By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Grab your tennis whites — the historic courts of Bitsy Grant Tennis Center will sizzle again Aug. 15 to 20.

With the renovation of its 23 courts complete, the park in Buckhead will host its first tournament since 2001, the 2009 Georgia State Adult/Senior Open Tennis Championship.

The matches kick off Aug. 15 with the inaugural Bitsy Grand Slam Gala, an event that celebrates the center’s return to tournaments and raises money to renovate its two-story clubhouse.

“We are trying to bring Bitsy back,” said tournament chairman Peter Howell, a Buckhead native and head tennis coach for Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven. “It was the focus of tennis in the South. Our goal is to bring it back.”

The 59-year-old can remember the good old days at the tennis facility. Fifty years ago this year, Howell won his first tennis championship on court No. 12 as a 9-year-old.

“I grew up as a junior playing at Bitsy Grant,” he said.

A tennis instructor for four decades, Howell remembers the glass walls of the clubhouse and how they once slid open to let the breeze flow through.

He can point to his mother’s bleacher seat, where she kept score for multiple courts, as well as to her picture in the Georgia Tennis Hall of Fame, housed on the clubhouse’s upper level.

He knows about the “tree bar” where the late Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard would serve libations to fellow players from the trunk of his car.

And Howell can still imagine former Georgia Tech football coach Bobby Dodd playing checkers with Bryan Morel “Bitsy” Grant upstairs, where the lounge area is now.

The tennis center is named for the 5-foot-4, 120-pound Atlanta native who was the smallest American man to become a world tennis champion. Between 1930 and 1941, Bitsy ranked in the U.S. top 10 nine times, including two years at No. 3. In 1937, he was ranked sixth in the world.

“He was a very interesting man,” said Howell, who played against Bitsy as a college student and won a match years later. Although shy off the court, the tiny player was a “phenomenal competitor” and a “pit bull dog on the court.”

Tournament host again

The Bitsy Grant facility became a tournament hot spot after it opened in 1952.

“Bitsy Grant has historically been the center of tennis in Atlanta and the South since it hosted the United States clay court championships in 1955,” Howell said. “They were won by Tony Trabert,” the No. 1 amateur that year.

He said Court 1 was the stadium court for big tournaments, and bleachers were put on Court 2 for championship viewing.

Before the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA) began league play, its main interest was hosting a tennis tournament at Bitsy Grant called the Atlanta Invitational.

“The best players of the day came to Atlanta,” Howell said, such as Chuck McKinley, who won Wimbledon in 1963, and Arthur Ashe, the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open or the Australian Open. “All of the greats have played Atlanta.”

The U.S. Open began in 1968 and let professionals and amateurs play together in tennis championships.

“It sort of ended the Atlanta Invitational, because all the tournaments now contained big prize money,” Howell said. “All of the prize money was under the table in the old days because they were amateur.”

He said Bitsy Grant, however, continued to host state championships until 2001. But “the quality of the courts had deteriorated to point where they were up not to tournament standard.”

The city of Atlanta, with help from the nonprofit Friends of Bitsy Grant, has completed some $2 million in improvements to the parking lot, drainage and tennis courts at the facility.

The 10 hard courts have been resurfaced, and the 13 clay courts were rebuilt with a HydroCourt self-regulating irrigation system that waters them from below. The system uses well water to moisten the surface, which was crucial to maintaining the clay courts during the drought.

“If you don’t water them, the composite material on top of the clay blows away, and the clay starts getting hard and cracking,” said Buckhead resident Vickie Dorsey, the chair of the Bitsy Grand Slam Gala and a tennis player since 1978.

With its renovated courts, the facility is equipped to host its first tournament in eight years, the State Adult/Senior Open Tennis Championship.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Howell said.

Clubhouse renovations

When the Bitsy Grant clubhouse opened in 1952, it was a model of innovation.

Architect Richard Aeck created the airy 5,000-square-foot building of concrete and glass with a flat asphalt roof, and in 1953 he won a national award for the green design. The building was built into the landscape to allow wind to blow through the picture windows.

People flowed in and out as easily.

“The great lure of this place was it was the one place that you could come without a tennis game and within a short period of time find somebody to play tennis with,” said Howell, who leased Bitsy Grant from the city from 1983 to 1988. “That is a passing attribute.”

Today, the carpets are stained, and the glass windows have been screwed shut to deter break-ins and thefts.

The two locker rooms also are in need of care.

“The bathrooms have exposed pipes all over the place, and the floor is linoleum that is not in very good shape at all,” Dorsey said. “The sinks and the toilets are very old. The shower stalls are not in good condition.”

The 60-year-old plumbing, heating and electrical systems need a complete overhaul.

“It is one of the premier public tennis facilities around, but that ol’ clubhouse really needs a facelift, and that is what the gala is all about,” said Dorsey, noting the event hopes to raise $75,000 to $100,000 for the renovation. “Every penny of the proceeds that we make will go towards the renovation.”

The city of Atlanta has no money to contribute to the clubhouse renovation, so the improvements must get private funding.

Architect Tony Aeck of Lord, Aeck & Sargent has been contracted for the renovation. The son of Richard Aeck, Tony has a special interest in the project and even displays the original drawings for Bitsy Grant in his office.

The master plan for the tennis facility calls for $2 million in improvements.

“It really hasn’t been touched other than a coat of paint or two since 1955,” Howell said. “It needs some help.”

The concrete structure and exterior material finishes will be preserved, but the interior will be mostly gutted to remove asbestos and lead-based paint.

The rehabilitated first floor will include the tennis starter area, an adult lounge, and offices for facility management and tennis trainers. Also on that level will be the Georgia Tennis Hall of Fame, which will be enlarged and revamped with shadowbox displays for each inductee, among other archival upgrades.

Howell said the desire is to make the Hall of Fame a walking museum with kiosks that chronicle the history of Atlanta tennis.

The rehabilitated ground floor will include locker rooms, a youth lounge area, drinking fountains, a maintenance office and a mechanical room. The two floors will maintain access by an open stair.

Heating and cooling, plumbing, and electrical systems also will be replaced.

“Bitsy has seen better days,” Howell said. “This is an opportunity to bring professional tennis back to Atlanta.”