At Bitsy Grant, the back porch is where all the action begins.
The porch is on the lower level of the clubhouse and looks out over Court 1. It also has a panoramic view of all 13 of the clay courts, which are surrounded on three sides by a thick forest of hardwoods. The courts at Bitsy Grant are so quiet and tranquil that the sounds of rackets hitting balls and birds singing nearby are all you can hear, as if the clatter of the city is banished from this spot.
Arrive there almost any time of the day and you'll find people gathered on the back porch, tennis players who have either just finished a couple of sets or are looking for someone to say the magic phrase: "We need a fourth; wanna play?" They'll be in one of the dozen green rocking chairs, or gathered in small groups chatting and catching up. There's Linda and Ken, Airplane Eddie and Jack, Jim, Sid, Sam and Pat. You'll often find Ernie Garrison on that porch, and why not? Bitsy Grant might as well be his second home.
Garrison began to play tennis in high school, when a friend convinced him to try out the game at the courts in Piedmont Park. The Bryan M. "Bitsy" Grant Tennis Center was built a few years later, in 1953, and Ernie's been playing there ever since. The first public tennis facility in Atlanta, Bitsy Grant became the catalyst for a tennis boom in the city. It brought the game out of the elitist country clubs and made it available for folks who couldn't otherwise afford to play. "It's a little community here," says Garrison, 74. "Everybody knows everybody. You'll have a group of people congregating on the porch and games just developing out of the blue. It's the only place I've ever seen where you can do that."
The tennis center was built on land where part of the Battle of Peachtree Creek was fought in 1864, just before Atlanta was burned to the ground. Its neighbor to the east, Bobby Jones Golf Course, was built by the city in 1931 and named for Atlanta's greatest golfer and the first man to win golf's "grand slam": the British Amateur, U.S. Open, British Open and U.S. Amateur.
While it is reputed that Jones only played once at his namesake course, part of the mystique of Bitsy Grant was that Bitsy himself was there every day. In tennis terms, it would be like Jimmy Connors hanging out at a public tennis facility today, playing pick-up games against anyone who wanted to play.
The grandson of the man who donated the land for Grant Park, Bitsy Grant was a scrapper who stood just 5-foot-4. Yet he won the U.S. Clay Court title three times, and played on three U.S. Davis Cup teams. As a senior player, he won 19 singles titles, his last in 1977 at the age of 67. That was five years after he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Grant liked to complain that he and Walt Disney were the only two living people with parks named after them. But it couldn't have bothered him much; if he wasn't on the courts, you'd find him in the clubhouse playing checkers with former Georgia Tech head football coach Bobby Dodd. "His shyness gave the impression he was being a little haughty," says Garrison. "He was very quiet, very reserved. But he was also a little arrogant, and he had the right to be."
Dodd wasn't the only well-known person to call Bitsy Grant home. For years, AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard was a member of the "Tree Bar Club," which would congregate for libations under a tree by the courts. Today, former Tech head basketball coach Bobby Cremins plays there, as does former Mayor Sam Massell. Janet Jackson came by one afternoon to hit a few balls. Michael Childs, who testified against another former mayor, Bill Campbell, is back among the regulars after a stint in federal prison. A CNN anchor plays there, as does a certain Creative Loafing senior editor.
The center has just had its first major face-lift in its 53-year history. The clay courts were rebuilt and modernized, the 10 hard courts were resurfaced, and new parking was added. And the center's tennis association is in the midst of raising $1 million to refurbish the clubhouse.
But no one forgets Bitsy Grant. The first thing you see when you enter the clubhouse is a huge photograph of Grant executing a picture-perfect volley. Near the check-in counter, there is a framed picture of Grant and Dodd hunched over a checkerboard. Downstairs is a framed AJC front page, devoted entirely to the news of Grant's death in 1986.
Most importantly, the back porch has remained, and that is where Grant's spirit is felt the most, in the players who congregate day after day, week after week, year after year. "We've got guys well into their 80s who play three or four times a week," says Garrison. "I was never a tournament player. I just enjoy the exercise, that I can play for an hour and forget about my worries. I like being with my friends here."
That's what the afternoon games at Bitsy Grant are about, why people keep coming back. It's difficult to really appreciate Bitsy Grant until you move to another city, try to find another place like Bitsy Grant and discover you can't. There is a sense of place on those dusty clay courts, a sense of belonging in settling back in one of those rocking chairs talking to your friends.
And by the way, anybody need a fourth?
Get your racket On
Courts at Bitsy Grant:
$2.50 per person each hour for hard courts
$4 per person each hour for clay
Bitsy Grant offers hour-long tennis clinics for adults twice a week, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. $12.
A youth camp will begin in June for children ages 8 and up. $36 a day or $180 for all sessions.
Bitsy Grant Tennis Center
2125 Northside Drive
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