Tennis anyone? Company plans indoor center in Janesville

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Jim Leute
Saturday, January 5, 2013

— The owner of a company that plans to develop an indoor tennis club in Janesville is confident the game can thrive again in a community that once was tennis crazy.

Tom VanDixhorn and his family plan to open Premier Tennis & Fitness-Janesville in a 58,000-square-foot facility that was built in 1973 as an indoor tennis facility.

A group of local investors originally started Janesville Indoor Tennis & Racquet Club—JIT as it was commonly known—at 3410 Bell St. as an outlet for players who wanted a year-round game.

"Tennis was very popular at the time, in fact it was at the height of the tennis craze," said Jim Cripe, who started the four-court club with Bob Yahr, Bud Yeomans, Stan Dufrane and Tom Gunderson.

"People were going to other places to play in the winter. We looked at a lot of other clubs and thought it could work in Janesville. It was a nice facility."

The group tired of club management after several years and sold the operation to an Illinois investor. Eventually, tennis faded, and a local manufacturer used the facility as a warehouse.

It's been vacant for nearly two years.

VanDixhorn's company owns several tennis clubs in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, including the Four Lakes Athletic Club in Elkhorn. It bought the Janesville facility a couple of weeks ago.

"The demographics in Janesville are all good, and there are people here who take tennis seriously, so seriously that they are traveling to other places to play," he said. "Our approach will be to sustain and grow the game."

Aggressive renovation work soon will start, and Premier plans to open by March 1 with 10 to 20 employees.

"The place is in rough shape, but it doesn't scare us," VanDixhorn said. "The renovation cost will exceed the purchase price of the building, but when it's done, it will be the state-of-the-art facility that Janesville wants."

Another VanDixhorn family business, Sports Interiors, has done significant renovation work at several tennis facilities, including the lighting and ceiling work at the U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., the home of the U.S. Open.

Sports Interiors will handle much of the renovation work in Janesville.

Plans call for six tennis courts, locker rooms and nearly 9,000 square feet of space with high-end fitness equipment, he said.

The club will be membership based and offer recreational, league and tournament play, as well as lessons and clinics.

VanDixhorn said Premier will have reciprocity agreements with other clubs, and traveling teams are expected to compete on a circuit that includes the Janesville facility.

Janesville has several outdoor courts at various parks and schools, as well as four indoor courts at the Janesville Athletic Center.

The Janesville Athletic Center also offers recreational, league and tournament play, as well as professional lessons and clinics.

VanDixhorn said Premier's approach would be different, however. With six courts, it will be able to host sanctioned tournaments, and the spacing and layout of the courts will offer playability advantages.

"We see an opportunity for tennis in a community that's not being served," he said. "This community is starved for a true tennis center, where tennis is front and center and not just another amenity.

"Our overall level of programming will be second to none."

A critical component of Premier's approach will involve youth and junior programs, he said.

That excites local tennis icon Camilla Owen, who along with Sharon Terry has been running an outdoor summer program for kids for the last three years.

"I'm really excited about Tom's plans," Owen said. "There's talk of a lot of leagues and fun tennis, which is what people want."

Through the Janesville Tennis Association, Owen and Terry and have been running a U.S. Tennis Association "QuickStart Tennis" program for kids 10 and younger who want to learn the game at an enjoyable level.

Courts are used sideways and equipment is scaled down so 8-year-olds aren't trying to learn and play the game on the same-sized court that Roger Federer roams.

"It's a great program, and we've had more kids each year we've done it," Owen said. "When we move it to Tom's facility, we can run it rain or shine."

VanDixhorn said community involvement is critical to the club's success.

"We've been connecting with the people in Janesville, and these are some serious tennis people," he said. "The only way for us to do well is to do programming well, and that includes kids.

"We feel that if we serve the community well, the community will come back to tennis."

Last updated: 8:06 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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