Tennis Center staff seeks picture-perfect courts

The Chautauqua Tennis Center courts await players before the season begins. These courts have 2,000 lbs. of Har-Tru, a clay material that is better for players by being more shock absorbent. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

Chautauquans know that the Institution champions “lifetime” sports — ones that can be played at any age. Whether hitting the links just after sunrise or hopping around the tennis courts at dusk, both regulars and visitors can enjoy the beautiful recreation facilities Chautauqua has to offer.

During the season, Jason Yacone, Chautauqua Tennis Center’s maintenance supervisor, keeps the grass cut short, the weeds plucked and the nets pulled tight. But his real work begins when visitors are still months away from arriving.

Yacone, who lives about 25 miles away in Fredonia, arrived here on April 1, an unofficial, self-set date, he said. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do much work on the courts themselves until they dried.

“That time of year, I get up around 8, and my eyes are glued to The Weather Channel,” he said. “Is it going to rain this afternoon? Is it going to rain now? Is it already raining?”

All Yacone could do was get materials together.

“I definitely have to start ordering things like the Har-Tru and nets and line tape and nails if I want it to be here by the time it gets dry out,” Yacone said.

Opened in 2004, The Chautauqua Tennis Center features eight fast-dry courts, two of them with lights for night play. These new courts are made of Har-Tru, a sand-like material made from crushed-up granite that enhances player performance by acting as a shock-absorbing cushion.

When the first shipment of Har-Tru arrived in April, Yacone said, it was snowing. April was so rainy that Yacone was only able to get 30 hours of work done. Normally, he could accomplish three or four times that.

“Most of April was spent pulling weeds, making sure that none of the pipes (underneath the courts) were broken, making sure that all the things I need to have for the season are all set and ready to go,” Yacone said.

Once the courts were dry enough, Yacone began his craft.

The Har-Tru soaks up water from the winter snow and ice, so first, Yacone uses an 800-pound roller to compact the material and squeeze it out.

Then, last year’s Har-Tru must be scraped off. After a season of heavy play and weather conditions, the Har-Tru grains lose their edges and become smooth, leaving them unable to be compacted. Yacone works by hand, using a shovel to remove the material that can’t be recycled.

Next, Yacone levels each court with a 7-foot-long aluminum brush. Then, he spreads about 2,000 pounds of new Har-Tru material onto each court, brushing it frequently to even it out. After that, he releases water from beneath the courts to soak into the Har-Tru, allowing the grains to clump together.

Only after he smoothes out the courts a few more times can Yacone measure and draw chalk lines around the court for the singles, doubles, service and baselines. On top of the lines, Yacone lays the rubber line tape, which has to be nailed into the court. With 480 linear feet to cover, Yacone nails about 1,920 nails — all by hand.

Luckily, Yacone finds some help in the generous volunteering of Mayville sisters Meghan and Jenna Raynor.

“If I hadn’t had the girls, I would have been in serious, serious trouble,” Yacone said.

Meghan, a recent Mercyhurst College graduate, has been working at the Tennis Center alongside Yacone since it opened in 2004. Jenna, 20, became involved later on.

Both Raynors played NCAA Division II tennis at Mercyhurst College.

While the Tennis Center courts require manual work to set up, a “Hydro-Grid” system of subsurface pipes controls the watering of each court.

When Yacone turns on a timer, water flows into a circular bowl inside the ground on the courts. A float inside the bowl rises as water enters and, once it reaches a certain height, the water shuts off.

Darker, forest-green courts indicate adequate water levels, while light-green patches signify drier courts.

“Every single one of these courts has its own different personality,” Yacone said.

It’s up to him to ensure that each court is healthy. In fact, it’s that level of delicate care that makes Yacone much more than a maintenance supervisor.

This entails using almost all hand-held tools instead of larger machines, Yacone said. He has push-style lawnmowers, a sickle for cutting weeds and hedge clippers, all to reduce noise pollution near the courts.

“You don’t want to come out here and pay $20 to play tennis and have a guy running a mower next to you,” Yacone said. “So, the mower I have is super quiet. The weed cutter I have sounds like a golf club.”

From the beginning of April until the end of the season, Yacone keeps the Chautauqua Tennis Center’s eight courts clean and proper. For him, it’s important to delight in his own handiwork.

“I take a lot of personal pride in these courts, so when someone comes by and says, ‘Wow, the courts look really nice,’ I really do take that personally,” Yacone said, “just because of the amount of effort it takes in a pre-season for me to get these courts playing nice.”