjoyed 45-year history

Courtesy photo At its peak, there were six outdoor tennis courts at the Blair Racquet Club, which later became Pro Care and then Gorilla House.

The local tennis community will experience a void this summer that unfortunately may become permanent.

Matt Stopp, tennis professional at the Gorilla House, confirmed last week that his facility’s outdoor courts will not open this year.

There were only two — down from six as recently a few years ago — but they were the har-tru surface and were especially desirable to older players.

“It’s easier on your body,” Stopp said.

Clay courts (or har-tru) neutralize some of the power players’ serves and allow for more volleys.

“The point construction is more challenging,” Stopp said. “The balls slow down so you need a little more of a game plan. In a power game, the rally can be over in one or two shots. You can get to more balls on clay (har-tru).”

That was the attraction that enhanced what was once the premier tennis facility in central Pennsylvania — four indoor courts that eventually expanded to six along with the six outdoor courts.

Steve Genter arrived in 1978 as the club’s second pro, following John and Nancy Katz (pronounced Kotz), and he was exceptional at organizing clinics and tournaments — men, women, mixed, boys and girls — as Altoona became a tennis hub.

There were Blair County championships for adults and juniors that attracted competition from Pittsburgh and across the state. Locals achieved regional rankings in various age groups.

“We had a strong tennis community here,” Genter, who served as club pro through 2005, said. “It was a good little tennis town. It was tough to get a court.”

“We had junior training in the summer, three days a week, and there were days when we had all 12 of those courts packed full of kids,” Mike Sciabica, who served as Genter’s assistant for 15 years, said. “But those days have gone.”

Genter said fellow players and tennis enthusiasts would gather to watch events, and he fondly recalls the Altoona Rotary Tournament, spearheaded by Don Betar, that attracted top collegiate players.

“We had nationally ranked players,” Genter said. “It’s fun to watch players of that ability to play on a surface like that — the length of the points and the rallies were just phenomenal.”

Bill Parsons was among the founders of the facility, and it opened in 1974 as the Blair Racquet Club before becoming Pro Care (which shifted to tennis and physical fitness) and finally the Gorilla House in 2016.

“Bill was a national tournament player, and a lot of the tournaments were played on that surface,” Sciabica said. “You put those two together — and obviously, he had the wherewithal to build a tennis club. Better players appreciated the surface.”

Har-tru courts are comprised of finely-crushed stone, brick and shale that is costly and requires a daily nurture of watering and dragging. Stopp said though the outdoor courts lost money last year, the club was willing to move forward this year prior to the coronavirus.

“We had enough guys who wanted to open the (outdoor) courts,” he said. “It was going to be a break-even venture, but when this (virus) all happened, we weren’t sure and put some focus on other areas.”

Stopp said the decision is “just for this season” and “hopefully we’ll get the interest early on next year,” but the reality is there have been fewer people playing outside at Gorilla.

Add in that less younger people are playing tennis and, when they do, Stopp said, they prefer the hard courts at Mansion Park, Hollidaysburg and Penn State Altoona — all constructed within the past couple of years.

“We have beautiful courts at Mansion, Hollidaysburg and the campus,” he said. “The vast majority of players in the area, I think, like to play on the hard courts.”

Plus if those courts aren’t free, the cost is typically nominal.

“It gets to the same argument of when people have an option of playing for free or paying to play,” Stopp said. “And it’s not just the cost. There’s daily watering that goes along with it. We don’t have a lot of people in our area that fully appreciate playing on clay, and I don’t think we have enough people that are willing to support that and keep them going at a rate they used to.”

In addition to outside options, Gorilla still has three indoor courts and so does the Summit Tennis & Athletic Club, which was founded in 1993. Vince McMahon’s wonderful $2 million tribute to his late mother, Vicki Askew, resulted in the Ebensburg Tennis Center, which features three indoor and three outdoor (hard) courts.

Not only are there plenty of choices within 30 minutes, the tennis community generally is getting older and more prone to injury.

“The problem is the tennis clientele has aged and gotten smaller,” Genter said. “At a time when you need the outdoor courts, the soft courts are probably more important to the membership than ever, but you’re not getting the play to justify.”

Then there’s the pickleball factor.

The fastest growing sport in America has drawn from the tennis community. In addition to the Hollidaysburg YMCA, Gorilla offers pickleball options, and a couple years ago, it tore out an outdoor tennis court with plans to accommodate pickleball, but that, too, is on hold.

Probably no one has played more outdoor tennis at Gorilla than Paul Kopac, a master of the clay surface, and he is mightily disappointed.

“As a senior citizen, I’ll miss the clay courts more than anything,” Kopac said. “For 40 years, that was a highlight for me.”

Kopac goes back to the days of Parsons and local fixtures like Allen Goldberg and noted that a group called the Men’s Social Tennis Club was organized within the last 10 years to help save the outdoor courts. It lasted until the outdoor courts were reduced from six to three. (Full disclosure, I was an MSTC member, Perkins Division, for several years.)

“As of five-six years ago, we had 40 guys playing three-four times a week,” Kopac said.

Per Sciabica, a college tennis referee who works the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC, with Gorilla’s outdoor plans shelved, the only public har-tru surfaces in the region are at Penn State (six courts) and Treasure Lake in DuBois (four courts).

In that regard, it was nice to have them here while they lasted — some 45 years.

“I was guessing in the back of my mind, I didn’t think they weren’t going to do it this year,” Sciabica said. “But it’s still kind of sad.”

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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