OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / Tending the Clay
STEVE OLIVER / TENNIS CLUB OWNER / WELLFLEET
As youngsters, Steve Oliver and his siblings spent summers sweeping the courts at Olivers' Red Clay Tennis Courts along Rte. 6 in Wellfleet. It was a family business, and the Oliver kids were recruited whenever someone needed another player. Maintaining red clay courts may be a dying art, but more than 50 years later, Steve is still tending the clay, making sure the courts not only look good, but play just right. Please listen!
Red clay tennis courts, yeah, it is sort of unfortunate, they are dying out. Working on red clay courts is like working on a garden. It's like working with something that is alive. You water them, you weed them, you take care of them. You look after them. Just like a garden, you've got to walk around and pay attention.
You have to have a certain personality for it, I would say. It's not for everybody. You have to have a will about you, a determination, for sure. You have to be, I'm not finding the word. You have to be sort of steadfast. You need that kind of devotion. You just can't go through the motions with it, that's for sure. Now it's hard work, but I actually get… I don't know if it's like a Zen feeling out of it. I'm not really that kind of a person, but I, what am I trying to say? There's definitely a satisfaction out of it. I guess this sounds strange. I actually find it kind of relaxing. I'm not trying to set a record. You know, I've done that in the past where I was out to see how fast I could go. I'm not worried about that anymore.
For me, this is really my father's baby. It's my father's legacy. My father was a phys ed teacher up at what was called Lowell Technological Institute. He had his summers off and wanted to make money in the summertime to supplement his income. That’s why he had the cottages down here. We had the jelly stand. And then he came up with the idea of tennis, and it was actually brilliant.
So, it would have been in the late sixties. He suddenly just throws out that we're going to build a couple of tennis courts. Now I had no idea that my father owned a tennis racket, that he played tennis. And, in fact, this is going to sound a little harsh, but back in those days, my brothers and I, we didn't consider tennis a sport. Basketball, baseball, football, you know,thosewere sports. Tennis, that was kind of for the rich kids. I know that's kind of an ugly thing to say, I guess, but that's just the way it was. My father learned about working on tennis courts, basically by just doing it. He got very good at it.
You know, like anything else, it started off a little slow the first summer, but the second summer it started taking off, and he hit the tennis craze absolutely perfectly, because the seventies and the eighties, tennis just went ballistic.
I grew up with this place since I was 12, and I'm now 64. So, when I took over, I would have been in my late 30s. I really wanted the business to be viable for 50 years. We just hit that. Fifty years would have been in 2019. When I took over in 2002, it was just like, I got to get to 2019, got to get to that 50. I want the 50 years! That was surprisingly for me a really huge motivating factor. And now, of course, I've reached it. It's kind of funny, because I had all this big buildup to it. And when it finally came around, it wasn't like anything was different. It was like any other year, but I mean 50 years for a small-time family business, I think that's pretty good.
In the summertime, I usually get here about seven. It's nice. You know, the sun is up first thing in the morning. There's a freshness usually to the air. I go to about noon time. I spend a good hour and 45 minutes. It just depends how many courts have been used and how banged up they are. So I've got to put them back together again, sweep them. And then, you know, sometimes I have to water them. Then I take a quick little break, and then I'm back again at three o'clock. And then by six o'clock, I’m sort of wrapping things up again. I have to fix the courts up, sweep them up, do the footwork, water them, get them ready for the next day.
So, at the end of this year, we're going lose four of the red clay courts. They're the ones that are closest to the highway. My oldest brother is planning to build a spec house on courts three and four. You know, I've wrapped my head around the change, and I'm good with it, because I know it’s really going to help me. It's going to make things a lot more manageable, a lot more enjoyable. I think what it’s going to do is keep me in business much longer.
I would love to get to the point where I can actually hit the ball a little bit more often than I do now. I very rarely get out there, because usually I'm too beat up. My knees are sore, my back, or whatever. I'm notgoing to be able to keep eight courts going into my seventies. That's just not a reality. Having four courts versus eight courts, okay, it really is going to fit.