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Celebrity Walk, A Forest Hills Mystery Partially Solved

Since 2015, a dedicated group of preservationists have been searching for long-vanished cement slabs featuring the handprints, footprints, and autographs of tennis and music stars that were once part of Celebrity Walk.
Celebrity Walk was located in front of Forest Hills Inn in Station Square. Before being converted to a co-op, the inn was the center of a classy social life, and Celebrity Walk was the local version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When searches of the tunnel-like Forest Hills Inn basement turned up no results and with no known photos, some people assumed it was just an urban legend.
But rumors circulated that a sidewalk reconstruction led to their relocation. Some people recalled seeing them placed in the inn’s basement in a potentially concealed tunnel for safekeeping, possibly in the late 1970’s.
After intense networking, over a year ago this columnist discovered five Celebrity Walk slabs in a garage at a home near Puritan Avenue and Greenway North. The slabs were left behind by a previous homeowner.
Last Friday, Forest Hills Stadium concert manager Mike Luba and Mitch Cohen, president of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, arrived at the home with a crew. They took the fragile concrete slabs to Forest Hills Stadium, where they will be restored and displayed.
The rescued slabs feature comedian Buddy Hackett, trumpeter Herb Alpert, actor Trini Lopez, director, Woody Allen, and Australian tennis player John Newcombe.
There are more slabs to be discovered, and the goal is to find the full collection. A few years ago, another homeowner donated a slab to the West Side Tennis Club featuring the signatures and handprints of tennis players Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, and Manolo Santana.
“It’s a work in progress and I want to be part of it,” said crew member Wilson Brito. “We’ll get there. We’ll bring all the history back to where it belongs, and once we maintain that we can pass it on to the next generation and let them take care of it.”
Celebrity Walk originated in the mid-1960s and was the brainchild of Mark Fleischman, owner of the famed Studio 54 nightclub. From May 1965 to 1968, he also co-owned the 300-room Forest Hills Inn and adjoining apartments
“I loved coming up with press-generating ideas, including the creation of Celebrity Walk in front of the hotel’s sidewalk cafe,” he said. “Marketing seemed to come easily to me.”
At the time, the inn included cocktail lounges, a formal dining room known as the Windsor Room, sidewalk cafe, the Tea Garden, and four social rooms accommodating 400 guests.
“The Inn was a venerable hotel that looked like an English country manor,” said Fleischman. “It was a real coup when we got Frank Sinatra to put his handprints into a block of wet cement when he headlined the Forest Hills Music Festival at the nearby tennis stadium.
“As soon as other celebrities heard about Sinatra’s handprints and signature, they agreed to be included in our Celebrity Walk when they performed,” he added.
“The Forest Hills Inn has Frank Sinatra’s and Barbra Streisand’s handprints imbedded on their sidewalk pavement, but it had to get them the hard way,” read an article from 1965 in the Long Island Star-Journal. “Both stars agreed to make the imprint, but refused to do it at the sidewalk. So wet cement was sent to both stars, the imprints made, and the hardened blocks were then inserted in the pavement.”
West Side Tennis Club is always looking for items from the club’s long and storied history.
“These past few years, some wonderful items have been donated to the club, both solicited and unsolicited,” read a statement from the club.

If you have historic WSTC/Forest Hills items, email [email protected]

