By Noma Faingold
Former tennis pro Andy Lucchesi started playing tennis at Golden Gate Park as a teenager in the 1970s because his brothers played there and his father, Lou Lucchesi, a former baseball player with the San Francisco Seals, was the director of tennis at the large, storied public facility. The self-taught left-hander had no idea how the safe, yet edgy ambiance would shape him.
“I would look forward to going there every day. It was so colorful,” said the 60-something Lucchesi, a former model for the Tommy Bahama brand. “We had naked hippies running across the tennis courts. Right next to the courts, people were protesting the Vietnam War. There was often a cloud of weed above us. Guys on bongo drums were jamming and people were dancing. Every distraction you can imagine. I knew something big was going on. It was a really important time. That space was its own world.”
This aerial view photo, looking south, shows the progress of the Golden Gate Park Tennis Center renovation. The 125-year-old tennis complex will have all new lighted tennis courts, a new clubhouse and a designated pickleball court. Courtesy photo by Maurice Chee from Azul Works.
Lucchesi also recalls the highly competitive climate. It wasn’t just about bragging rights. Losing (among the teen boys) could result in an on-court hazing ritual. “It was hilarious, but it made you not want to lose,” he said.
A remarkable $27 million renovation project of the 125-year-old tennis complex is nearly complete. While Lucchesi knows everything will be different, he says he can’t wait to be there.
“To be alive during such a major transition. Oh my gosh,” he said.
The Golden Gate Park Tennis Center (GGPTC) project was funded by a public-private partnership, with major contributions from the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, Taube Philanthropies, the Koret Foundation and Jackie and Joby Pritzker. The city funding was $6 million through the Recreation and Park Department. There was also a lot of grassroots support from organizations, local politicians and players at every level, including major names who developed their skills in Golden Gate Park, such as Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Brad Gilbert and Peanut Louie-Harper.
The project, which has been in the works for five years under the guidance of the non-profit Tennis Coalition San Francisco, broke ground in June of 2019 (following an April public ceremony) and is expected to be open to the public in March of 2021. Those in charge ambitiously tackled much more than rebuilding 17 courts, which will now have lights and proper USTA regulation spacing. (The previous 21-court configuration had some courts so close together that it caused players to retrieve balls from neighboring courts way too often.)
Court Six will be a sunken show court with courtside seating for more than 200 people. There will be mini-gardens, secure ADA-regulation walkways and an expansive patio overlooking a group of courts with plenty of seating. But perhaps the jewel of GGPTC will be the modern, 7,800-square-foot, multi-purpose clubhouse. The airy space will have a reception area and administrative offices staffed by the operator, Lifetime Activities, a company that runs several Bay Area tennis centers. There will be a lounge with a 75-inch television, ping-pong tables, free wi-fi, kitchen, a small pro shop and locker rooms for players.
Court Six is a sunken show court with seating for more than 200 spectators. Photo by Noma Faingold.
There’s also a classroom for an academic-oriented Rec and Park youth program, called the Tennis and Learning Center (TLC) for middle-schoolers from underserved communities. TLC includes tutoring, tennis instruction and promotes health and social development.
“I’m very proud of this project,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. “We’re really building something where people can enjoy the sport and create community in this beautiful and natural setting.”
Architecturally, the clubhouse has plenty of natural light with skylights and court-facing glass panels leading out to the patio for optimal tennis viewing.
“We have a three-part slider,” said Julie Exley, executive director of Tennis Coalition SF, during an October hard hat tour at the construction site. “This can stay open on a nice day. Players can go in and out. It will be wide open and beautiful.”
One exterior wall of the clubhouse will feature public art, a kaleidoscope-style mural by local artist Sanaz Mazinani. From a distance, it looks like a geometric tapestry. Up close, it reveals images of former and current tennis greats.
“I have a master’s in interior architecture and design and I am a tennis player, so I love this project,” said Exley, who helped raise much of the private money. “This renovation will benefit everybody. Rec. and Park gets a new facility. We have a wonderful new place to play tennis. It’s a public facility but we want it to be nice for the people who use it.”
Those involved are determined to make GGPTC accessible to a wide range of player levels and ages. Rec. and Park is setting the hourly fees that range from $8-$9 for S.F. residents, $12-$15 for non-residents, $4-$6 for seniors and youth who will pay even less at select times.
Former touring pro Peanut Louie-Harper, 60, who practically grew up on the Golden Gate Park courts, has been supportive of the renovation project since Exley came on board five years ago.
“It just struck me as first class. A couple of other groups had tried and it fell apart,” Louie-Harper said. “When I talked to Julie, I thought it could really happen. The collaborations seemed really professional. There was great follow through. It’s a huge project. They almost made it look easy, which I’m sure it wasn’t.”
Tennis great Peanut Louie-Harper – once ranked number 19 in the world – grew up playing on the Golden Gate Park’s courts. Courtesy photo..
Louie-Harper, whose highest world ranking was 19, made lasting friendships with several of her peers – serious juniors who played alongside her at the courts in Golden Gate Park, including Lucchesi. The two became a mixed doubles team, competing at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
From age 6 to 16, she would spend almost every day at the park. Her mother would often drop her off with her four siblings.
“There were about eight core families. They looked out for us. There were potlucks. I would do my homework. I played people my age, but I also played a lot of adults, even players over 70. That place was a tennis mecca,” Louie-Harper said.
She’s grateful for the non-elitist atmosphere at the park.
“Everybody played everybody. It was not cliquish. The quality of the players set me up well,” Louie-Harper said. “Being around all those characters and the diversity as a kid taught me that everyone is the same.”
Like Louie-Harper, Lucchesi is looking forward to the official reopening.
“You can’t duplicate what it was like. That space is legendary,” Lucchesi said. “But I don’t see any reason why it can’t become something special. I just hope it attracts some characters again.”
For more information about the Tennis Center renovation, visit www.sfrecpark.org/1151/Golden-Gate-Park-Tennis-Center-Renovation.
Categories: Golden Gate Park