Sutter Lawn Tennis Club: Nine decades of tennis traditions

By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers writer

Rich with history, East Sacramento is home to various notable sites, which conjure up memories of days gone by. And among the more historical sites of the area is the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club.
East Sacramento’s historic Sutter Lawn Tennis Club is shown from above in this 1968 photograph. / Photo courtesy of SLTC

East Sacramento’s historic Sutter Lawn Tennis Club is shown from above in this 1968 photograph. / Photo courtesy of SLTC

Founded in 1919, the private, family-oriented tennis club is not only the capital city’s oldest continuously operating tennis club, but it is also one of the oldest tennis clubs in the state.

The story of the club began with a group of 10 East Sacramento and midtown Sacramento prominent residents who raised $20,000 to have the club constructed at its current location of 3951 N St. The group acquired these funds by selling 2,000 shares at $10 each.

These founders, who purchased the block of land bordered by 39th, 40th, M and N streets, had been regularly playing tennis on a court located in the yard of a local dentist at 21st and J streets.

As reported by The Sacramento Bee, a groundbreaking ceremony for the club was held in late April 1919, as the first shovelful of dirt was turned by Sacramento Chamber of Commerce President Charles E. Virden.

Hanging on a wall near the fireplace in the original portion of the Sutter Lawn clubhouse is a framed, enlarged copy of the article, which marks this proud moment in the club’s history.

Accompanying the article is a photograph from the groundbreaking, which shows Virden standing next to the club’s directors, including Joseph I. Brunschwiler, who served as the club’s first president.

Opening later in the year with seven courts and a membership limited to 200, the club began to build its rich legacy, which includes serving as the site of several notable tournaments.

Bjorn Borg, who later became the number one ranked tennis player in the world, plays a match at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club in the early 1970s. / Photo courtesy of SLTC

Bjorn Borg, who later became the number one ranked tennis player in the world, plays a match at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club in the early 1970s. / Photo courtesy of SLTC

Important tournaments

Sutter Lawn’s first tournament, an event featuring the tennis great, Helen Wills (1905-1998), was the predecessor of the Central California Tennis Championships.

This tournament was an important event for tennis players, who were working their way up in the rankings.

Although it is not as notable as it was in the past, the Central Cal, which was first held at Sutter Lawn in the 1940s, continues to be held at the club today.

Another earlier tournament held at Sutter Lawn was the National Hardcourt Tennis Championships, which was sponsored by the U.S. Tennis Association.

This tournament, which was held from about 1962 to about 1973, once drew some of the professional circuit’s premier players, including Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Ille Natase, Tony Trabert, Alex Olmedo, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey and Rosemary Casals.

And although he was not well known at the time, Bjorn Borg played as a 16-year-old in the tournament, which at its peak had prizes for its players totaling $37,500.

In bleachers that were set up near the fence lines, about 1,200 fans would gather to watch these high level players.

The former director of the National Hardcourt Tennis Championships, Bill Demas, who is one of Sutter Lawn’s longest tenured members, having joined the club when he was 15 years old in 1948, described the magnitude of the event.

Tennis players Stan Smith (left) and Eric Van Dillon stand on each side of Jim Tyler, Sutter Lawn’s board president, in this 1972 photograph. Photo courtesy of SLTC

Tennis players Stan Smith (left) and Eric Van Dillon stand on each side of Jim Tyler, Sutter Lawn’s board president, in this 1972 photograph. Photo courtesy of SLTC

“We had the national championships, in which there were four in the country,” said Demas, who was once a nationally-touring player. “One was the grass court at Forest Hill, the indoor in New York, the clay courts in Cincinnati and the national championship here in Sacramento (at Sutter Lawn). It was fantastic and it was a lot of fun.”

Demas added that one of the many highlights involving the tournament, which was the last major tournament before the U.S. Open, was Sutter Lawn’s negotiation to host the 1968 United States Davis Cup team.

“We brought the United States cup team to Sutter Lawn in 1968,” Demas said. “That Davis cup team consisted of Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, (Bob) Lutz, Eric Van Dillon and Donald Dell.”

Recent tournaments

More recently, the Swanston Challenger, which is now held at the Natomas Racquet Club, was held at Sutter Lawn from 2005 to 2008.

Among the top players to participate in this tournament, which was sponsored by the now-late Sutter Lawn member Bert Swanston, were: Mark Philippoussis, John Isner, Sam Querrey and the homegrown talent, Sam Warburg.

For most of Sutter Lawn’s history, the club has been home to five courts.

Swim history

During the Depression, when a section of the Sutter Lawn property was sold to assist with the club’s financial difficulties, one of the courts was eliminated. And in 1951, another court was removed and replaced by a swimming pool, thus marking the beginning of the club’s recreational swimming and swimming tournament history.

Mike Lippi returns a shot during a non-tournament match at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club as his doubles partner Fred Thomas looks on. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Mike Lippi returns a shot during a non-tournament match at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club as his doubles partner Fred Thomas looks on. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Bob Reid, who served as the club’s manager from 1974 to 1976 and was the club’s swim coach during the 1960s, said that Sutter Lawn has experienced other changes, while also maintaining various traditions.

“It’s a very East Sac club and in the past – a Fab ’40s club,” said Reid, who grew up swimming and playing tennis at the club during the 1950s. “Now it is a much more broad membership with family orientation. We are still very much interested in tournament tennis.”

Other changes to Sutter Lawn, which had Ronald Reagan as one of its members during his governorship from 1967 to 1975, were a major remodel of the clubhouse in the 1980s and the addition of an exercise room in the 1990s.

Former Mayor Burnett Miller, world-renowned artist Wayne Thiebaud and prominent real estate developer John “Jack” Bowker are among the club’s more notable members.

Miller, who began playing tennis at Sutter Lawn in about 1956, said that he joined the club due to its proximity to his house.

“I moved to 40th Street and I started playing tennis and spending some time (at Sutter Lawn) and it has existed the same for my whole life,” Miller said. “It has always been a wonderfully democratic organization. You have far more pleasure out of the place if you play tennis, and the better you play tennis, the more people you have to play with. It’s a hang out for the whole family.”

Sutter Lawn Tennis Club member Bill Demas formerly served as the director of the National Hardcourt Tennis Championships, which featured some of the game’s top professionals. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Sutter Lawn Tennis Club member Bill Demas formerly served as the director of the National Hardcourt Tennis Championships, which featured some of the game’s top professionals. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Additionally, members of Sutter Lawn are much like one big family, considering that the club only allows 50 more members than it did in its earliest years.

Membership costs are $105 per month and new members pay a $1,500 initiation fee. Currently, the club, which is led by its president, Roy McDonald, has a waiting list for new memberships with about 15 names.

Although memberships are generally required to play tennis at Sutter Lawn, tennis lessons are offered to non-members by Jason Johnson, who can be contacted at (530) 300-4036.

For additional information regarding the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, call (916) 455-9519 or visit www.sutterlawn.com.

lance@valcomnews.com

Jay Rich, who grew up next door to the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, is one of the club’s longtime members. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Jay Rich, who grew up next door to the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, is one of the club’s longtime members. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

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