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January 4, 2011 > History: Tennis

History: Tennis

Tennis was creating excitement in Washington Township villages in the 1890s. The Hellwig court in Alvarado was reported to be very busy; the Irvington Tennis Club competed with the Centerville Club on their home court, and then gave a social dance at Clark's Hall. A grand ball was held at Maple Hall in 1908 to benefit the tennis club. The tennis court next to maple Hall was an added attraction for hotel guests.

The 1898 Special Edition of the Washington Press featured a photo of the tennis court at Curtner Seminary. The court appeared to be rather rough and had very little fencing, but the girls were holding tennis rackets.

Niles residents organized a tennis club in 1910 and prepared a court on the Ames Company property. This court apparently did not survive as the Niles Chamber of Commerce was trying to get a court at the school for children to use in 1940. They were talking about trying to get a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project to build courts.

Nana Chittenden put in a court at her Belvoir Hotel in 1915. The YLI (Young Ladies Institute) built a tennis and baseball court on the center field of Sullivan's Park, the Niles baseball grounds. It appears that Niles had a succession of tennis courts.

Union High School No. 2 opened in 1892 and the Bi-weekly reported in 1893 that "the boys are working on the tennis court." A former student recalled years later that "tennis served chiefly to fill the gap between the prolonged football seasons." The mixed tennis club won its share of victories and was responsible for most of the social festivities of the school as well as the town.

Tennis competition suffered at Washington for several years. In 1926, period classes competed in tennis doubles. By the 1930s, tennis was played all year with tournaments at the end of the year. The boys team entered league competition in 1938. Washington Township girls teams have been dominated by Mission San Jose's league record through the years.

Dr. Clarence Wills, a surgeon, and his wife Catherine, a teacher, came to Centerville and established their home there. Dr. Wills was an associate of Dr. Cyrus H. Allen. Daughter Helen was born into the Wills family on October 6, 1905. Her mother tutored her at home until she was eight years old and raised her in an environment of high expectations. She then entered the Centerville public school system. Helen began playing tennis when she was 13 years old and soon displayed her amazing skill and competitive spirit. The Chadbourne family had a good clay court on their ranch, now the site of Fremont Hub. It had lines marked with canvas tape and later with chalk. Family members and friends played there and that's where Helen first developed her tennis skills.

The Wills family moved to Berkeley where Dr. Wills was head of Fairmont Hospital, but Helen sometimes returned to Centerville for exhibition matches. Local residents recalled that they put out a sign when she came to play. A common saying was "Centerville claims her, but Berkeley has her." Helen won her first title at age 15 and was almost unbeatable in world competition from 1923 to 1938. She won eight Wimbledon Championships and 31 Grand Slam titles overall.

Helen graduated from Anna Head School in Berkeley and then the University of California with a degree in Fine Arts. She painted all her life and gave exhibitions in New York galleries. Named female athlete of the year in 1935, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969.

A Washington Township Tennis Club was active in the 1930s. They sometimes played their matches on the Washington Union High School courts. Residents recalled that there were four or five courts by the Curtner house in the '20s and '30s. They were lit up with colored lights for night parties held for family and friends. Other private courts included Elderberry Park, Alta Park and Meyer Park in Glenmoor Gardens. Probably the most unusual and interesting court was the one built by Stuart McClure in 1952 on his ranch high up on Mission Peak at about 2100 feet elevation. It was made of packed soil without a fence and located west of the road from the house. The outline can now be seen only from the peak.

Fremont, Newark, and Union City recreation departments have sponsored tennis activities and tournaments as part of their regular programs. The Fremont Tennis Center on Stevenson Boulevard hosted some 115 players at a tournament in July 2009. Fremont junior tournaments are put on by Tennis Operations Supervisor, Jeff Gonce. The Fremont Center puts on four tournaments a year, tennis programs, and camps. It's obvious that tennis has come a long way in the past 100 years.

Tennis courts were sometimes used for other purposes. Fifty-nine kindergarten children from Oakland and their three teachers came in a private rail car provided free by the Southern Pacific Railroad to Niles in 1924. The private rail car was switched off at Niles, and the children were driven to the nearby J. E. Jacobus ranch to spend the day playing. They feasted on the tennis court and at the end of the day were returned to their private car and carried back to Oakland.

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