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Players leave mark at Court of Dreams Comeback Tennis Series Classic

Players leave mark at Court of Dreams Comeback Tennis Series Classic
Press photo by John Burbridge
Singles finalists and tournament hosts/organizers gather for a group photo at the end of The Court of Dreams Comeback Tennis Series Classic held Friday and Saturday on the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club’s “Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams”. From left are singles champion Vinny Gillespie, Alex Kuhn’s surviving son Rylan Kuhn, tournament host Mark Kuhn, series founder Ryan Knarr, and singles runner-up Chad Kissell.

By John Burbridge

CHARLES CITY — Alex Kuhn had left his mark on the picket fence surrounding the celebrated grass tennis court that bears his name.

“He thought it would be best to paint the inside of the fence green for a better background with white on the outside,” said Alex’s surviving father, Mark Kuhn, who — with Alex’s help — in 2003 built a Wimbledon-themed grass court on his 850-acre farm homestead south of Charles City.

“It was a pain to paint one side green and the other side white, but it was worth the effort,” Mark said.

Shortly before his death, Alex hit a big serve that “halved” one of the tennis ball-sized rings atop the pickets.

“We usually replace a couple of (pickets) a year as the rings tend to crack and break off,” Mark said, “but we decided to leave that one in memory of Alex.”

In wake of the final leg of the Comeback Classic Tennis Series played on the Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams this past weekend (July 31-Aug. 31), there were a couple more pickets cracked. One of the main culprits was former Valparaiso University star Chad Kissell.

“Sometimes I can get it up to 130 mile per hour,” the Latrobe, Pennsylvania resident said of his first serve, which was clocked as high as 129.6 mph during the two-day tournament, not only wreaking havoc to the fencing but to the imprudently parked vehicles behind the court.

“But when I really need to get my first one in, it’s usually around 120,” Kissell said.

Kissell’s serve is impressive, but so is the ability to return it. During the men’s singles final, former Drake University No. 1 singles player Vinny Gillespie was true to the task.

“I honestly thought he had me at one point,” Gillespie said of facing Kissell in the tourney’s epic finish from which a sun-soaked and sweat-drenched Gillespie emerged victorious after a battle spanning greater than three hours.

With a cocked-wrist technique, Gillespie has a big right-handed serve himself. But it was a brilliant backhand return from Kissell that enabled him to break it with the first set tied 5-5.

Kissell eventually took the first set 7-5, and was a break point from taking the second set and the match only to have Gillespie rally back and win 7-6 with a 7-3 tiebreaker.

With a win-by-two, no-tiebreaker format for the deciding third set, both players seemed destined to battle to sundown before Gillespie finally put it away, 11-9.

For Kissell, the weekend was the first time he played on a grass surface.

“It was a great experience,” said Kissell, in spite of taking a hard spill absorbed by one of his hips after slipping on the grass during the semifinals.

A native of Stirling, Scotland, Gillespie has played on grass before.

“When I came to Iowa (to play and attend Drake), I always wanted to come out here and play on this grass court ,” said Gillespie, who had heard about the court as part of the Kuhn family’s “All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club” back home. “I just never got the chance. I’m glad I finally got the opportunity.”

Kuhn said that a match like the Gillespie-Kissell final played at his home was one of the things he dreamed about when he built the court.

“Travis (Parrott) was probably the best player to have ever played here,” Kuhn said of the former pro player and U.S. Open doubles champion — Travis’s father, Charles City High School tennis coach Brian Parrott, served as the chair umpire for the men’s final.

“But the calibre of competition played on this court has never been better than this weekend,” Kuhn said.

The Comeback Classic Tennis Series originated in Berks County, Pennsylvania in early June. Though it was one of the first sporting events held since the COVID-19 outbreak/lockdown, the series opener — like for the sixth and final leg at the AILTC — didn’t allow spectators outside of players, essential personnel and members of the media.

This past weekend’s event was streamed live on the Small Player Big Play phone app.

“We were looking for somewhere to play on a grass surface,” said Ryan Knarr, a USTA National Adult Competition Committee member who founded the series.

“Venues on the east coast closed their doors, so we decided that maybe we can come out to Iowa,” Knarr said. “We heard about this place, but it still doesn’t prepare you for when you come out here and see if for yourself … a grass court like this out in the middle of the cornfields. It’s an amazing sight.”

The series finale — tabbed The Court of Dreams Comeback Classic — had players representing the Missouri Valley and Pennsylvania. The Comeback Classic Tennis Series hosted its national event on July 17-19 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We plan to continue this series next year,” Knarr said, “but we’ll probably drop ‘comeback’ from the title.”

The $250 entry fee for each of the eight players was donated by the various individuals and organizations, including the Charles City Area Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee.

The raised entry fee money goes directly to the AILTC Foundation, 501c3 non-profit organization whose mission is to promote and grow the game of grass court tennis by hosting kids and adult tournaments on the Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams.

“The foundation will also promote reading programs at Charles City schools,” said Kuhn, whose son Alex often volunteered to read books to children.

Also involved in coaching youth sports, Alex — a Mason City councilman — committed suicide in 2016. He was 34 year old.

The prize money — $1,000 for the singles champion and $200 for the runner-up — was donated by Small Player Big Play.

Other sponsors included perennially ranked women’s pro player Madison Keys, and David Kramer, a friend of the Kuhn family and son of tennis hall-of-famer Jack Kramer.