Sunday, July 19, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Nearly 40 years ago, an 8-year-old Andre Agassi peeked through his bowl haircut at tennis greats as they competed in the Alan King Classic on the famed hard courts of Caesars Palace.
Places to learn how to play
■ Darling Tennis Center
7901 W. Washington Ave., Las Vegas
Private lessons (all ages): $75 per hour
Semi-private lessons (up to four people): $75 per hour for group
Semi-private lessons (more than four people): $80 per hour for group
Drop-in clinics, 9 a.m. daily: $15 for 1.5 hours
Summertime youth classes (2-hour weekly class): $25 per week
Advanced youth classes (four 4-hour classes per week): $250 per week
■ No Quit Tennis Academy at Lorenzi Park
3075 W. Washington Ave., Las Vegas
Private lessons: $65 per hour
Summer camp: $250 per week
Afterschool academy: $495 per month
Full-time homeschool academy: $1,375 per month
■ Desert Palms Tennis Club
3090 S. Jones Blvd., Las Vegas
Private lessons: $40-$60 per hour
Clinics: starting at $10 for 1.5 hours
Junior tennis classes (Monday through Friday, 4-18 years old): $150 per week
■ Himmelheber Tennis
Lessons at the Cosmopolitan: $125 per hour
Lessons at a private location (will travel to you): $90 per hour
Summer camp (Monday through Friday, 2.5 hours per day): $175 per week
■ Annie Rockwell Tennis at Bally’s
3645 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas
Clinic (two hours): $60
Private lesson with a USPTA pro: $100 per hour
Private lesson with former ATP No. 1 David Plate: $125 per hour
Court rental (available 24/7): $12 per hour for locals on weekdays, $15 per hour on weekends
Men in togas and gold headgear circled the arena in chariots, while hall of famers Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe battled on the court for a wheelbarrow full of gleaming silver dollar coins. The stands overflowed with celebrities — Chevy Chase, Gerry Cooney, Sonny Bono, Kirstie Alley. All gathered on the Strip to witness the battle for the first six-figure winner-take-all tennis prize.
“It was like a prizefight, like Mike Tyson was out there,” said Marty Hennessy, a former Las Vegas tennis pro. “It was right on the Strip, and they had after-parties that people just died to be a part of, with all the pros and celebrities tied in.”
Soon after, Las Vegas lost its grip on the professional scene. The Alan King Classic left Caesars in 1985, but that wasn’t the end of tennis here.
Recreationally, participation numbers have steadily increased. Membership in USTA-Nevada has grown by 30 percent over the past five years, said Ryan Wolfington, the group’s executive director. There are about 25,000 players in Southern Nevada, 4,300 of whom are registered with the association. About 7,000 play in association leagues.
Interest grows during summer, propelled by the popularity of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
“Those three months when tennis is on TV, people see the pros and they want to go out there and play,” Wolfington said. “People who played in high school or in their younger years want to get back into the sport.”
Wolfington says interest also gets a boost when a tennis center opens. Las Vegas once had only five or six tennis clubs but now has more than 35 clubs and resorts.
With the closure of the International Tennis Center — a 96,000-square-foot, $15 million indoor tennis facility built in 2009 — some felt tennis in Las Vegas was on the verge of extinction, but tennis pros have another explanation.
“Indoor tennis is not for Las Vegas,” said Annie Rockwell, a Nevada Tennis Hall of Famer and tennis pro at Rockwell Tennis in Bally’s. “You can basically play tennis 365 days a year here. In Michigan, an indoor facility might be great, but in Vegas ... it’s not needed.”
Officials rave about more than the participation numbers. In 12 years, the area went from having two nationally ranked juniors to 100. That’s due largely to the emergence of the Andre Agassi Boys and Girls Club and the Marty Hennessy Junior Tennis Foundation.
Agassi hired former UNLV tennis national champion Tim Blenkiron to coach at his club, which produced more than 20 nationally ranked players in four years.
Blenkiron now runs the No Quit Tennis Academy at Lorenzi Park and has helped more than 50 student-athletes earn college scholarships for tennis and academics. Blenkiron is credited for transforming Asia Muhammad from a novice to a pro. Muhammad recently won the doubles title at the WTA’s $220,000 Top Shelf Open in the Netherlands.
Over the past nine years, Hennessy’s foundation has sent more than 80 students to college with scholarships.
“We never thought it would become this big,” Hennessy said. “We just wanted to raise a little bit of money for a couple kids, but it just started mushrooming.”
One of the best talents to come out of Hennessy’s foundation is Kimberly Yee, who has been ranked No. 1 in the country in every age division in which she has competed, and recently accepted a scholarship to Stanford.
“The USTA looked around the country at all of the programs in each state and chose Nevada’s as the most effective,” Wolfington said. “Now they are duplicating our program in eight U.S. cities.”
The Red Rock Country Club brought the USTA to the valley in 2009 with the $50,000 Red Rock Pro Open and will hold its seventh tournament in September.
With the explosion in talented youngsters here, it’s possible the next Agassi is watching from the sidelines.