At New Jersey’s Mercer County Park, flex leagues stirred a huge interest in tennis, and led to relationships that have helped the public facility thrive.
By Ann LoPrinzi
When New Jersey’s Mercer County built a large outdoor tennis facility in 1981 in the middle of a 2,500-acre park, who knew that the impetus for its growth and popularity would be summer leagues? Mercer County Park, subsequently named the Richard J. Coffee Mercer County Park, lies in West Windsor Township, just outside of Princeton, offers a plethora of recreational activities, and its tennis leagues continue to draw players from many miles around.
Soon after its grand opening, then-director of tennis Judy Niederer came up with the idea of filling the courts with a flexible league. The concept took a little time to grow, and now players know that, if they don’t sign up early, they may not get in. Today, leagues span some 40 divisions and are limited to the first 725 people who sign up. There always ends up being a waiting list.
“I don’t know if there’s been another flex league of this scale,” says current Tennis Director Marc Vecchiolla. “The courts would not have as great a usage without them. I feel that the league draws everyone in, and they find other things going on here. There are huge waiting lists for our lesson programs. Before signups went online a few years back, the long lines to register for programs looked more like lines for Springsteen tickets.”
League players used to receive a schedule in the mail; now they access the schedule online. Then, they simply contact their weekly opponent and schedule the match. Standings are updated weekly, and there’s a post-season playoff system.
With 22 outdoor courts, six indoor, and 16 lighted courts, it’s easy to see why the facility became a central focus of area tennis despite an abundance of other quality clubs and programs within striking distance. And the hugely popular and long-running Cryan Tournament (for which Vecchiolla was a ballboy in 1982) continues to draw and impress new people.
“Special events generate a lot of interest in our facility,” says Vecchiolla. “It is the most well-known public tennis facility in the state. We’ve won three national awards. We host a US Open Sectional Qualifier, USTA League sectionals, state and county high school championships, and college events. Every weekend in the summer we offer a different county tournament. The cost for an ID card is affordable.”
A key element of the facility’s success is the county’s commitment to upkeep. Not only did Mercer County add a six-court fabric-covered facility a few years ago to replace the crumbling indoor structure on the other side of the county, but they reconstruct one or two bays of outdoor courts every year and address cracks on an annual basis on all courts. Last year they added blended lines on four outdoor courts for Youth Tennis play.
“We wouldn’t be able to do all this without the support of the County Executive and the Park Commission Executive Director,” says Vecchiolla. “All of our ideas came to fruition. They recognized we had a following and an interest. Every vision and dream is coming true as to how we wanted this facility to evolve. And there’s a good return on its investment.”
Details and Organization
As nicely as things fell into place for the Mercer County Tennis Center, it took some good leadership to make it all happen. Vecchiolla has this advice for anyone trying to emulate where they are:
- Start on a smaller scale.
- Pay attention to the details.
- Be as organized as possible.
- Stay consistent.
“It takes organization to run a public facility, and if you want people coming back, you have to be precise and detail-oriented,” he says. “If you let some things slide, it will open up huge cans of worms. You want everyone to be happy, but you want them to stick to the guidelines, too. If you say there’s going to be a 6-1 student-to-teacher lesson ratio, make sure it is. Some clubs will take more kids, and then the quality diminishes.”
Vecchiolla also believes there’s another reason why the Mercer County Park facility and other area clubs are all doing well.
“It’s a great sport and a great time for our sport. Some of the best players ever are playing now,” he says. “Consistency in the pro game gives us more visibility with the casual fan.”