Return of the Davis Cup in Forest Hills

The past decade has been a rebirth for the historic West Side Tennis Club. There was the return of concerts in 2013, a pro tennis event in 2016, and the annual Heritage Day event.
Most recently, the club hosted a Group II playoff series of the Davis Cup by Rakuten. On September 18 and 19, South Africa defeated Venezuela, 4-0. Victories were achieved in singles and doubles by rising Association of Tennis Professionals star
Lloyd Harris, a 24-year-old South African who recently reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals, was victorious in both singles and doubles play.
“The Davis Cup has always been a part of my schedule,” he told the media. “It is obviously very important to represent your country, and get out there and play.
“This is an incredible venue,” Harris said of WSTC. “I learned so much about this venue and its history over the last few days. I’m obviously very, very honored to be playing in a special place.”
Philip Henning of the South African squad called it “honor” to represent his country in Forest Hills.
“We love our sport, and this place is one of the places with the most history for tennis,” he said. “A lot of big names played on this court.”
“As a player, you always dream to be in the historic venues, and the important sites and most famous stadiums and arenas all over the world, and this is one of them,” said Venezuelan Ricardo Rodriguez after his loss to Henning. “Even though I lost, I still feel lucky to be here.”
The Davis Cup was founded in 1900 by Dwight Davis at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston. It originated as a challenge match between the U.S. and the British Isles. Today, it is the largest international team competition with over 120 nations.
“We would love to host more Davis Cup matches or other big pro events,” said Jason Weir-Smith, WSTC’s director of Racquet Sports. “WSTC has proven to be a suitable and enjoyable site for players and fans, with an unparalleled tennis history in the United States.
“With Queens being one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world, Forest Hills would be particularly attractive for national team events or tournaments with popular international tennis stars.” he added.
The Davis Cup was last played in Forest Hills Stadium in 1959. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Neale Fraser led Australia to a Davis Cup win over the U.S., which was led by Alex Olmedo, Butch Buchholz, and Barry MacKay.
The Davis Cup was last held in Queens in 1981 at the USTA National Tennis Center. A quarterfinals match between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia featured John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl.
Weir-Smith said the public is nostalgic for Forest Hills tennis.
“Those who are perhaps too young to see pro tennis here, have certainly seen videos and pictures that display the majesty, beauty, and history of the club,” he said.
Randolph Walker was the U.S. Davis Cup press officer from 1997 to 2005. The first Davis Cup he attended was in 1981 at the USTA National Tennis Center.
“In a summer that saw Major League Baseball played at the ‘Field of Dreams’ in Iowa, it certainly was special for pro tennis to return to its own Field of Dreams,” said Walker. “So many people could feel the ghosts of tennis champions past.
“That made the event so memorable for all, and will make future tennis events played on that court much more special,” he added.

Pickleball is coming to West Side Tennis Club

Established in 1892, the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) is synonymous with tennis and music history. You may soon be adding the growing sport of pickleball to that legacy.
A new beginner and advanced pickleball camp, customized based on skill level, will take place at WSTC on August 12-13.
“It is amazing that a tennis club with the prestige and history is looking to open its doors to a newer sport like pickleball,” said Frank Milillo, a pickleball enthusiast from Rockville Centre. “This is a great chance to bring more attention to the sport and provide support to the players who want to improve.
“This is the first private tennis club in New York that’s ready to provide pickleball memberships to prospective members,” he added.
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, and is played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes.
“Most tennis players become very good and competitive very quickly,” said Milillo. “Pickleball is a very social sport.”
Pickleball was invented in a backyard on Bainbridge Island in Washington by former congressmen Joel Pritchard, William Bell, and Barney McCallum after they returned from a golf outing to children complaining about being bored.
“Everyone who is playing it for the first time is amazed when I tell them this sport is over 50 years old,” Milillo said.
Milillo plays on average five times a week.
“A short court and the quick points makes this sport exciting,” he said. “With lots of movement in short bursts, pickleball is an extremely healthy sport. You burn as many calories playing pickleball as you do playing tennis.”
Camp attendees will begin with the essentials, such as learning dink shots, footwork and ball striking, as well as serve, return, and drop shots. The training will be followed by games and matches with expert analysis by pros and an emphasis on strategy and shot selection.
Participants will also have an opportunity to work with WSTC director of Racquet Sports Jason Weir-Smith and Ken Henderson, founder and director of Traveling Pickleball Pros and an IPTPA Level II certified pickleball teaching professional and national medalist.
“I ran a few clinics and we kept the dialog going,” said Milillo. “Then I mentioned the camp and Jason was right on board.
Milillo is confident pickleball has a bright future at WSTC.
“WSTC is the perfect venue for clinics, camps, and tournaments, the options are limitless,” he said. “Ken and Jason have the foresight to embrace the new players, new game, and its popularity.”
Milillo played tennis for most of my life, but took up pickleball after a shoulder injury made tennis a bit of a challenge.
His website at longislandnypickleballpros.com promotes clinics, leagues, and open play opportunities.
“I have over 200 people playing pickleball in Rockville Centre and it’s growing,” he said. “I had over 15 leagues each season.”

Fees for the camp are $395, or $350 if you sign up by July 31. For WSTC members, the cost is $200. For more information, call (718) 268-2300.

