With the 2021 Wimbledon Tennis Championships wrapped up, let’s take a look at where tennis was played in Mendocino.

Mendocino High School Tennis Champs, 1927 – 1928.  L-R: Louis Borgna, Grace Nichols, Morton Swales, Thelma Silvia and Clarence Hamblin.

Kelley House has documented five tennis courts in town, starting in 1892 at the Morgan residence on Little Lake Street. At present, this is the site of the Art Center, but from 1890 to 1956, the town’s only bona fide mansion occupied most of this site. It had a glass conservatory, an elaborate, enclosed water tower and windmill, and enough flat lawn in front of a small barn to set up a net. By 1896, enthusiasm had grown large enough to organize the Lawn Tennis Club with 17 members, and Mr. L. A. Morgan as president.  

The next court we know about was down the hill at the mill superintendent’s house, once the home of the Ford family on the south side of Main Street, but occupied in the early 1900s by John Ross. This one was improved with a tall surrounding fence through which you could watch the ships coming and going at the Point. Frank Peirsol, son of physician James Peirsol, describes the scene around 1909 in his wonderful memoir: 

“On Saturday afternoons, if the weather was favorable, the more athletically inclined members of the Mendocino Social Set would play tennis on the clay-court in back of the John Ross home. Those who did not care to play got all dressed up anyway, the men in their white flannels and straw boaters, the women in colorful organdies and huge garden hats. They would sit on the sidelines sipping tea and lemonade and always applauded politely when one of the players made an exceptionally fine shot.” Today, the Mendocino Music Festival puts up its tent right where the tennis court stood.

Auggie Heeser’s place also had a court just a block away on Albion Street. We don’t know if its surface was clay or grass, but his cousin Laura liked to have tennis parties there. Laura and her bookkeeper husband, George Lammers, lived out most of their lives here in this, the oldest house in Mendocino. The location of the court today is occupied by the interior parking lot of the Mendocino Hotel Garden Suites.

The young people of this place were early tennis enthusiasts, and it wasn’t long before they started fixing up for themselves a tennis court at the high school. By 1909, a new nicely graded tennis court was put in, with Ed Rasmussen doing the horse team work. 

By the next year, the Beacon printed a sports column that reported tennis news, and the accomplishments of the inter-school competitions were closely followed. In 1927, hopes were high that the Mendocino Cardinals team would be good enough to win the big tournament held the next spring. And in fact, they were good enough and the 1928 champion team (pictured) consisted of Louis Borgna, Grace Nichols, Morton Swales, Thelma Silvia, and Clarence Hamblin.

Tennis continued through the 1930s at the high school. The Beacon reported that, “Every boy must sign for one sport or more. It is possible to be on three teams, if tennis is included in the three. Soccer, baseball, indoor baseball, volley ball, tennis, and track are the sports offered.” Students weren’t the only ones using the court. In 1938, the Russian Gulch Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp boys were coming down to play weekend games.

Fast forward to 1972 and we had the Mendocino Tennis Club, located 1.6 miles up Little Lake Road from Highway 1. Built by Gordon Chism on his own property, the three well-constructed courts were a response to the explosive interest in tennis nation-wide. Club members paid a $30 initiation fee and $9 a month for ten months (on the theory that approximately two months will be poor for playing in winter rain.) Competitions were organized with Fort Bragg and Ukiah teams and many clinics were offered. 

Today, all these courts are a gone. But you can swing your racket in Fort Bragg at the public courts located in Bainbridge Park, or on the private courts at Little River Inn and at the Mendocino Sports Club.

Finally, a word on tennis nomenclature. As a non-tennis player, I’ve always been puzzled by the words associated with the game. But now I know that most are derived from French and Arabic. 

Racket derives from the Arabic rakhat, meaning the palm of the hand.

Deuce comes from à deux le jeu, meaning “to both is the game,” or the two players have equal scores.

Love is used for zero and is probably derived from l’œuf, French for “the egg,” which has the same shape as a zero.

And it is generally agreed that the word tennis comes from the French tenez, the plural imperative form of the verb tenir, to hold, meaning “hold!” “receive!” or “take!” It is an interjection once used as a call from the server to his/her opponent to indicate that they were about to serve.