A Living Legend

There are people who claim to have the ability to communicate with animals, talk with the dead, and see things that have not yet come to pass. While James “Vern” Houghtaling does not profess to have any of these abilities, I swear he can tell you how far off-level a tennis court is from the inside of his truck two miles away. Somewhere hiding under his signature white safari hat, he has a sixth sense for clay tennis courts.

At 80 years old and standing just a few notches over 5 feet and weighing maybe 120 pounds wet, Vern is one of the legends and greatest innovators in clay-court resurfacing, creating many of the tools and techniques currently used in the industry.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Vern--or rather, pull him off a tennis court--and discuss with him his career and his thoughts on clay court maintenance. It did not take me long to figure out why this man is so revered and loved, and that a bench next to a tennis court is the wrong place to interview a man with such far-reaching contacts. We were constantly interrupted by players saying hello and paying their respects. I don’t know how he remembered and connected everyone to their home club. There was one constant in everyone’s greeting, and that was an appreciation for his work.

How did you get started in clay court resurfacing?

I am an old farm boy raised on a tomato farm. I raised tomatoes most of my life until a hard freeze in 1989 pushed me out of the industry. In an effort to put groceries on the table, I went to work for a private tennis club in Sarasota, Fla. I realized while working there the need to do away with all of the massive hand labor it took to take care of clay tennis courts.

At the time, and to this day, the problem remains--too many courts, too much work and not enough help. With the lack of equipment, time and manpower, the courts could not be taken care of properly. That’s when I started developing the Court Devil Sr. for scarifying, and the Court Rake for raking Hydro-grid courts on wet mornings. That’s what I enjoyed--old farm work. You see, tennis courts are made of sand, and sand is what farming is in, so it all came together.

After working at several private clubs, I started out in an old station wagon with only a wheelbarrow, loot and shovel. It is something everyone started off with at the time, and I do respect their feelings (to the old ways of doing things). I learned by doing and asking questions. It did not take me long to figure out the old ways of taking care of tennis courts had passed, and it was time to come up with better equipment. This equipment would allow me to do more precise and efficient work, making tennis players and club owners more satisfied and happy with their courts. That’s been my goal in life.

In how many states have you resurfaced courts?

I have resurfaced courts all over the South (Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida) I have also managed to do some work in Texas and Ohio. I even did tennis courts for three years in Martha’s Vineyard. The owners flew me in, paid me for my time, and sent me striped-bass fishing. It was a great vacation. Resurfacing tennis courts is what I do, and I have enjoyed doing this for quite some time, and am still enjoying it to this day.

I understand you are quite the inventor. What are some of the pieces of equipment you have invented, and what effect did they have on the industry?

The Tungsten Carbide scarifier, the Court Devil Jr., the Court Devil Sr., the Tennis Court Rake, the laser box blades to go on the Sand Pro, the three-point hitch system on the Sand Pro and a few more that escape my mind right now. With sometimes not enough manpower and time, the equipment I invented was built out of necessity. Most of all, the equipment I create is meant to give the customer the best court possible.

Sometimes what I do is take another man’s invention and turn it into a very good tennis court utensil. The rototiller, for example, has lost its purpose because people are not farming as much as they used to. I replaced the tines on the till with carbide ones, able to scarify a court in a fraction of the time it would normally take someone to do it by hand.

I hope what I have done has given incentive to any man who wants to do something better. I started a lot of things, and I still have a bunch of things to do before I go blind or die of old age.

Why not patent your work and innovations?

My feelings about this are very simple. When a man wants to steal your patent, all he has to do is make one little change and he has duplicated your idea almost 100 percent. I don’t want to hold someone back if he can improve something. Why fight it? I have ulcers for other things. All the equipment I have invented was meant for my team and to help the industry.

What effect does weather have on the maintenance of a clay court?

Everything, yes, sir! Courts have to be maintained constantly--they are like babies and women. They are all made of the same material, yet they are all different. One court may need more attention than another, but they all have to have daily maintenance or they will go to hell in a handbasket. I cannot say this enough--tennis courts will not maintain themselves. Weather can help courts or destroy them. What one court receives in sun, wind and rain may be very different than the one next to it.

Just the other day I resurfaced a number of Har-Tru courts, and just as I had finished, it rained and rained hard. Don’t you know it, the next morning they were ready for play. This is a good example of what effect weather can have--what would have normally taken several days to do, Mother Nature did overnight.

What are some basic maintenance protocols for taking care of a clay tennis court?

· Har-Tru courts must be brushed every morning and afternoon as well as watered in the afternoon and at night. People don’t realize that you need to keep the base wet, so it will hold moisture throughout the morning and early afternoon. That’s why we flood them, not because we want to waste water, but to keep the surface playable.

