Point of no return

Club member Ian McHale.  Photos: Tony Bartholomew
Club member Ian McHale. Photos: Tony Bartholomew
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This weekend, all eyes are on Wimbledon Centre Court, but once tennis had another home in Yorkshire. Jeannie Swales reports.

In its heyday, it was considered by many to be the “Wimbledon of the North” and attracted players of the calibre of Fred Perry, Ricardo “Pancho” Gonzales and Rod Laver.

The Scarborough Lawn Tennis Club (which later became the Yorkshire Lawn Tennis Club), now the council-run sports centre on the town’s Filey Road, is believed to have been established around 130 years ago.

Now, the club that attracted thousands of spectators to watch some of the most laurelled tennis players of the day stands virtually derelict. The old clubhouse is still in use as the sports centre, but the surrounding courts – there were once 18 of them – have either been converted into car parks or are in too poor a state of maintenance to be playable.

And, says the club’s former chair and keen tennis historian Ian McHale, within a matter of years the council will have sold the premises for redevelopment and most of what’s left of the once-proud club will have gone for good.

Ian says that the clubhouse and courts were built mostly during the 1910s and 20s, with the club’s golden era taking place between the 1930s and the late 1960s.

“Many of the big names played here then,” he says. “They were professionals from all over the world who would play exhibition matches: Fred Perry, Dan Maskell, “Pancho” Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, and Stan Smith amongst them.

“Then the amateurs would play the tournaments – but they would all rub shoulders in the bar afterwards.”

Mr McHale paints an evocative picture. “The stands were all painted dark green, with seating right down to ground level, and they’d be packed, perhaps 1,500 people to each set of courts. The players would be brought in through the crowds.

“And the courts were wonderful: flat and perfect as a snooker table, and beautifully maintained.

“People would book their seats a year in advance.”

The present day visitor can still see a small window, now boarded up, which was where the radio presenters sat to report to the nation. It’s at the back of a curvaceous 30s wooden clubhouse, now abandoned and locked up, and which, Mr McHale says, is remarkably not listed.

“None of the stands are listed, either,” he says. “When the council moves its sports facilities to alternative provision in the town, they will all go.”

The clubhouse, however, designed by Scarborough-born architect Sir Edwin Cooper in 1910 and completed in 1912, is considered to a gem, with both arts and crafts, and Art Deco, influences. It is Grade II listed: English Heritage says it is nationally rare.

Mr McHale, now 55, lives in Scarborough and makes his living from property although he’s semi-retired, “so plenty of time to play tennis”.

He was born and grew up in Sheffield, and in the 60s and early 70s was part of a “nomadic tribe of tennis families”, who toured the country. The families camped out – he remembers vividly being in the back of his dad’s Vauxhall Cresta with a caravan on tow – and the youngsters played for, usually, “a lovely silver trophy, and maybe £3 and handful of tennis balls”.

“We all knew each other, and there was never any animosity,” he says. “We’d be divided into the under-12s, under-14s, under-16s, under-18s and under-21s – after that you went into the men’s categories.

“BP had a big investment in junior tennis in those days. If you won a tournament, you could apply for a BP badge – a fabric shield in their corporate green and yellow that you sewed onto your shirt. If you came up against a player with one of those on his shirt, your heart sank – you knew he was really good. I finally got mine at a tournament in Sheffield. I walked a foot taller after that!”

After attending Middlesex Polytechnic, he dropped out after being offered a job back in Sheffield. But that was short-lived, and he then spent two years in France playing full-time.

“I was an amateur in the truest sense of the word,” he says now. “I travelled around with a rucksack and a tent, and would turn up at tournaments with a towel, a racquet and a ball. And then there’d be the big name players from America and Australia with their coaches and masseuses.

“I never got to play against any of them, but I did once share a changing room with John McEnroe, who was diminutive and surprisingly quiet – not because he was in any sense shy or had airs, but because he was so absolutely focused.” His next logical move would have been to get onto the indoor circuits across Europe and India, but he couldn’t afford it. “I like to think of myself as a typical English amateur, with a spirit of adventure.”

The Scarborough Pindar Tennis Club, he says, is still thriving. “From April to July we field two pairs of mixed doubles every Monday, a ladies’ team of six each Wednesday, and 18 men every Thursday. And we have a great social life.” The club still plays on the surviving courts at Filey Road, but also has a thriving winter programme at the Pindar Leisure Centre at Eastfield.

The glory days of the Yorkshire Lawn Tennis Club at Filey Road can be seen on a 1949 film on the British Pathé website, See http://www.britishpathe.com/video/perry-shines-at-professionals-wimbledon

Anyone for nostalgia?
What they netted in 1955

Points mean prizes

In 1955, the winner of the singles in the Slazenger Professional Lawn Tennis Tournament at Scarborough took home a grand prize of a trophy, and £150 – not bad at a time when the average house price was less than £2,000, but a trifle compared to the £1.6m which the winners of both the men’s and women’s singles will pick up at Wimbledon this weekend.

On a single afternoon that year, Saturday July 30, tennis fans with tickets for Scarborough’s centre court could watch some pretty glamorous games: America’s Pancho Gonzales v Ecuador’s Francisco Segura; the UK’s John Pannell v Germany’s Ady Laemmken; and Brit Fred Perry and Australian Ken McGregor v Gonzales and Segura.

Join the club

The Scarborough Pindar Tennis Club, as it’s now known, is still very active, and current chairman and management team leader Mark White always welcomes new members.

“Tuesday evening is club night, at the Sports Centre at Filey Road from 6pm to 8-ish, during the summer, and indoors at Pindar Indoor Courts during the winter,” he says.