by Randy Walker
In early 2019, Rob Slezak, then the Recreation Director for the City of Vero Beach, Florida, reached out to Tom Fish to see if he could help with fundraising ideas to help spruce up the city’s public tennis courts at Riverside Park. The facility was growing tired and was losing money for the city and Slezak wanted to brain storm and discuss possible solutions with Fish, the father of Vero Beach’s own tennis star Mardy Fish and himself a leading tennis voice in Vero Beach as a 40-year teaching pro in town.
Fish asked me, as his fellow tournament director for the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships USTA Pro Circuit event in Vero Beach, to come along to meet with Slezak at Riverside Park that morning for the brainstorm and to walk around the 10-court facility to see what specific upgrades needed to done. As we walked over to the group of four courts on the far east part of the footprint, we stopped at the court that stands in the far northeast corner. Fish then looked over a Slezak and I said “Do you know how many tennis balls I hit with Mardy on this court?” Fish and his wife Sally used to live just across the street from the courts on Honeysuckle Lane and after teaching tennis for his day job, Fish would then take a young Mardy – and an even younger daughter Meredith Fish – and hit balls with them in his spare time. It was the court where Mardy first started to learn to play tennis and where he went on to an amazing pro tennis career that brought him around the world to Centre Court at Wimbledon and Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
The significance of this did not pass me by and I immediately shouted out “This has to be ‘The Mardy Fish Court.’ We need to have a plaque here or something.” Said Tom Fish in 2022 in an interview with me as seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0BIDbPuaww of the days teaching tennis to young Mardy and Meredith, “I would teach tennis basically all day and then come home at night and hit tennis balls with Mardy and Meredith. We didn’t have any illusions of grandeur that Mardy has accomplished and actually Meredith accomplished too. We were just hoping to get some exercise, hang out with each other, and learn some tennis. Our biggest dream was maybe get a college scholarship. (which Meredith did at Florida State.)”
I’ve always been not only a tennis history buff but a history buff in general and have always found it fascinating when discovering historic sites that are commemorated, like the exact spot where historical events have happened, whether it was a place where George Washington slept or a place where a battle was or where someone famous once lived. In New York City, where I also live, it seems that on almost every street there is a commemoration of where some famous person lived, like Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant or Andy Warhol.
These kind of markers are also present here and there in tennis. There is a plaque commemorating where the first edition of the modern-day U.S. Open took place in 1881 at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island. When I worked at the U.S. Tennis Association, we implemented a program where a plaque was placed at every site in the United States that hosted a U.S. Davis Cup match. On a trip years ago driving from New York to Vero Beach, I stopped in Lynchburg, Virginia to a site that was just recently commemorated as the place where Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe trained with Dr. Robert Johnson as you can see on YouTube here:
At my alma mater, the University of Georgia named its center court in Henry Field Stadium “The Mikael Pernfors Center Court” in honor of the greatest Georgia tennis player who won two NCAA singles titles on that very court (A court I too had the privilege of also playing an official match on for the Georgia Bulldogs.)
Why couldn’t something similar be done in Vero Beach to commemorate the spot where Mardy Fish learned to play? While Mardy was not a world No. 1 or Grand Slam tournament champion, he did win the silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, was a stalwart on the U.S. Davis Cup team and was a top 10 player. While he wasn’t an International Tennis Hall of Famer, he was a Hall of Famer in Vero Beach circles. He might be the most well-known and accomplished athlete to come out of Vero Beach.
While having your name on a court is certainly about honoring someone for their achievements, as Mardy deserves in the context of his hometown, it can also serve as an inspiration to others. If a young kid can play tennis on the very same court where another Vero Beach kid learned to play the sport that brought him or her success around the world in international tennis, couldn’t that kid also believe that they could do it as well? Or at least they can aspire to play on a high school team, play national tournaments or college tennis or perhaps even some pro tennis. And all the while, learning life skills through tennis like independence, self-reliance and while learning a healthy form of exercise that would keep them healthy throughout their lifetime.
Having a plaque for a “Mardy Fish Court” would also, in a way, becomes a bit of a tourist attraction, at least for tennis fans. And it can be used to lure more attention to the Riverside Park community. One of my first discussions of the possibility of a Mardy Fish Court in public was in this video from 2019, shortly after the meeting with Slezak and Tom Fish, when I conducted a video tour of the Riverside Park tennis courts here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErykLkpldJ0 to showcase the facility to those who were not in Vero Beach.
One of the efforts that came out of the meeting with Slezak was to put together a plan to refurbish the courts at Riverside Park with a fundraising effort, perhaps with sponsorship or a “brick naming” program to raise money. One of the great programs that the U.S. Tennis Association has, as I learned from my 13-year career working there, is not only the offering of facility grants to help refurbish public tennis facilities, but also a facility design program. Soon, I was working with Todd Carlson with the USTA on putting together a potential facility refurbishment design but also a profit-and-loss document with potential expanded programming so it could be determined just how much money needed to be raised. The project was going to be championed by the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation, Mardy and the Fish family’s non-profit foundation that helps at risk children in Vero Beach. The project was dubbed “The Riverside Dream” by Treasure Coast Tennis Association head Tim Palmer, the local “Johnny Appleseed” for youth tennis in Vero Beach, who, after visiting the amazing public tennis facility in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida wondered why a similar facility couldn’t be created in Vero Beach, which is an equal or even better tennis town than Palm Beach Gardens. The central part of this design, which was emphasized to Carlson, would be that the very court where Mardy first started hitting tennis balls would be a “Mardy Fish Court” or even a mini stadium – albeit it would only be a court surrounded by a few rows of seating and nothing like an Arthur Ashe Stadium or Rod Laver Arena.
