TENNIS in New Jersey
The definitive history.
The history of tennis in New Jersey began shortly after the game arrived in the United States. The first lawn tennis set was brought ashore by the Outerbidge family of Staten Island in 1874. The game spread across the water to the Garden State soon after, finding an enthusiastic following on the manicured lawns and cricket fields of the wealthy.
By the end of the 1880s, tennis clubs had begun springing up all over the state— including Seabright, Montclair, East Orange, Morristown, Ridgewood, Princeton, Newark, Hoboken, Bayonne, Mantoloking and Hackensack. In many of these towns, the tennis club became the hub of high society, especially for young men and womenfrom the upper classes. In the first half of the 20th century, invitational tournaments at these clubs drew some of the world’s top players, including Bill Tilden (right), Helen Wills Moody and Don Budge. The Seabright tournament was a key warm-up event for the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. After nearly 70 years, club members decided to stop holding the event because of the inconvenience and commotion it created.
From 1947 to 1969, the Eastern Grass Court Championships were played at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange. The tournament, held in August, was an even more important lead-in to the U.S. Championships in Forest Hills. Between 1952 and 1954, the men’s final was an all-Aussie affair, with Ken McGregor beating Frank Sedgman and Lew Hoad defeating Rex Hartwig and Ken Rosewall. Fred Stolle, who won in 1962 and 1965, was the only other man to win the tournament twice while it was held in New Jersey. Clark Graebner reached the finals five times in six years during the 1960s, but fell short of the title each time. On the women’s side, Doris Hart won the women’s draw four times between 1949 and 1953. Althea Gibson won in 1956 and 1958. Karen Hantze, Margaret Smith and Billie Jean Moffitt each won back-to-back titles between 1960 and 1965.
The tournament was renamed the South Orange Open in 1970 and became exclusively a men’s tournament until its final year in 1983. Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas each won back-to-back championships from 1975 to 1978. Nastase had also won in 1972. Other champions during the Open Era included Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Yannick Noah and Clark Graebner—who finally won at South Orange in 1971.
From 1978 to 1989, Ramapo College in Mahwah hosted a women’s pro hardcourt tournament, which drew the top names on the WTA tour. The inaugural event was won by Virginia Wade, followed by Chris Evert in 1980. Steffi Graf was the singles champion three times. Other winners included Martina Navratilvoa (singles and doubles), Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver (both doubles).
The greatest tennis player produced by the Garden State was unquestionably Bill Larned (left), who was the dominant American player for two decades starting in the early 1890s. Larned learned the game on his family's Summit estate.
The state has produced a handful of other notable players over the years, including Ridgewood’s Bessie Moore, who was national singles champion four times at the turn of the century, and Virginia-born John Van Ryn, who won 5 grand slam doubles titles after graduating from Princeton. Another New Jersey tennis champion was Frank Parker, who won the U.S. Championships in 1944 and 1945, and the French Championships in 1948 and 1949. Parker was born in the Midwest, but attended the Lawrenceville School. Dick Savitt of Bayonne won several state titles before his family moved to New Mexico when he was 17. Savitt later became the first Jewish player to win Wimbledon. More recently, Hoboken-born Michael Chang achieved a #2 world ranking and won the French Open in 1989 at the age of 17.