Aug. 2—JANESVILLE — It has been years since tennis was king at Palmer Park, but a group of boosters hopes a new pavilion and a new private foundation sparks renewed local interest in the sport.
About 95 players turned out at the park over the weekend to compete in the inaugural The Pat Janesville Open—a doubles tournament named in honor of late Janesville tennis luminary and business icon Patrick W. Ryan.
A group of tennis enthusiasts and Ryan's siblings hosted the tournament, which celebrated the new pavilion and monument at the park. Both were built this spring and summer to honor Ryan, a tennis lover who founded national contracting consultant group Ryan Central. Ryan died in 2016 at 60 years old after years of fighting cancer.
Tom Russo, a longtime friend of Ryan's who lives in Pennsylvania and New York, funded the new features honoring Ryan.
Ryan was a tennis standout and class president at Janesville Craig High School who went on to earn degrees at Harvard and Stanford universities. He lived and played tennis in Rock County most of his life, even after founding Ryan Central, which has expanded over the years to include major offices in Chicago and Maryland.
"This pavilion and tournament is supposed to reset the center of gravity for local tennis," Matthew Goodwin, a local tennis buff and friend of the Ryan family, said Saturday at the tournament.
While Goodwin spoke, a few doubles teams from Chicago who played earlier in the day snacked on Skittles candy and chocolate milk in the shade of the new pavilion.
Goodwin was talking about local tennis and its heyday here. He recalled Palmer Park as the place where in the mid-1960s he would turn out with a racket and tennis shoes alongside his teammates from Beloit.
Goodwin said he was the third man on a subpar tennis team.
"I used to lose a lot of matches here," Goodwin said. "But when I'd build up enough momentum, if I got the timing down right, I did excel in throwing a tennis racket all the way across the court."
Camilla Owen has been named as one of a few Russo hopes will lead a local foundation also named after Ryan that will work to boost local interest in the sport.
Owen is a Wisconsin High School Tennis Hall of Fame coach who for years coached Craig High's boys and girls teams. Owen is aware that some gyms locally have recently ditched tennis courts in favor of pickleball or multisport spaces because the sport's star has waned somewhat nationally and locally.
Even at Palmer Park, the nine-court tennis complex is but a vestige of what once was part of a much larger number of courts along both sides of Mohawk Road. Some of the courts over the years have been removed from Palmer Park as interest in tennis has dwindled, Owen and Ryan's sister, Josephine Ryan, pointed out Saturday.
Owen said Saturday she hadn't seen Palmer Park bursting with such tennis activity since the 1990s—the latter years of a three-decade run during which tennis was popular among local adults who were invested enough in the sport that Janesville had its own tennis association and a bevy of resident court pros who played frequently as a fitness and social activity.
Owen said she just learned she had been tapped to help with the new foundation. She said in order for the sport to cultivate a following again in Janesville, it would be important for older players to foster love of the sport in younger players.
She also underscored and validated what Goodwin had said about throwing his tennis racket in frustration as a youth.
Tennis is unique in that it's the "most honest" sport, Owen said. Players always know how good—or not good—they are, especially if they find themselves overmatched on the court by a much stronger, faster player.
Owen looked around the new pavilion and then back toward the courts just as a male player from Chicago blistered what appeared to be a 100 mph serve toward his opponent.
The ball rocketed off the server's racket, scoured the court in bounds and bounded past his opponent for an ace.
"Pat would be proud," Owen said.