I have recently heard that there are plans, within a few short months, to dig up the four remaining tennis courts at the Eric Bell Tennis Centre on Marescaux Road, the home of Tennis Jamaica. This location was the home of the now defunct St. Andrew Club and was the home of tennis in Jamaica. It was apparently sold to the Government in the 70s and the old club house was used as a venue for the sitting of Exams like the CXC etc., however the courts were left intact and through the instrumentality of Eric Bell who was an avid player and tennis fan, the local association then called the Jamaica Lawn Tennis Association, JLTA, was granted a lease to continue operating there, hence the name the Eric Bell Tennis Centre. A building was erected that facilitated the administration and also the running of tournaments and tennis fans can recall the many Davis Cup ties that have been played there. Whether this lease had come to an end or had a neat escape clause I do not know.
This place has a lot of history, from the days of the grass courts of the St. Andrew Club where Richard Russell and Lance Lumsden played Davis Cup to the more recent era that I am more familiar with when players such as Noel Rutherford, Errol and Peter Campbell and many others were able to display their talents. This was the one court which the public had access to without having to depend on the goodwill of a hotel or having to become a member of a private club, an option which was not really an option for many of the citizens in Jamaica. Young people did not have to be the son or daughter of someone important in order to play on these courts.
Some schools had tennis courts but they were mainly available to the students of that school and many had fallen into disrepair. However, many schools have been able to have a tennis programme without having courts on their school ground because of the existence of these courts, much like many schools have been able to have a swimming programme without having a pool on their school ground because of the existence of the pool at the National Stadium.
For Jamaica to have a chance of developing world class tennis players there must be public courts and this court although under the control of Tennis Jamaica, is the nearest thing to a public court in Jamaica. We need more of them not less and these are good courts, of the quality to host international tournaments. The infrastructure is already in place. There are stands to accommodate spectators and space to erect more stands as necessary.
Originally there were five courts at this venue, the four main ones and a practice court. The latter was not in good condition and some years ago it was dug up to make room for a new building on the grounds that was put up to house offices and larger facilities for the hosting of exams. It is my understanding that the last Government took this decision to dig up the remaining four courts and erect more buildings in order to accommodate more students who had to sit exams. This was I understand, a move to increase efficiency by reducing the cost that was being incurred in renting space at other institutions to accommodate students sitting exams.
Clearly the growth in persons sitting exams is a positive development for Jamaica and no Government should be criticized for trying to save money but is there a credible alternative. I think there is. The old club house which is still there and which is really an old wooden building, could be demolished and a building erected on that same footprint. Tennis Jamaica could either revert to using only the block referred to as the Eric Bell Tennis Centre, but since that block is mainly bathrooms, a food shop activated during tournaments and one small office, they may need additional space which could be accommodated in the new structure.
Currently the old clubhouse is used partly by Tennis Jamaica and as a storage area related to the examination activity. If this storage area is a vital part of the operations of the Examinations Council, and would cause untold problems if they did not have this facility during the construction period, then temporary storage could be found elsewhere. There is also another option that the additional building space that is needed could instead be built on green area that currently exists in the complex. The structure should be big enough to accommodate the storage area needed and then green area could be replaced by still demolishing the old clubhouse after the construction of the new building is completed, using that same footprint.
I am not privy to the efforts that the governing body of the sport in Jamaica, under President Aubyn Hill, has made to try and avert this impending move that would certainly push back any efforts that Tennis Jamaica could make to develop the sport in Jamaica and I therefore do not want to suggest that the leadership of Tennis Jamaica, have not lobbied hard enough or been creative enough in attempting to avert this decision.
I may however be excused for wondering if it is because the leadership who seldom if ever use these courts and probably do not have any children using these courts, except possibly during a tournament, have been less than creative because they have access to the Liguanea Club and the Jamaica Pegasus.
I also do not want to suggest that this PNP Government should have a vested interest in looking into this matter merely because the complex bears the name of Eric Bell, because I believe that in the final analyssis it should also be about good public policy and efficiency. That is why I believe that the solution that I am proposing could be mutually beneficial to all the parties concerned and achieve the desired outcome of a win / win situation.
If there had been no public tennis courts in Compton, California, we may never have heard of Venus and Serena Williams. Even if there are attempts to find another location for Tennis Jamaica, we should not be destroying what are some of the best courts that we have because what we need are more courts not the same amount or fewer courts that the public have access to.
Tennis has always suffered from its elitist image, with the impression that only well off persons play the game. I think by now most well thinking persons know this is not so, but losing a venue like the Eric Bell Tennis Centre would he a retrograde step in the march towards making the sport more accessible to those who have less.
This country is crying out for a sports policy that would guide decisions like the one being planned.