New Orleanians have played tennis almost since the game was invented in 1873 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in England.

In 1874, New Yorker Mary Ewing Outerbridge brought home Wingfield’s rules and equipment and laid out a course on Staten Island in New York. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association would not be formed until 1881, although on Dec. 15, 1876, the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club was founded, and it is now the oldest tennis club in the U.S. (Because the game is actually called “Lawn Tennis,” the club was never called the New Orleans Lawn and Tennis Club – although one persistent newspaper columnist used that moniker for years.)

Some of the original members were English, or were brokers with business ties to England. President of the group was Gustaf Westfeldt, and other charter members included Henry Charnock, Atwood Violett, Lucas E. Moore, Gilbert Green and N.D. Wallace. The club immediately rented a vacant lot at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Prytania Street for a court. In 1886, the club moved its court to the corner of Fourth and Prytania streets. The club moved again to a larger space at Dryades and Amelia streets in 1891.

On Feb. 24, 1898, the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club occupied its new clubhouse and courts on Saratoga Street between Marengo and General Taylor streets. The club would stay at that location until 1973, when it moved to Laurel Street at Jefferson Avenue, where it flourishes today.

The old NOLTC clubhouse became the New Orleans Recreation Department’s Atkinson-Stern Tennis Center, with pro player Nehemiah Atkinson in charge. The site is scheduled for some post-Katrina renovation, although courts are currently open.

Tournaments began as soon as players hit the local courts. NOLTC established an official annual tournament in 1890, and on the trophy awarded to Leigh Carroll in 1900 there is an engraving showing the match and the audience – all properly attired.

In December of 1934 the Mid Winter Sports Association, besides getting ready to host the first Sugar Bowl Football Game, held the first Sugar Bowl Tennis Tournament. That tournament was a nationally acclaimed event, in an era when tennis players, with few exceptions were amateurs. By 1968 the current professional tennis circuit came into being. Even the game itself would change, with metal and graphite rackets replacing wooden ones and much speedier games.

Through the years Louisiana has had numerous tennis personalities: Emmet Paré, the legendary Tulane University tennis coach from 1933 to 1973, who made the school a tennis powerhouse; Ham Richardson, a Tulane player who ranked first in the country in 1956 and 1958 and was also a Rhodes scholar; Nehemiah Atkinson, who learned to play at the Dryades Street Y.M.C.A. and was NORD’s tennis director for 23 years before retiring – and then winning on the senior circuit; Lynda Tuero, first female athlete to be granted a scholarship to Tulane, who when retired ranked 10th in the world; and Sharon Pettis, the first local black woman to play in the Sugar Bowl junior tournament, who later coached at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.

More typical of today’s women in tennis’s upper ranks would be Kathy Hinrichs. “I starting playing in 1995 at age 35, put together a group of housewives, and our first year we made it all the way to nationals!” Her Alley Kats team went to a national tournament in Tucson, Ariz. “The altitude was so different! The balls were bouncing all over the place,” Hinrichs says.

Past president of the Louisiana Tennis Association and a board member of the New Orleans Metro Area Tennis Association (NOMATA), Hinrichs is active in bringing tennis back to the city after Hurricane Katrina. She credits the University of New Orleans with having the first courts open after the storm: “They really came through for us.”

Besides the destruction of courts (currently the New Orleans Recreation Department has no playground courts open, and the court area at West End has been taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) Katrina affected the tennis community. “I think people have relied on tennis to get them through this emotional, social and economic disaster that we went through. We had tennis to rely on as our release from the turmoil that we felt,” Hinrichs says.

Predictably, when City Park’s planned $3.5 million 26-court tennis center and clubhouse opens late next year, New Orleans tennis players will get right back on the courts.

Meanwhile, a new generation of players is being developed:

“When we ask kids if they’ve ever played tennis before, they might say ‘Sure,’ but it turns out to be Wii Tennis,” says David Schumacher, who’s determined to get kids away from the video games and onto the actual courts.

Schumacher and Dr. Anna Monhartova are currently steering “A’s and Aces,” a nonprofit program for tennis education in the public schools of Orleans Parish. Schumacher formerly coached the women’s tennis team at Tulane University, where Monhartova was a star player.

“Right now, we are in four schools full-time, with a pilot program at a fifth,” says Schumacher. One of the schools is Arthur Ashe Charter School on Laurel Street, appropriately named for the tennis legend. 

Currently the young students are using the Quick Start tennis system. Rackets are smaller, balls are foam and courts can be quickly chalked out on a playground. The A’s and Aces are hoping to secure a grant to fund expansion to reach more students, and become part of the U.S. Tennis Association’s First Serve program, which teaches life skills as well as the rules of the game.

Schumacher looks forward to a time when there can be “hub” centers featuring tennis courts as well as rooms for computers and tutoring, so the students can learn how to play tennis, develop good study habits and receive mentoring on life skills.

“Post-Katrina, in trying to rebuild New Orleans, it’s something I feel strongly about,” says Schumacher of his involvement with A’s and Aces. “I’ve taught probably thousands of New Orleans kids and many of them have gone to college on tennis scholarships. If we catch them young, I have no doubt that many of them will go forward.”

Schumacher says the best part of tennis is its universal appeal: “It’s a lifelong, global, healthy sport, and you only need one other person to have fun doing it.”