Henrico stars in Richmond tennis book

When Richmonders think of local tennis legends, a certain history-maker with a statue on Monument Avenue no doubt comes first to mind.

But in a new book about local tennis history, Henrico County residents, schools and clubs play a starring role as well -- although of course they share the spotlight with Richmond native Arthur Ashe.

Co-authored by Tom Hood, John Packett and Eric Perkins and published by Dementi-Milestone Publishing, the Richmond Tennis Association’s 128-page hardcover volume is designed both to celebrate Richmond’s status as a top tennis town and to raise funds supporting junior tennis in the area.

As noted by the book’s title, Richmond – One of America’s Best Tennis Towns, the city was named among the nation’s top three “Best Tennis Towns” in 2010.

The book features a foreword by John McEnroe, who cites several tournaments and charity matches he played in Richmond, and more than 200 photos -- including some that have never before been published.

Among the many stories highlighted in the book is an account by Packett of the 1984 match in Henrico County in which two records were set -- records that Packett declares “will likely never be broken.”

During the match at Raintree Swim and Racquet Club, Vicki Nelson Dunbar and Jean Hepner produced the longest recorded point ever played in a pro tennis match (29 minutes and 643 shots), while playing the longest match in pro history at the time.

After six hours and 31 minutes (and only two sets), Nelson Dunbar was declared the winner. While the match was later surpassed in length by men’s matches, the women’s record still stands today.

“Thank goodness it didn’t go three sets!” writes Packett.

Swinging ‘60s and booming ‘70s
Other tidbits in the book include mentions of The Westwood Club’s status as one of the first tennis clubs to hire a full-time teaching pro, and of the former Westwood Club pro who holds the record for most city singles championships (Sean Steinour with eight).

The Westwood Club also stars in accounts of high-profile professional competitions that include a 1967 women’s invitational and the historic 1970 tournament that helped Billie Jean King win her first Virginia Slims tour title. Fresh from his defeat at the hands of King in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match in Houston Astrodome in 1973, Bobby Riggs also visited the Westwood Club in 1974 to play several matches (while sporting a ladies’ tennis dress) against top area women.

In the “Swinging ‘60s” section, the book describes Westwood’s role as the birthplace of year-round tennis in the Southeast, after the area’s first indoor courts were constructed there in 1966. Country Club of Virginia, Willow Oaks and Hermitage Country Club soon followed suit, and by the “Booming 1970s” Henrico also boasted the Virginia All-Weather Tennis facility on Parham Road.

A section on great high school teams highlights several Mills Godwin and Douglas S. Freeman powerhouses as well as the feeder programs at clubs such as Raintree and Westwood, while a section on parks plays up the Belmont Recreation Center. Jefferson Lakeside Country Club is also named among the top clubs, and Avalon, Canterbury, Kanawha and Three Chopt recreation associations are cited among the popular neighborhood centers.

Statue symbolism
The book also contains descriptions of Richmond’s early history as a tennis town and numerous Arthur Ashe stories, as well as answering questions that include, “What was one thing people would say that would always drive Arthur Ashe crazy?” and “Who was Richmond’s first tennis player to break into the U.S. top 10? It happened before Arthur Ashe was born.”

For Wayne Dementi, a long-time Westwood tennis player whose company published the book, the Arthur Ashe stories and pictures are probably his favorite parts of the book.

“I’m a tennis nut; I’ve played all my life,” Dementi says. “So the most meaningful moment [of compiling the book] for me was sitting down with Paul di Pasquale and discussing the symbolism of the statue.”

Di Pasquale, who sculpted the Ashe statue on Monument Avenue, told Dementi that Ashe knew he was dying and knew the statue would be his legacy.

“Arthur wanted it to represent his values, so he specifically requested that the book be in his right hand and be higher than the tennis racket,” Dementi says. “And to have the children around him.” Unfortunately, he adds, the statue’s message – that children are the future and that books, knowledge and education reign supreme even over tennis – was overshadowed by the controversy over the statue’s location after it was unveiled in 1996.

As an avid tennis player, Dementi said he was gung-ho about the book from the first moment he heard fellow Westwood tennis player Eric Perkins propose the idea, shortly after Perkin’s return from claiming the “Top Tennis Town” trophy on behalf of the Richmond Tennis Association (RTA).

“That’s kind of like what I do,” said Dementi, “and I wanted to do it! After that it was all about recruiting the best people to help with it.”

Dementi also found the book project reaffirming, he says, in its documentation of the game’s reach and deep roots in Richmond. “We really do have a lot of local support, recreational support, professional support, club support, community support and participation,” Dementi said, citing an array of RTA statistics collected from 33 local clubs and their 13,000 players.

“That’s one reason this community was chosen one of the best.”

Book signing events this month will take place June 16 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at The Plaid Racquet, 9756 Gayton Rd., and June 30 from noon to 2:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Short Pump, 11640 W. Broad St. Net proceeds from the book will be used to support junior tennis throughout the community. For more information about the book and RTA, visit http://www.richmondtennis.org.
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