By LINDA G. RASTELLI
One recent morning at the tennis courts in Marine Park, the air was crisp, the clouds distant, and the sun’s rays subdued.
In short, the kind of morning tennis players dream about, in a setting that’s rarely duplicated.
Maybe it’s the natural beauty of the place, with four courts nestled at the foot of a bluff between the park, the Monmouth Boat Club and the Navesink River. Tall trees cool the air, and boat masts bob gently nearly.
Add to that the unique charm of the 66-year-old courts’ surface, with the forgiving softness of red clay — actually, yellow clay covered with a layer of granulated slate that makes it appear the color of brick.
“When you’e down here at 6:30 or 7a, you feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” says Dan Ciaglia, a tennis coach at the Ranney School who’s playing today with his doubles partner, Chuck Watson of Red Bank.
This patch of otherworldliness, some may be surprised to hear, is a public commodity; the courts are owned by the borough of Red Bank.
Coach and court manager Rich Nicoletti is on the courts daily at 4a, wetting them down and tending them as one might groom a ski slope or beach, eliminating all footprints from the day before.
Nicoletti calls the courts “the best-kept secret in Monmouth County.”
This morning ‘Coach Rich’ is giving a lesson to Kevin Kotsak, a 14-year-old high school tennis team player whose father, Barry, had driven him, as he does about once a month, down from South Amboy.
Nicoletti won them both over after Kevin played on the courts once. The clay sealed it — game, set, match.
“I really like the change of pace clay gives,” Kevin says. “It helps my footwork.”
Nicoletti’s devotion to the courts is appreciated by the Kotsaks, and by Ciaglia and Watson, chatting between sets of a friendly doubles match. Both live in Red Bank and are United States Tennis Association (USTA) Senior League captains. A USTA women’s league also uses the courts.
Clay is rare in the U.S., and Americans aren’t that good on it, agrees this group. “Our professional players have too much testosterone to play on clay,” Ciaglia smashes, while the others nod.
So what type of player is good on clay?
“A Spaniard,” is Watson’s quick-witted return. The others roar. He’s referring to the French Open, in which second-seeded Rafael Nadal of Spain bested Roger Federer, the number-one ranked player in the world, in four hard-played sets. Federer, despite his success elsewhere, has never been able to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, though of course he got his comeuppance on grass yesterday, beating Nadal for his fifth Wimbeldon trophy.
Clay, with its slowed-down game and uneven bounces, favors players with patience, control and footwork. Not power players like Federer.
“There’s nothing like it,” explains Nicoletti. The ball bounces lower, the ground absorbs the impact of the ball, and each point lasts longer. Even Har-Tru, a soft composite surface that has become more popular than clay because it’s easier to maintain, can be rather predictable for some traditionalists.
“You have to pay attention on clay,” says Ciaglia, who’s been playing on these courts for 20 years.
“Make sure the head of your racket’s higher than your wrist,” Nicoletti is now telling Kotsak, who gets to the ball faster than you can say “break point.”
Watson also has taken lessons from Nicoletti, who coaches the Red Bank Catholic boys varsity team, teaches, and runs a free kids’ summer tennis clinic on Mondays at 4p for Red Bank residents (26 kids have signed up for this year’s eight-week program).
“Even coaches need coaches,” says Watson, who jokes that he moved to Red Bank 12 years ago to get the resident’s discount on the courts. (Residents pay $160 for an adult membership and non-residents pay $190. Kids play free.)
“You overplayed it,” Nicoletti tells Kotsak after the kid slams an overhead into the net. “Let’s do it again.”
Court time can be reserved 24 hours in advance by calling 732.530.2737.