Longtime Red Bank clay courts tennis pro Rich Nicoletti on the site of the dormant riverfront facility earlier this month. The Monmouth Boat Club is in the background. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
This time of year, scuffing footwork and the thwok of tennis balls would normally be heard most summer mornings down by the Navesink River in Red Bank’s Marine Park, widely considered nirvana among aficionados for its unusual red clay courts.
It was certainly that for Rich Nicoletti, who grew up in an apartment above what’s now the Downtown nightclub just up the hill, and spent decades as the tennis pro at the borough-owned facility.
“These tennis courts were a gem,” said the retired sports journalist, who at 73 estimates he’s spent fully one-quarter of his life at the site. “It was beautiful.”
But 86 years after they opened, the courts may have seen their last match.
The courts have been unplayable since they were flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Below, an undated view from the river of Frick’s Lyceum, dwarfing the Monmouth Boat Club next door, on the future site of the courts. (Photo above by John T. Ward. Photo below from “Red Bank” by Randall Gabriellan. Click to enlarge)
Eight months after the borough council rejected three private-sector proposals for use of the courts site, including a hotly contested plan by startup Jetsun Enterprises, the courts remain off-limits, damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012.
It’s possible the courts will never reopen. Councilman Mark Taylor, who’s the head of a three-councilperson parks and recreation committee, said the future of the entire 2.2-acre park has been the subject of recent closed-door discussions with a park designer. If negotiations work out, the unidentified consultant may be hired to come up with a new concept for the park, which features a natural amphitheater, a playground, a parking lot and a waterfront promenade with a fishing pier.
The goal is to take a “holistic” view of the park and come up with a plan that would “create more uses and more water access,” an idea that gained traction amid the controversy over the Jetsun proposal, he said.
“It’s smarter to step back and look at the entire park,” said Taylor.
He said the committee expects to put a proposed contract with the consultant before the full council in coming weeks.
In the meantime, the town hasn’t budgeted any money for a temporary refurbishment of the courts. A small building that housed restrooms, Nicoletti’s office and a sewer pump station at the site has been demolished, with the aim of rebuilding the restrooms and pump station at a higher elevation, on the site of a disused shuffleboard court.
But officials don’t know if that work, expected to begin later this summer, will entail digging up the courts, said borough Administrator Stanley Sickels.
Though Councilwoman Cindy Burnham previously advocated for using the idled courts as a dog run, she’s aligned with tennis players, and has urged the council to accept a $500,000 offer by Locust resident Jim Cullen for the restoration and maintenance of the courts.
At the June 22 council meeting, when Sickels said the consultant would offer “some guidance on how to get public input,” Burham responded that “the public has been coming to these meetings and giving input in terms of the courts.”
“A section of the public,” Taylor replied. “I’m not sure they’re representative.”
Taylor told redbankgreen this week that he’s “been very clear with the tennis contingent” that it’s possible the courts won’t ever reopen there. If that turns out to be the case, Taylor said he’d hoped to see the courts resurrected elsewhere in town, citing Eastside Park, which has hard-surface courts, and proposed Sunset Park at the western end of West Sunset Avenue as possible locations.
But unlike Nicoletti, Taylor — who also grew up in town, and whose father served on the board of education — said that as a kid, he never even realized that the courts were public.
“I played tennis growing up, and I thought those courts were part of the [Monmouth] boat club” next door, he said.
The perception that the facility was private was widespread, in part because the courts, while owned by the town, charged membership fees — $175 a year for borough residents, and $275 for non-residents — to cover the costs of the seven tons of clay-like surface that had to be replenished each season.
In turn, the perception has fueled the impression that the courts were a refuge for an elite few.
For Nicoletti, it all points to the end of an era. As a kid, he said, he and his friends “would come down here in our baseball uniforms, play a couple of sets, and then run off to our Little League games.” Unpaid by the borough but able to charge fees for lessons, he managed the site from 1986 until they were knocked out by the storm.
Now, he said, he’s doubtful another set will ever be played at the site.
“I’m almost giving up,” he said.