Aug. 18-20 will mark a first for Lincoln tennis. The Lincoln Adult Open tennis classic will add wheelchair divisions to the tournament, a major milestone for the tennis community.

Players will come from surrounding states to compete in the Walk ‘n Roll Lincoln Open Tennis Tournament, which will include divisions ranging from new, inexperienced players to the open level, men and women, able-bodied and wheelchair athletes.

Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln now has a showcase tennis facility made possible by the dedicated combined efforts of Kevin Heim, executive director of the Woods Tennis Center; Carmen Grant, president of Friends of Woods Tennis; Lincoln Parks and Recreation; Lincoln Parks Foundation; and over 460 donors.

The expanded tournament and new Woods Tennis Center will benefit not only tennis lovers but the whole community, bringing in players from well beyond the Missouri Valley.

Combining the Capital City Wheelchair tennis classic into the Lincoln Adult Open is just the most recent milestone in Lincoln’s storied tennis history.

Six weeks before the great stock market crash that began Oct. 24, 1929, the Lincoln Star reported that Joe Stanton led the Lincoln Tennis Club to victory over the team from St. Joseph, Missouri, despite several rain delays that made the clay courts in Lincoln slippery. Stanton is considered by many to be the “father of Lincoln tennis” as a player, teacher and mentor. Lincoln Parks and Recreation hired Stanton as director of tennis in the early 1940s, and within 10 years, the first Lincoln Adult Open Tennis Tournament was played.

Since that time the tournament has, for the most part, been played in August. Shortly after the Lincoln Open began, there was a Lincoln Closed Tournament, which eventually was replaced by the tennis section of the Cornhusker State Games in the 1980s, played in July.

Some early champions of the Lincoln Open were June Reta, Miriam Gabelman, Carol French, a young Barbara Adams and Carol Meyerhoff. By the 1960s, Carmen Grant, Nina Eidswick and Mandy North took over as champions. Later in the late 1970s and early 1980s, sisters Ann and Stacy Swanson brought home the gold.

On the men’s side, early winners were Neil Unterseher, Dave Wohlfarth, Dick Gibson, Lou Orloff, Ed Rowley, Barry Jackman and Jim Porter. In the ‘60s, Bill North, Roy Coulson, Leonard Foster, Bob Duffek, Henry Cox, Roger Galloway, Kile Johnson and Sig Garnett added their names to the winners’ circle.

More recently, Ken Tharp, Ron Schultz, Curt Smith, Ben Rader, Don Grant, Franz Blaha, Bob Haller, Joan Griffin, Arleen Gzehoviak, Bev Smith, Nancy Mercer, Claudia Blaha and Karen Noel are but a few of those making it to the finals and collecting the first place medal or trophy.

The Lincoln Star announced April 16, 1965, that the Woods Park tennis courts would be open seven days a week for play for the first time. The fee to play was 25 cents.

The three new hard courts at Woods were a huge step up from the seven aging clay courts at 40th and South streets. The first bubble went up in 1985, the clubhouse in 1986 and a second bubble was added in 1992. While the bubbles protected against wind and rain, sub-zero weather did not render them well to either early morning tennis (before the heaters started) or as an attractive location for tournaments.

In 1985, after a debilitating skiing accident, Brad Parks teamed up with Rick Schlader to put on an exhibition wheelchair tennis match at the Devaney Center, and afterward hosted a camp for handicapped athletes. A sports chair, essential to wheelchair athletes’ mobility, was raffled off and won by Waverly native Lydell Otley – “Oats” to his friends and fellow athletes.

Prior to that, in 1974, HRS, Handicapped Recreation Services, had been funded by Mike Oldfield and a group of local donors to help with travel, tournaments and lodging for Lincoln-area wheelchair athletes. Lincoln Adult Open champion Henry Cox started teaching and coaching wheelchair athletes, and long-time tennis player Don Frankfurter ran the practices with drill-sergeant precision.

What began as a local program is now a major United States Tennis Association program throughout the nation. Tennis officials not only must learn the rules governing able-bodied players, but also the rules governing wheelchair tennis, which allow two bounces before the receiver must hit the ball in play.

Locally, the players began hosting a regional tournament called the Cornhusker Wheelchair Tennis Classic. Darrel Rahn, James Bartels and Eric Kingery were early members of the HRS tennis group, which eventually became known as the Cornhusker Wheelchair Athletics Association (CWAA). Otley, Kingery, Chris Parnell, Taylor Graham and Tony Kurtenbach have all won at the local level and have won gold, silver and bronze trophy balls at the U.S. Open National Wheelchair Championships.

PJ Carson, who had a local shop catering to tennis players, was an early sponsor of wheelchair tennis events. Since PJ left Lincoln, the Racquet Corner has generously contributed time, money, racquets, prizes and even the famous secret recipe “Yum-Yums” for players’ lunches during the tournament.

More recently, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital has contributed its expertise and staff to the annual successful wheelchair tournament in Lincoln, providing marketing and coordination for the event.

“Forty-Love” is much more than just a score in Lincoln!

Author’s note: We thank the many individuals and fellow tennis players who shared their memories and stories of tennis in Lincoln for this piece. Without your help, it would have been over in one set!

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