Serving It Up: Sportime-Schenectady celebrating its 50th season

Scotia’s Tom Schmitz hits a backhand playing tennis indoors at the Schenectady Racquet Club (now Sportime/Schenectady) back in the 1980s.

Scotia’s Tom Schmitz hits a backhand playing tennis indoors at the Schenectady Racquet Club (now Sportime/Schenectady) back in the 1980s.

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SERVING IT UP – When the indoor season got under way at Sportime-Schenectady in September, it marked the beginning of that facility’s 50th season, all at its current location on Curry Road Ext. in Rotterdam.

The club, originally called the Schenectady Racquet Club, was created by a host of tennis enthusiasts from the Schenectady area, including Dr. Tom Mason and Ed Trice. It officially opened during the second week of September of 1973. Players were enticed to try out the courts for free that first week, and the club ran ads in the newspaper heralding its new six “Elastoturf” courts, a surface that would “produce a slow clay-like bounce.”

By the summer of 1974, the club had added eight outdoor courts to its complex, along with a swimming pool. Bob Schmitz and Don Flynn, two of the county’s top players, were also a part of the original group that built the club, as was Tony DeOrio, a tournament organizer and director. All three, as well as Mason and Trice, were woven into the fabric of the long-established Schenectady County Tennis Association.

Bill Buell - Serving It UpRon Glickman was the club’s first tennis pro, but only spent two years in Schenectady before heading to New York City to take a position with the Wall Street Tennis Club.

It was a great addition to the Schenectady tennis scene, much better than playing on the lightning-fast courts at Schenectady’s Washington Avenue Armory. But it wasn’t the Capital Region’s first indoor tennis club.

Sandy Bookstein and Lee Aronowitz, two Albany area players, got the Tri-City Racquet Club on Route 9 in Latham up and running in November of 1969 with Bruce Negri serving as the facility’s first head pro.

Within two years another group, heading southwest out of Albany on Route 9W, formed the Southwood Tennis and Swim Club. When the place opened in November of 1971, Albany native Dave Kornreich was the head pro.

The Schenectady Racquet Club, now Sportime, was next, and then in the following year, 1974, the Fairwood Apartment Complex in Guilderland opened up two indoor courts in October. In November of that year, players in the northern reaches of the Capital Region got two indoor courts at the Queensbury Racquet Club, and a month later in December of 1974 tennis players were flocking to the Saratoga Racquet Club on Old Gick Road.

The Colonie Tennis Club opened its doors on Albany-Shaker Road in 1975, and in September of 1976 Frank Romeo offered an indoor facility with eight courts on Route 155 in Guilderland. It was called the Capitaland Tennis Club, and Mike Hendricks and Louise Halle were the two club pros.

Throughout the tennis boom of the 1970s and ‘80s these places thrived, and with the exception of the Queensbury Racquet Club, I have wonderful memories of playing in all of them. As the sport’s popularity began to wane a bit around the turn of the century, thing changed. Sadly, only Sportime-Schenectady, the Tri-City Racquet Club and Saratoga (now the Saratoga YMCA) are still offering indoor tennis to the general public.

Also, when speaking of indoor tennis courts in the Capital Region, I can’t overlook the Old Chatham Tennis Club way down in Columbia County, about 45 miles south of Schenectady. It wasn’t built until 1991, but it’s a special place and apparently still going strong. What makes it so special? It’s a small facility, with just three courts, but one of those is a Hartru (clay-like surface) court, and that makes it a very unique site indeed.

But not for kids

Tom Schmitz, a standout at Scotia-Glenville High and the University at Albany, remembers being in the third grade back in 1973 when he first got the opportunity to play indoor tennis at what was then called the Schenectady Racquet Club.

“I remember walking around inside as a little kid when it was first built, and thinking it was so cavernous,” remembered Schmitz, whose father Bob was one of the original owners. “It all looked so new. New paint, new court, new lights. Everything was so new, and there was no sun and no wind. It was like playing in a laboratory. It was a very clean room.”

But even though he came from one of the most prominent tennis families in the county, Schmitz didn’t actually play too much indoor tennis when he was growing up. It was evidently an activity that was mostly reserved for people of a certain age. His older brother, Bill, and younger sibling David, also top tennis players at Scotia, were not court rats by any stretch of the imagination.

“I don’t remember a lot of kids playing indoors that much back then,” said Schmitz. “I know I didn’t play that much indoors and neither did my brothers. It was really more for adults.”

Schmitz said it wasn’t until he was 16 or 17 that he started playing indoors on a regular basis, and a few years later, as a member of the UAlbany team, he began working out at another new indoor facility, Capitaland.

“Albany State practiced at Capitaland after it opened up, and there was a light bar above where you served, right next to where your toss went,” said Schmitz. “That made it hard to serve sometimes, but having the chance to hit indoors was still great. At Capitaland, the courts were blue, and that was kind of strange, and there wasn’t as much separation between the courts like there was at Schenectady.”

Tennis at the Armory

There was such a thing, however, as indoor tennis before the sport’s marked increase in popularity during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. It wasn’t great, as Jack Boyajian will tell you, but it was still pretty good fun.

One of the stars of the unbeaten Nott Terrace High tennis team from 1949-1952, Boyajian had the opportunity to play indoors at the Schenectady Armory in downtown Schenectady during his schoolboy days.

“They would set up a net and tape the lines, and it was wonderful, just a joy to keep on playing in the winter,” said Boyajian. “But we played on a parquet floor, and the ball would pick up the dirt off the floor. You’d play for a while and the balls would get black. And it was also dark in there. The lighting was bad.”

That parquet floor also served to speed up the game quite a bit. Because of that, Boyajian remembers mostly playing doubles.

“The ball skids on that surface, so you could hardly play singles,” he said. “It was still fun, and me and all my friends loved it, but we usually stuck to doubles.”

For three winters back in 1958-1960, a group calling itself the Tri-City Indoor Tennis Club held a tournament on the Schenectady Armory’s three courts. Bob Bramhall, a 1951 Harvard grad who spent much of the 1950s and early 1960s living in Schenectady, defeated Albany’s Bill Sewell in the finals, 6-2, 7-5, and had eliminated Boyajian in the semifinals, 6-4, 6-3.

Boyajian also got to the doubles final that year with Union College coach Tom Cartmill before losing to Sewell and Mechanicville’s Bjorn Lehto, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1. While 17 players from the Capital Region competed in the inaugural event, entries fizzled a bit over the next two years and the competition was mostly aimed at men 45 and over.

Albany’s Roland Negri and Schenectady’s Phil Englebardt, two well-known names to long-time tennis fans in the area, competed in the 45 and over finals in 1960 with Negri prevailing, 6-3, 1-6, 10-8. There were very few tiebreakers in those days, the scoring system not coming into general use until the early 1970s.

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