East/West/North/South Xtra: Frick Park's red clay courts are a unique gem for a public facility
August 11, 2011 4:00 AM
Bailee Miller of Bloomfield drags the court after her match at a clay court tournament at Frick Park. Miller said it "teaches the player courtesy."
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Everyone who had seen them used different words for what the Frick Park tennis courts looked like prior to 2007.
Rundown. Terrible. Unplayable.
Now, the description is more uniform: incredible.
The red clay courts, which sat in disrepair for six years in the city park located in the Regent Square district, now host a steady stream of players from all ability levels.
According to Frick Park Clay Court Tennis Club president Jose Mieres, they are the only free public true red clay courts in the country.
"Even we never really knew how good it could be," Mieres said.
A friend introduced Mieres, a Squirrel Hill resident, to the courts in 2005. At the time, they had no court lines ... or even nets for that metter, and rogue vegetation growing on the surface made the courts virtually unplayable.
An avid history buff, Mieres did extensive microfilm research on the courts over the next few years.
Frick Park was created in 1919 when Henry Clay Frick died and left the city a 150-acre space on the eastern side of the city along with a $2 million trust.
The city parks department built the courts on the eastern edge of the park along Braddock Avenue in the late 1920s. In their heyday, the courts were wildly popular. Mieres estimated that the park's annual tennis tournament, which started in 1930, regularly drew hundreds of entrants.
"Whatever was top of the line in 1930, this was it," he said.
Paul G. Sullivan organized an annual tournament every year from 1930 until 2001 (except for a year of military service in 1946). After Sullivan's death in 2002, the courts deteriorated in quality, and the tournament -- which was renamed after Sullivan in 2002 -- moved to Schenley Park.
The courts stayed in the back of Mieres' mind for two years. In 2007, the city announced plans to resurface them as hard courts, which would be theoretically much cheaper to maintain.
Mieres and other club board members, though, convinced the city to allow them to renovate the clay courts.
"We said, 'Why not just get the tools ourselves?'" Mieres said.
The board sent out a survey to gauge interest in the project, and Mieres said the response was immediate. The feedback prompted the group to expand their plans from two courts to four.
Mieres and the other volunteers worked tirelessly to restore the courts to playable condition in time for the 2007 Sullivan tournament.
"It's like gardening," Mieres said. "You can get it done with little resources. It might take longer, but you can get it done. It takes heart."
Public clay courts are rare in the United States because of the prohibitive costs associated with maintenance, Mieres and his club, though, have found cost-effective ways to keep the courts looking pristine.
For instance, drag mats -- used to smooth the courts after play -- sell for upwards of $150. Mieres, though, reconfigures old nets to use as drag mats, making them essentially free. He said the club's annual budget never exceeds $15,000.
The most recent additions to the courts are new lines -- imported from Germany and designed to last 10 to 15 years -- and a fenced-in viewing area along the side. The courts also started using local red-brick clay from just north of Pittsburgh in 2010.
The revitalization of the courts has also renewed interest in the Sullivan tournament. The annual event has grown steadily since 2006, when Mieres said it attracted fewer than 30 entrants. The 2011 edition drew 162 competitors in seven different age and gender categories.
The quality of play has increased, as well. John Chatlak of Wheeling, W.Va., returned to the tournament for the first time since 1980 this summer. Chatlak, 51, spent the past 21 years competing nationally and internationally. In 2007, he was the runner-up for the 45-plus age class at the ITF World Championships in Turkey.
"This was the beginning of it, and that's why I've come back," Chatlak said. "I have a lot of fond memories here. This is where it all started."
Chatlak lost in the semifinals of this year's men's open singles tournament to eventual champion Mike Wagner, who won for the second year in a row. Wagner, a Wexford resident, defeated three-time winner David Fink of Squirrel Hill in the finals. On the women's side, another Squirrel Hill resident, Emma Leibowicz, 22, won her third Sullivan women's open singles title. She also won in 2008 and 2010.
Mieres said he hoped the tournament would one day regain the mass appeal it held during its early years. He pointed out that clay courts especially are historically important because they symbolized tennis' move from the elite, playing on lawns, to the general populace.
"It's dirt," Mieres joked. "It's really the least expensive surface in the world."