New York City tennis players are lucky. They have access to one of the few public red clay tennis facilities in the United States thanks to the Riverside Clay Tennis Association (RCTA) which maintains and manages 10 beautiful red clay courts along the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Riverside Park near 96th Street. Anyone with a Parks Department season tennis permit can sign up for a court. Those without a permit can pay $15.
Why play on red clay?
“Well, first of all it’s just a lot of fun,” said RCTA Executive Director Mark McIntyre. “Second of all, for those of over, say, 40, it’s a lot easier on the legs, especially the joints, than playing on hard courts. Clay also rewards patience and somewhat diminishes the power of big hitters. On clay ,the ball bounces at a steeper angle—more straight up—which has the effect of slowing it down and gives you a little more time to get to it.”
The reason there aren’t more public clay courts—there are only about four others in the nation, according to McIntyre—is that they are very expensive to maintain because of the labor involved. The RCTA raises more than $300,000 annually to maintain and operate the facility. They employ a full-time groundskeeper. They also staff the gate with employees or volunteers and contribute half the salary for the sole Parks employee assigned to the facility.
Founded in 1984, the RCTA was initially formed to lobby against New York City’s plans to pave over the derelict courts after years of neglect.
“We formed a group,” said Harry Homa, one of the founders who still plays there several times a week and volunteers at the gate on Thursday afternoons. “We went to the local community board to protest. A lot of the senior players can’t play on hard courts. We decided to organize, hold tournaments, raise funds and eventually the Parks Department recognized us as responsible partners who could maintain the courts.”
With improvement came popularity.
“We’re pretty busy,” said McIntyre. “We fill up most hours. But since we don’t take reservations, you can always get a court if you’re willing to wait your turn. It’s about an hour wait on weekdays and can get up to two or three hours on the weekend. But here by the river, it’s not a bad place to wait.”
The RCTA is not done improving. Because the area was created on landfill in the 1930s when the West Side Highway was built, there is no nearby connection to the sewer system. The lack of proper bathrooms has long plagued tennis players and other park users. The RCTA is in the process of raising $6 million in public and private funds to transform an abandoned parking lot into a landscaped overlook of the river that will include green, sustainable public restrooms using composting toilets and solar power. For more information about this effort visit, www.greenoutlook.info. For more information about RCTA programs and public red clay courts, visit www.rcta.info.