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Top-Gun Club : More Than a Few Good Tennis Players Flocking to Unassuming, Out-of-the-Way Courts in Costa Mesa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you’re driving down Southeast Bristol Street, looking for the Palisades Tennis Club, you’d better be wide awake, and watch for it carefully. It’s easy to miss the small sign that marks its entrance. But it’s there, below the one for the Mexican restaurant that is considerably more prominent.

And, yes, the tennis courts are there, too, just a few feet behind the sizzling fajitas and the steaming flour tortillas. One of the courts is flush against the restaurant’s back patio.

It is an unassuming setting, this small white brick and stucco building that appears to have emerged incongruously in the parking lot. There are only five courts and none of them have lights. There is no posh players’ lounge inside, and no stylish clothes by Fila and Ellesse on racks. No bar. No swimming pool.

Just tennis.

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“The only things we sell here are tennis balls and Gatorade,” Ken Stuart said, laughing. He is the owner and general manager, which he says means he works there seven days a week.

Not many clubs, however, have a player ranked 22nd in the world in doubles playing in its club tournaments, as Palisades did with Rick Leach this spring. Not many have women players of the caliber of Lindsay Davenport and Debbie Graham, who also are on the pro tour, on their membership rosters. Other members include pro players Scott Davis, ranked 36th in doubles on the ATP computer, and Grant Connell, ranked third in doubles. Many of the region’s top amateur players play there, as well.

The membership is small by most standards. It’s limited to 150 players, and it’s full now. Stuart says there are more than 30 players on a list waiting to get in. But the main difference between Palisades and most other clubs is the high level of tennis played there.

It’s a “top gun” kind of atmosphere, created when Stuart asked that every player who walked through the door have at least a 4.5 U.S. Tennis Assn. rating.

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“About 100 of our players are either low-level Open or A players,” Stuart said. “We have a lot of players who are ranked high in Southern California, as well as nationally in the age divisions. Typically, in even some big clubs, you might have 10 or so really good players.”

USC tennis Coach Dick Leach, who lives in Laguna Beach, plays there along with both his tennis pro sons, Rick and Jon. He calls Palisades “probably one of the most unique clubs around” because of the caliber of the players.

Annette Buck, the director of adult tennis for the Southern California Tennis Assn., says Palisades is beginning to get the same type of reputation that the Los Angeles Tennis Club once had.

“The L.A. Tennis Club used to fulfill that function in the Los Angeles area,” she said. “Top players who came to town knew they could always get a game there. Palisades is getting that reputation now for Orange County.”

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The pro at the club is Robert Van’t Hof, who at one point was ranked among the top 50 players in the world in singles and as high as 25th in doubles before he retired after the 1991 U.S. Open. He is now the coach for two pro players, Davenport and Todd Martin.

“It’s a good situation for me because I know I’m always going to be able to get a good game at Palisades,” said Bill McQuaid, who teaches tennis at an apartment complex in Costa Mesa and is ranked No. 9 in Southern California in the 30-year-old singles division. “And not having lights doesn’t bother the good players. All of them only want to play in daylight anyway.”

The lack of lights gives Stuart a bit more rest from his morning-to-dusk schedule once late fall and daylight savings time arrives.

In the late 1960s, Stuart was a fringe player on the pro tour at the dawn of open tennis. He played at a time when players such as Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Stan Smith and John Newcombe were holding center court. “In those days, I had to write the tournament promoters a year in advance to try to get into tournaments, then wouldn’t hear back from them about whether I was in the field or not until two or three weeks before the tournament started,” he said.

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Stuart says he never was in it for the money. It wouldn’t have made much difference. The prize money then was a far cry from today’s purses.

“In 1968, I won four rounds of qualifying for the U.S. Open, then was beaten in the first round of the regular draw and ended up getting a check for $100,” he said, thinking back. “But I thought that was great. Hey, that meant I had money to get home.” Stuart remembers winning a tournament in Ohio that same year and picking up a check for $300.

“The most money I ever made playing tennis was $35,000 in 1970, and that year I was able to qualify at Wimbledon in singles, doubles and mixed,” Stuart said.

Stuart decided he could make more money teaching tennis than playing it, and he decided to do that in Long Beach. He taught tennis 10 hours a day, studied for a master’s degree at Long Beach State and played tournament tennis on weekends. In 1973, he became the first general manager and tennis director for the John Wayne Tennis Club, which he helped design, in Newport Beach. He left in 1979 when a close friend lured him into a sales position with his company. He was involved in a variety of entrepreneurial projects in the 1980s, as well.

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Then in 1992, he decided to return to tennis, and was looking for a place to do it. The Palisades Club had been closed for four years, and weeds sprouted from cracks in the courts. But Stuart, decided to try to revive it.

“I had the idea at the start of making it one of three things,” Stuart said. “I thought about making it a club for just women or a club for juniors, and decided on the third choice, trying to make it a club for top players, players with a ranking of 4.5 or above, and that’s what I did. I began inviting some of the better players I knew, and it developed from that point.”

Stuart said he gave himself a budget of $25,000 to do it. “And now, about $95,000 later, here it is,” he said, smiling.


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