The final designs for the facility came from the USTA in January of 2020 and only a few weeks later, the world went still with the global COVID pandemic. The project was put on hold for obvious reasons and the city and the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation did not even make any of the details or designs public. The climate and pulse of the country and the community was not conducive for this kind of fundraising at the time with the world facing many bigger problems.
While playing socially-distant tennis at Riverside Park during the summer and autumn months of 2020 and into 2021, Tim Palmer and I would always make sure that we played on “The Mardy Fish Court” and always referring to it as such, including the first day when I returned to playing tennis during COVID, as I documented in video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QPdd7ps5K0
When I played tennis at Riverside, I would always try to play on the “Mardy Fish Court” and tried to promote it as much as possible on social media.
On St. Patrick’s Day in 2021, I posted another plug for the “Mardy Fish Court” on Facebook with the hint that fundraising would soon start. This was done to make the initial move to start to get word out about potential plans for the court as the “Mardy Fish Court” came under threat by….pickleball.
Two separate groups were attempting to convince the City of Vero Beach to transform the four eastern court on the property – including “The Mardy Fish Court” – into pickleball courts. Transforming four of the 10 tennis courts at Riverside Park to pickleball would be a major blow for tennis in Vero Beach and would threaten the tennis programming that the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation was conducting at Riverside Park. Lynn Southerly, the executive director of the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation, as well as Tim Palmer and myself and others all went on an offensive to save Riverside Park from pickleball and keep the “Riverside Dream” alive, including the Mardy Fish Court. We decided that it would be a good idea to go public with the Riverside Park tennis design plans – that sat dormant in an email inbox for well over a year as the economy and investment climate improved as the pandemic conditions began to slowly improve. It was the lead story written by former New York Post sports writer Ray McNulty on April 1, 2021 in the influential Vero Beach weekly newspaper “32963” as you can read here https://veronews.com/2021/04/01/expansion-proposed-for-riverside-park-tennis-complex/#.YG3UGJ856tY.twitter I also posted a story on my TennisGrandstand.com tennis website here: https://tennisgrandstand.com/2021/04/11/u-s-davis-cup-captain-olympic-silver-medalist-mardy-fish-may-have-a-court-named-after-him-in-hometown-of-vero-beach-florida/
One of the arguments that the pickleball organizers had in favor of taking over tennis courts at Riverside Park was limited play and programming on the courts. This was largely due to their not being a director of tennis at the facility who was organizing and pro-actively promoting play at the facility. Pickleball was organized. Tennis was not.
I tried to think of people who could maybe put their hat in to be a tennis director at Riverside Park. I spoke with Carlos Goffi, the former coach of John and Patrick McEnroe who recently ran the tennis at Disney Wide World of Sports in Orlando and who I helped with his “Tournament Tough” book in the past. I also spoke with former Florida junior tennis standout Brian Rosenthal, who has a business that runs tennis operations at public facilities, as well other teaching pros I knew. However, there was no guaranteed salary with a job. It would be 100 percent entrepreneurial. It would not be an easy sell.
I then remembered that the USTA Florida section has a program where their office actually takes over and runs as the primary vendor for some public tennis facilities in Florida. The USTA could certainly take a financial risk and they know tennis better than anyone. The USTA’s mission is to promote and develop the growth of tennis so even if they break even or even lose a little money, it is money invested into their mission.
I emailed Laura Bowen, the USTA Florida section executive director about the pickleball dilemma at Riverside Park tennis and she agreed to meet me and pay a visit to the tennis courts. I made sure that I showed her “The Mardy Fish Court” and posted a photo on the TennisVeroBeach Twitter page (now out of service) of two of us on said court on June 11, 2021.
Shortly thereafter, the Vero Beach City Council officially rejected the idea of pickleball at Riverside Park and Bowen and USTA Florida began their effort to work to take over the operation of Riverside Tennis. There was some initial community reluctances based on unknowns, false information and rumors. However, the Riverside Park tennis facility needed more attention and care as I documented in many videos that I compiled here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UkVNfoVkUg&t=100s
Other promotional videos I created in support of USTA Florida’s efforts can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UkVNfoVkUg and, one including an endorsement from Mardy himself, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2td0Ah8mgY and an interview with a former Riverside Tennis Director Ted MacBeth here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb9Bd8C02gA
Bowen spearheaded an excellent community outreach program that included community discussion sessions and a question and answer document, as seen here: https://tennisverobeach.com/index.php/2022/03/19/usta-florida-head-laura-bowen-discusses-potential-riverside-park-tennis-partnership-for-vero-beach/ to fully educate the public and the Vero Beach City Council. In February of 2023, the Vero Beach City Council voted to approve the USTA Florida’s proposal as you can read here:: https://www.tcpalm.com/story/news/local/indian-river-county/2023/02/28/vero-beach-enters-contract-with-usta-over-riverside-tennis-complex/69936335007/ With the USTA in control of Riverside Tennis – and with the financial resources to renovate and upgrade the facility – the “Riverside Dream” is alive and “The Mardy Fish Court” becomes a reality, albeit not a mini-stadium as was first thrown out as a possibility, but a court still named for Vero Beach’s favorite tennis playing son that will surely inspire many generations of Vero Beach tennis players.