· Clay courts need to be scarified, making them pliable enough to where they can breathe (allowing water to move through the courts).

· You must dress base lines and service lines.

· Keep the algae under control all around the courts and under the nets.. If you don’t, it will eventually cover you.

· Roll lines as often as possible--twice a month is good, once a week is wonderful. This will keep base lines and service lines from getting too high, too fast. We’re not concerned with making the courts harder, unless it’s a Har-Tru court. Maintaining lines is a practice that is too often forgotten, and can be a source for many headaches.

Are there any indicators as to when a court should be resurfaced?

· The amount of play a court gets is a leading indicator. If a court is used seven days a week, day and night, that is a hard-played court, and should be resurfaced every two to three years. If you wait four years to resurface a court such as that, you will have players competing on bad--and possibly dangerous--lines. A court not played around-the-clock tends to get resurfaced on average every four to five years.

· Another indicator is when cords (nylon webbing on the inside of the line tape) poke through the lines, and the lines themselves are rough around the edges.

· Another sign a court needs to be resurfaced is when big bird baths form behind the line tapes where players serve and receive the ball.

· Look at the high side of a court along the brick line--it will tell you how much material has worn away. Sometimes this material can be pulled from the lower side of the court to fill in other areas.

Every time you resurface a court and/or pull the lines, be sure to laser the court. It goes without saying: you pull the lines, you put it back into grade. You will always maintain a better drained court and a court that will play better, if you laser it back into grade.

Players are saying that the lines need to be rolled. What is this, and how often should it be done?

Rolling the lines is when you take a Brutus roller--or a steel roller that you pull behind a golf cart or a roller that you have on a Serve Ace golf cart--and use the force and weight of the roller to mat the lines down. Don’t forget to always roll with the lines, not against them. Lines should be rolled once a week. It’s a regular maintenance procedure you have to find time to do; otherwise, it won’t get done.

A court has a white residue on the surface. What is this, and how can it be addressed?

White residue on a clay court more often than not is a buildup of calcium. It is dead material that a court gathers, which can be scraped away. The lute or the carbide tines I have created for a rototiller are good tools to address this problem.

What are some key indicators as to when more clay should be added to a court?

Your line tapes will tell you when it is time to add more clay, as they will start showing a little height to them. Another indicator is around the base and service lines, as you’re always going to need material in these areas. A close inspection at these spots twice a month should keep players happy and safe.

Players are reporting dead spots in the courts. Is this possible, and if so how can this be corrected?

Yes, dead spots are possible and are caused on Hydro-grid courts from air pockets from the irrigation system. On Har-Tru courts, dead spots can surface from an irrigation line that is leaking, creating a cavity below. Generally it does not affect play, but players may tell you it does; it’s the sound that fools them.

What are some good watering practices to follow?

Courts should be watered twice a day, once at night and once in the early afternoon. When possible, keep watering times four to six hours before playing on them. Also, don’t get courts too wet before play. Players will have to change out balls often before the courts are dry if you do this, plus it tends to aggravate them.

On conventional, above-ground watering courts, courts will tell you when it is too wet for play. The courts will not feel firm under your feet, but rolling them will firm them back up. Generally if courts need rolling, they are too wet or have not been played for days and have expanded.

How often should you drag a court?

Hydro-grid courts should be dragged or raked in the morning and in the afternoon. The same can be said for Har-Tru courts, although it is preferable to keep the rake off them when they are wet. I say this because the courts are soft, and it is possible to loose material when it rains.

The lines seem worn. At what point should they be replaced?

You should replace lines when the edges get frayed and you start losing nail heads. Another sign that lines have seen better days is when they become humpbacked. Rolling lines incorrectly is one of the leading causes for this dangerous court maintenance issue. Simply rolling with the lines will help lessen the humpbacks on courts. One thing to keep in mind is that the material under the lines never moves. Also, it is preferable to roll the lines when the courts are is wet, so they have more ply to them.

Vern has a spark and hunger for life I wish I had, or maybe it’s because his doctors have cranked up his pacemaker. Vern is the embodiment of the cliché, “first one in, last one out.” He’s always working, inventing and sharing his knowledge in an effort to better the industry, but ultimately as he says, “Making tennis players and club owners more satisfied and happy with their courts. That’s been my goal in life.” Even after turning 80 earlier this year and having his second pacemaker put in, Vern still presses on, creating, innovating and giving back. As Vern says, “If you take care of your tennis courts, they will always take care of you.”

Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at syeskulsky@verizon.net