Greener horizons at West Side Tennis Club

West Side Tennis Club members and guests were first to play on the newly resurfaced field of eight state-of-the-art grass courts at the iconic Forest Hills club last Friday.
“To have been able to take on a transformational upgrade of our grass courts at this moment in time is a testament to our Board of Governors, our members, and our commitment to our mission,” said club president Monika Jain.
Virginia Wade, who won the 1968 U.S. Open, was a guest of honor.
“I had deja vu watching all these good players out today,” she said. “I know what good grass is like. Grass technology is so sophisticated these days, and it’s so exciting that this club chose to take advice from Wimbledon.
“The WSTC lawns will become the envy of every tradition-loving club and player,” Wade added. “And for those lucky enough to play on them, it will be a blissful experience.”
“My favorite surface in the whole world is grass,” said Rennae Stubbs, a legendary Australian tennis player, coach, and Racquet Magazine podcast host. “It was the first time I ever played here, and it was great to be part of opening the courts for the first time this year. You just have to look around to know you’re in a historic tennis club.”
After WSTC relocated from the Bronx to Forest Hills in 1913, grass was laid for seven courts. The following August, a Davis Cup match would attract an audience of over 12,000, transforming tennis.
The hallowed grounds are where legends like Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Ken Rosewall, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Chris Evert made their mark on the tennis world.
However, the courts were considered past their prime with spongy and bent grass. After Newport’s International Hall of Fame resurrected its turf venue, WSTC leadership was inspired to examine the feasibility of upgrading its grass courts.
The $650,000 project was designed by Tom Irwin Advisors and spearheaded by Ian Lacy, the former head of Great Britain’s Institute of Groundsmanship Professional Services.
Test pits were dug to evaluate layers of soil, and Lacy and his colleagues recommended a plan to replace the grass, upgrade the irrigation system, enhance the underlying dirt by adding a sand mixture for playability and durability, and regrade the courts.
The grass is a modern blend of three varieties of rye, the same kind used at Wimbledon, the Newport Hall of Fame, and London’s Queens Club.
“The new grass courts are much better, since the ball bounces higher and we can rally and really enjoy it,” said longtime club member Juan Reyes. “Before the ball would hardly bounce.”
The upgrades included Wimbledon-style wooden tennis posts with brass winder mechanisms and “West Side Tennis Club” etchings.
“This is one of the most revered sites, as it was the first home of the U.S. Open,” said Frank Milillo, a pickleball ambassador. “The courts have always been top notch, and it’s exciting to see how well the club improved it with a new lawn. This is where the sport grew, and now it’s coming back to its roots.”

End-of-season honors for Knights

The Queens College men’s tennis team earned three of the six All-East Coast Conference spots.
Junior Mariano Bibiloni, sophomore Moritz Borges, and freshmen Tim Ostheimer were named to the squad, while head coach Somadi Druker was named Coach of the Year. 
Druker earned her fifth ECC coach of the year honors as she led the Knights to an 8-7 overall record and 6-0 conference record, which included winning the regular-season championship and a fourth straight conference tournament championship crown.
On the season, the Knights were 8-3 against DII opponents. She led the Knights to their 19th straight consecutive NCAA Men’s Tennis Tournament appearance and sixth under her tutelage.
Druker is ten wins away from the century mark as she takes an overall coaching record of 90-42 into the 2021-2022 season.
Bibiloni finished the year with a 7-5 singles record, including going 6-2 against DII opponents. Playing in the middle of the lineup, the Argentinian native went 3-1 at the number-two spot.
Bibiloni gave the Knights a 3-1 lead in the ECC Final as he defeated St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans Alvaro Barranco in straights set to the score of 6-1, 6-3 as the Knights would go on to clinch their fourth straight conference title.
Borges went undefeated in conference singles play finishing with a 4-0 singles record. The German native finished the season with a 7-4 singles record including going 2-0 at the number-two spot.
Borges saw singles action at five different spots as he produced a 5-1 winning record. In doubles play, Borges finished the season with an 8-6 overall record including a 4-2 mark in conference play.
Borges would finish the season with a three-set victory over Le Moyne Felipe Cruz to the final score of 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tennis East Region Tournament.
In a star-studded lineup, Ostheimer was the Knights’ primary number-one singles competition starter. On April 8, the German native was ranked 48th in the ITA DII Men’s Singles Ranking. He was only one of the two players in the Northeast Region to be placed in the top-50 singles ranking.
After an injury slowed the season down, Ostheimer saw time in doubles competition including finishing the season 2-0 in conference play. Partnering with senior Eduardo Marino at the number-three doubles court, the duo defeated Divison I Niagara University Purple Knights duo of Roberto Vaca/Bruno Goncalves to the score of 6-4.

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