During the pandemic, away from public view, Tulane University struck a deal with the Audubon Nature Institute, devising a plan to convert four to six of Audubon’s ten clay tennis courts into hard courts.
In response, a petition to “Stop the Ambush of our Public Clay Tennis Courts” was created by the public tennis court community, who felt that this project would “Destroy and disperse the community of senior tennis players who play at the Audubon Public Courts, and disrupt and displace the diverse community of tennis players at nearby Atkinson-Stern Public Courts.”
Sandy Rosenthal, who wrote the petition, explained, “I stepped into all of this to speak out on behalf of a very large community of people, black, white, and brown, a diverse community, that plays tennis on clay courts. The existence of clay courts allows tennis players to play into their 70s, 80s, and 90s.”
Ted Cotton an 84-year old Audubon Public Courts player commented, “As a tennis player in New Orleans for fifty years, I know many people don’t realize the difference between soft and hard courts. Had I not been playing on the Rubico courts at Audubon all these decades, I would not be playing tennis now.”
It’s widely recognized by tennis players that clay is gentler on the body. “To be honest with you, I feel that this surface is much more aggressive than grass or clay in all aspects,” Rafa Nadal the best clay-court player in existence commented on hard courts. “For the hip, for the knees, for the ankles, for the back.”
A MasterClass Tennis Lesson explained, “Clay courts are slightly easier on the human body, as the surface absorbs more shock, and also allows players to slide into place rather than coming to a complete stop, conserving some of their energy.”
Because of how much easier they are on the body, clay courts are the ideal choice for older people. “It’s easier on the joints, it doesn’t hurt your feet, your knees, or your hips,” Rosenthal commented. “For people over 40, clay courts are not an option, they’re not a choice, they’re a requirement.”
Louis Coleman a 71-year Atkinson-Stern Public Courts player explained, “Tennis is therapy for me and it wouldn’t be if it was a hard surface. Clay courts are the choice for senior citizens because it’s easier on the joints.” Players worry that if the clay courts at Audubon are shut down, the nearby Atkinson-Stern clay courts will become overloaded.
“What it would do is it would displace and disperse the community of people who play at Audubon and they would all go to Atkinson-Stern, which is nearby and it’s also a public clay,” Rosenthal said. “And therefore, it would disrupt and disperse the community of players who are already there. Keep in mind, there already are not enough clay courts.”
Many private establishments in New Orleans have clay courts, valuing them because of how they enable players to avoid injury. “All the nice private clubs in New Orleans are all clay… And the reason is they’re healthier on the body and better.” Rosenthal said.
In fact, Audubon’s website even says, “Audubon Park’s Tennis Courts are a thing of true beauty. Audubon Park is home to the best tennis courts New Orleans has to offer. Not only does Audubon Park offer ten tennis courts, they offer all of them on clay, one of the sports premier surfaces.”
It has been theorized that the push to convert six of Audubon’s hard courts into clay courts is an effort on Tulane’s part to allow their tennis program to host tournaments since they currently don’t have the six hard courts they need to host them. In the past, Tulane did have six hard tennis courts in their Goldring Complex, however, they were demolished a few years ago.
“All of this is being cloaked in ‘We’re here to help you.’ It’s being cloaked in language, that it is intended to change the subject and divert attention away from,” Rosenthal explained. “We really do feel that there’s been a lack of sincerity. What’s really the driving force behind all of this is Tulane wants six hard courts.”
At a meeting with Mark Ripple, an architect for Audubon Nature Institute, attendees were asked to put a dot next to what their priority was for the tennis complex. The two options that overwhelmingly won were “Keep courts clay” and “Add lighting for nighttime play.” In fact, Ripple commented on the results, “It’s pretty clear what the priorities are. They speak for themselves.”
Rosenthal insists that while there is also backing for expanding nighttime lighting, keeping the courts clay is player’s real priority. “If you ask the same community of people who went to these meetings and said, ‘You can have one or the other. We’re going to keep the courts clay or we’re going to give you night-lighting,’ they’ll say, “We don’t want the night-lighting.’”
This article has been updated with a statement from The Audubon Institute:
“I am writing to provide you with an update on Audubon’s Tennis program, which was part of the Audubon Park Master Plan process which began in 2018. We are concerned that there may be mis-information spreading about the Audubon Tennis center and programming and we want to provide you with the most up to date information on this issue.
Audubon engaged key stakeholders and hosted two public meetings, in 2019 and in the beginning of 2020, to discuss tennis infrastructure, facilities and programming. We met with the Audubon Tennis Club, NOMATA, USTA, NORDC, Loyola, Tulane and neighbor groups in an effort to engage a wide variety of users and community stakeholders, and to ultimately develop a vision for Audubon tennis that reflects community need.
The highest priorities identified during the meetings and online comments were:
– The need for lights to accommodate evening tennis play
– Maintain clay courts
– Improve facilities such as restrooms, clubhouse, amenities
– Electronic reservation system
– Increased opportunity for lessons/play by younger and more diverse players
We also considered the following key elements:
Funding is required but not currently available
Improvements are also required to enable the business plan to support a net positive bottom line
Audubon desires to meet the needs of the New Orleans tennis community
Audubon wishes to explore new opportunities to reach new players and introduce a lifelong sport to young players and explore new offerings, such as pickleball
Audubon wishes to continue and expand our partnership with NORDC to reach more youth tennis players and more diverse players.
Audubon has engaged Tulane University in discussions about a funding partnership, which will allow us to continue to provide high quality tennis to the public AND meet the Audubon and community priorities. Community partnerships are essential to providing meaningful impact.
Elements of the proposed partnership we are exploring include (but are not limited to):
At all times Audubon tennis will remain an open to the public tennis center for our entire community. Tulane is not “taking over” Audubon Tennis.
Upgrades will address areas of improvement for community tennis, including the addition of hard courts and preservation of clay courts, light installation, facility upgrades and improved technology
Audubon will work with Tulane to develop a schedule for its tennis team mutually agreeable to Audubon and Tulane
Tulane and Audubon will commit to engaging in outreach and support of youth tennis citywide, including but not limited to enhancing our partnership with NORDC.
Please know that we are still in the planning phase. There is no scheduled vote on this at the next Audubon Commission meeting on June 10. We will provide you with further updates as substantial progress is made.”