A group of dignitaries, directors, past champions and other longtime players gathered Friday evening for a tip of the cap to the Public Courts tennis tournament, which celebrated its 60th anniversary as it held opening ceremonies at the Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City.
The event, which this year has 297 players entered in 42 different divisions, runs through July 20.
“Sixty looks really, really good on you,’’ said Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin, “and I’m just glad to be a small part in this wonderful celebration.’’
As part of the festivities, organizers have secured the participation of someone from each of the event’s six decades, and former singles champions from as far back as 1966 on the men’s side (Tom Hanna) and 1987 on the women’s side (Ann Bradley).
Hanna, who competed in the first Public Courts tournament in 1959 as a 15-year-old, has become the event’s historian, and on Friday he recited his top 10 remembrances of the Public Courts tournament. No. 1 on his list was the notorious squeaky swing set that used to reside behind Court 6 at the facility, formerly known as Watt Powell Annex.
“I don’t think it ever got one bit of oil,’’ Hanna said as the crowd chuckled, “and there was somebody in that swing the whole tournament. If you were playing on Court 5 or Court 6, you just had to get used to the squeak on that.’’
Hanna, a three-time men’s open champ, also served as the event’s co-director with friend Jack Harrison for 11 years. Hanna has seen the tournament grow in many ways, first in size and then in the various divisions that give players of all levels a chance to compete.
“This was part of a master plan to grow tennis in Charleston and the Kanawha County area,’’ Hanna said. “Along with getting public courts built around the area, when this tournament was started, it was what the name says it was — for the average player, not the club player. Tennis back then was considered something for the country clubs, and they were trying to grow the sport and get regular people to come out and play.
“At one time in the men’s singles draw in this tournament, there were almost 200 people. It was going like eight rounds. We really thought we had a problem because it just kept growing. What we did to solve that problem was to just create more divisions. Now the reason for its popularity was the original reason — for the average person to come out and play. Not for the country club people. And everyone plays — all the local pros play in it, who wouldn’t have been allowed to play in 1959 or 1960. I think that speaks for itself that people are willing to play in it, and it’s a great location.’’
In 2003, the tennis courts in Kanawha City were named after the late Alex Schoenbaum, a Charleston native who co-founded the Shoney’s restaurant chain. His wife, Betty, was another prolific longtime area philanthropist who died last August at the age of 100.
“She gave back so much to everyone,’’ said Kim Isaac, one of the Public Court’s current organizers. “We want to pay tribute to Betty, and the best way we can do that is to give each other a hug. She was a hugger. She’d want us to acknowledge friendship and fellowship, which is really what this tournament is mainly about. So just give somebody a hug and we’d really honor Ms. Betty Schoenbaum.’’
Kim Isaac’s husband, Rory, another of the Public Courts’ organizers, paid tribute to all of the event’s directors throughout the years for keeping it running, and running well.
“Nothing lasts for 60 years that’s not incredibly well-run,’’ he said, “and with the foundation that these people built, you have the sense of responsibility that says we can’t let them down.’’
On Friday, a pickleball exhibition will be staged for the second straight year. Pickleball is a paddleball sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis.