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A Court Like No Other

August 8, 2017 02:41 PM

A Court Like No Other

Story by Toby Smith. Photographs by Sissy Kelly.

full_view_of_courtSANTA FE – This friend of mine is droning on and on about some tennis court he had recently come upon. I am barely listening. One sentence grabs my attention.  “The court is under the ground.”

“What the …?”  I stop what I am doing, believing this is a joke. 

“No, no, it’s true,” my friend insists. 

“Now hold it,” I say. “How can you have an underground tennis court? I mean, how would you lob the freaking ball?
And, hey, what do you do about earthworms?  This is fruitcake nutty.”

It’s also true. Well, sort of. 
Earlier this summer, still doubtful about this court, I made a few calls and wangled an invitation to get a look-see. For starters, here briefly is what I found: 
- There is no fence around the court.  
- There are no cracks in the court.
- The sun never gets in your eyes on the court.
I have reported on tennis in New Mexico for 40 years. Until now I never knew such a court existed.  It’s private, for one thing. For another, it’s not in plain sight.  
Gladys_Heldman_mug_shotBuilt in 1982, the court was designed by Gladys and Julius Heldman (shown right). Gladys Heldman founded World Tennis magazine, in 1953. The publication immediately became must reading for anyone who owned a Jack Kramer wood racket. Gladys was the editor and husband Julius was the proofreader. In the early days, the couple put together each issue in their New York City apartment. 

Full disclosure: I knew Gladys Heldman slightly. A raw, young freelancer in the late 1960s, I mailed an unsolicited article to World Tennis. To my astonishment, Gladys published it. Inspired, I fired off a couple more things and those too found their way into the pages of the magazine. Lordy, I even got paid. (In the very low two figures, as I recall). A couple of decades later I interviewed Gladys in person. This occurred during the first Virginia Slims of Albuquerque tournament, that year held at Tanoan Country Club. Gladys never mentioned her tennis court, which now doesn’t surprise me. It would be like mentioning her jewelry. 

All in the Family

Tennis was the drumbeat the Heldmans followed their entire lives.  Julius, known as “Jules” to his friends, had been a standout junior with a keen mind for court strategy. As an amateur, Gladys was ranked No. 1 in Texas. She competed in four U.S. National Championships. One year she made the draw at Wimbledon. 

Julius_Heldman_mug_shotThey two met while students at Stanford University. Gladys graduated first in her class. Julius was at Palo Alto to work on a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Down the road he worked for Shell Oil. The couple eventually moved to Houston where Julius rose in the executive ranks at Shell. Meanwhile, Gladys labored over the monthly magazine. Somehow she found time to become a tireless advocate for women’s tennis. She pushed mightily to bring it out of the Dark Ages. The Virginia Slims tour, a precursor to today’s WTA, was her baby. In 1979, Gladys Heldman was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The Heldmans raised two daughters.  Carrie had success as an age-group player but early on ceased competing. Julie, nine months older, became a star. She upset Billie Jean King when King was queen of the courts. Julie reached a best of No. 5 in the world. 

Now and then Shell held company retreats in Santa Fe. During those visits the Heldmans fell in love with the vibe and culture of the city. Gladys sold World Tennis to CBS Publications in 1972. Julius retired from Shell 10 years later. Those tasks completed, the couple headed west.

Gladys’s bucket list was short. She wanted to live by a lake and play tennis on her own court. Oops. There are no lakes in Santa Fe.  The Heldmans held out for a backyard court. 

Not long after their arrival in Santa Fe Gladys and Jules bought a house there. This was not just any house. Originally it was the residence of celebrated artist Carlos Vierra. It is a National Historic Register showpiece now. Four bedrooms, four baths and a sitting room. Five thousand square feet in all. The house, built completely of adobe bricks in 1904, was meant to resemble Taos Pueblo. The Heldmans adored their new home. OK, so what about that tennis court?  They had the land now to fit one in. 

A Retirement Dream

Court_buildingIt wasn’t long before the Heldmans realized that sunny Santa Fe at times can be ice-cube cold or  windy as Chicago. An indoor court struck a chord. That might work, they decided. But no way were they going to have that court stuck inside one of those caterpillar-like white bubbles.  

As construction on an indoor court was about to begin, an uh-oh problem popped up. Literally. Santa Fe has a rigid building code. Basically, buildings above a certain height are not allowed. Initial plans for the court indicated the Heldmans’ tennis court structure was going to be tall. Very tall.

Before a cinderblock was put in place, protests arrived from neighbors. There were threats of a lawsuit. To meet the city’s height regulations, the builder of the court suggested the Heldmans might get by if they got someone to dig way down and set the court below ground level. Crazy as that sounded, it worked. The massive structure of pueblo-brown stucco passed inspection. However, in giving the 26-foot- high building a thumbs-up, city fathers added one condition:  Any Santa Fe resident who wanted to play on the court could do so. That apparently stood for about five years, until it was discontinued.

Deck_above_courtThe court may be the only indoor tennis venue that is reached by descending a stairway of eight steps.  There is no neon sign on the outside of the court, no marker on the one door. The building at first had no trees around it. The Heldmans planted pines and aspens to hide the structure. As high as the building rises, it is almost completely camouflaged. 

“Nobody knows it’s there,” said Joe Colvin, who administers the place. 

The Heldman daughters never lived in Santa Fe. After Julie finished her tennis career she went on to law school and now practices in the Los Angeles area.  Carrie Heldman, now known as Trixie Merkin, was always more interested in music than tennis. She resided in Denver for a while. She now lives in Santa Fe. 

Gladys Heldman died in 2003 at age 81. Julius followed three years later. He was 87.

A New Owner

Joe_ColvinJoe Colvin (shown right) moved to Santa Fe in 2004. Four years after that he purchased the Vierra house and its tennis court. As a University of New Mexico student in the 1960s, Colvin played tennis for the Lobos for a spell. He received a degree in electrical engineering. After college he served in the Navy for 22 years, at one point commanding a nuclear submarine. He spent the next several years in the nuclear energy business.  

Colvin never met the Heldmans. He and his wife are the fifth owners of the two-acre compound.
A knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide of his premises, Colvin, 74, is nonetheless cautionary. “I don’t let anybody use my court. I want to make sure who is playing there. I think I know 90 percent of them. I’ve turned down a lot of people who wanted on in.”

Players_tennis_shoesA handful of local teaching pros use the court. Fees are nominal. Everyone is expected to tidy up and sweep the court afterward. There is very little sweeping to do. On the deck that stands above the court are rows of small cubicles that resemble something you might see in a bowling alley. Inside these cubbyholes are tennis shoes that regulars put on before going down the eight steps to play. The shoe compartments are there to keep New Mexico dust and dirt and tiny pebbles off the court. There is a bathroom and a shower on the deck as well.

Photographs and various memorabilia decorate the three walls of the deck (see the photo above showing the deck and photos). There are action shots of Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and many others.  All once were used in issues of World Tennis. Pictures of celebrities who have played on the court, such as the actor Charlton Heston and the composer Burt Bacharach can also been seen. A photograph of Don Budge, the first man to win all four majors in one year, is autographed to Gladys and Jules. Budge wrote, “What more can I say than I love you.” Bud Collins, the writer and TV broadcaster knew the Heldmans well and showed up often.  His widow is a Santa Fe native.

Games With Gladys

Jimmy Parker, who lives in Santa Fe and possesses almost as much USTA gold as a South African mine, says that Gladys often challenged guests in her home to identify various tennis players on the walls of the deck. If you named them all, you would win a very old-looking racket, surely an antique. It hung prominently on one wall. For all anyone knew the racket may have belonged to Teddy Roosevelt’s grandmother. Parker, who has been around the game for more than 60 years, managed to name everyone in every photo. Not good enough, said Gladys. She pointed to a small figure standing in the background of a photo of Bobby Riggs. Parker had no idea who that fellow was.. Turns out he was an obscure Japanese player from the 1930s. 

Says Parker: “No way Gladys was going to give up that antique racket.”

Trixie_MerkinTrixie Merkin (shown right) hasn’t given up tennis. She hits with Colvin two afternoons each week. “My game is a work in progress,” she says. Trixie will be 73 soon. She is lively, quick to laugh, and tints her hair purple. She can be seen around town playing electric bass with the blues-soul band Jay Boy Adams and Zenobia.  

Trixie says the only people her mother did not allow to play on the court were members of the Kiva Club, a “men’s-only” squash club in Santa Fe. “My mother hated snobs.” 

Two large swamp coolers sit on the roof of court. As far as Colvin knows, they have never been used. Down below are two gas-fired heaters that are set on a thermostat. 

“Some people like it cool or even chilly in here” Colvin says. “Others say, ‘Turn up the heat.’”  

Eighteen 1,000-watt metal arc lights are affixed to the court’s ceiling. The lights are pointed upward, so that players never lose sight of the ball. It’s a big job replacing one or more of  the lights. “Scaffolding has to be moved about,” Colvin says. “It’s s a pain in the butt. “I let my electrician do it.” 

This writer has seen tennis courts with fissures wide enough to swallow a Penn 1. The Heldmans wanted a hard court, set atop a layer of concrete. A close inspection of the court’s floor reveals not the tiniest cleft.
“As old as this court is,” says Colvin with a smile, “it’s never been resurfaced.”