Rembert Explains America: Discovering the Glorious All-Iowa Lawn Tennis ClubRembert Browne/Grantland
Good lord, my handwriting was bad.
As I crumpled up the chicken scratch–filled first draft and found a new piece of paper, I realized I didn’t know what to say. Arriving 10 minutes earlier at the house only to be greeted by barks from the home’s dogs, I was ready to chalk up this two-hour detour through the middle of Iowa as a failure. I hadn’t gotten a response to my e-mail, and now I was leaving a note on a door — a note with an unknown recipient because I didn’t even know who lived here — in the hopes someone would see the note and track me down before I left the state.
Ever since I received an e-mail about the All-Iowa Lawn Tennis Club in June, I knew I had to go. From the few things I could find about it, it sounded like one man’s tennis Field of Dreams (also tucked away in the northeast corner of Iowa), but instead of old baseball ghosts, his calling was the wonders of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
But no one was home. So I jammed the second draft of the note in the door and, before heading back down the gravel road, took a few moments to marvel at the court and its magnificent backdrop.
The Kuhn family farm, located across the street, with their cornstalks and wind turbines, had given this English-inspired court a necessary jolt of undeniable Midwest flavor.
I had to get on this court.
Later that night, having decided to stay in Iowa in the hopes of the note paying off, I received a phone call. From an Iowa number. On the line was the owner of the house and the court, Mark. His wife found the note and passed it along.
With a sense of bewilderment in his voice, he seemed surprised we missed each other. “You came by the house this afternoon?” Mark said. I confirmed my presence, and he noted we must have narrowly missed each other.
“You still in town?” he asked. I told him I’d driven to Mason City, and he quickly responded, “Oh, that’s just about 45 minutes away — can you come by tomorrow?”
Of course I could. In this world of e-mails and texts and Snapchats, I was thrilled that the “note in the door” trick actually worked.
“Come by in the late morning. I’ve got to spend a few hours the morning setting up the court.”
I excitedly agreed, thanked him, and hung up the phone. Initially curious as to what he meant by “setting up the court,” I thought back to the state the court was in when I left it.
There weren’t any lines. It was just a net on a large patch of grass.
I had to get there early. I had to see this lawn transform into a tennis court.
Arriving back in Charles City, Iowa, at 10 a.m., I was afraid I’d missed all of the setup. He said “early,” and I had a feeling Mark was an early riser. Parking the car in front of his house and walking around to the court, I came upon this sight:
The net was gone and the man I assumed was Mark was rolling the lawn. Not wanting to disturb, I stood for a minute until he noticed he wasn’t alone. At that point, he turned off the device, introduced himself as, indeed, Mark, and opened the gate.
And then kept going.
He was in the zone. He had a tennis court to build. His tennis court.
The All-Iowa Lawn Tennis Club is almost 10 years old, but the idea was born 51 years ago, in 1962.
“This used to be the cattle feed lot,” Mark said, gesturing to the lineless, netless lawn. “I grew up in this house.” Immediately, this place felt more important. It wasn’t simply that he had built a court next to a house — he’d built a court next to his childhood home in the space where he used to do his childhood chores. I sincerely hoped he never stopped storytelling. I was all ears. For days.
“My job was to work in the lot, feed the cows and such, and that’s when I got the idea.”
As he said this, a car pulled up. Two people with rackets and tennis balls exited the vehicle looking eager to play some tennis.
“They’re going to have to wait a while,” Mark said, laughing at the sight of a court without lines or a net. “It’s OK, though. Everyone likes to come so early, but there’s a lot of dew. It plays much better in the afternoon.”
He greeted the two and then returned to me and asked if I was ready to work. “It’s good to have an extra set of hands with this, as you’ll see.”
Looking at the patch of grass, I knew there were 11 lines to draw. Two baselines, two singles lines, two doubles lines, two service lines, two center marks, and a center service line.
Noticeable indentations from past lines made it clear where they were to be placed, but it became quickly clear they served only as a guide. The process of drawing the lines accurately, and appropriately, was a more careful one. Not a perfect process, but a respectful one.
“At Wimbledon, they use the string as an edge and go along the edge,” Mark said as he gave me the other end of the string and we both proceeded to walk backward. “I use it as a center line,” he yelled, as he cued that it was time we both stuck our screwdrivers anchoring the now-taut string into the ground. “This isn’t Wimbledon. It’s a replica.”
Upon finishing our first line, something I saw as an accomplishment, Mark walked into his shed adjacent to the court and pulled out a machine and a few spray cans. And then I got out of the way.
There was something that fascinated me about the rhythm in Mark’s gait as he painted. There was a purposeful hesitation in each step, something you develop only after doing the same thing over and over again for years, failing until you finally figure out how to get it right.
After finishing the first doubles line, we moved in and repeated the process on the singles line. Placing the string the same way and puncturing the earth with the screwdrivers, Mark paused before beginning to paint the lines. He found his measuring tape and verified the distance.
A few seconds later, he was satisfied. And, just like that, line two was in process.
As he painted, I chatted him up about the surrounding area. “The farm across the street, is that someone else’s land?”
“No, that’s ours.”
Well then, I thought. Now I knew Mark’s last name. He was Mark Kuhn of yesterday’s “Kuhn family farm” fame. And for a moment, my interest was no longer in tennis.
“How long have those turbines been there?” I asked, feeling like a curious child that’s less interested in answers and more excited about the prospect of asking questions.
“Only four years,” Mark responded. “There’s a street that connects them all. A company called MidAmerican. An electric company. They have an easement with us.”
As I stared out into the field, searching my brain for wind energy-related questions, Mark asked if I was ready to keep going. I returned to tennis mode and ran over.
Next was the center service line.
And then the center lines.
“We got a little fungal disease,” Mark said, referring to the spots along the baseline. “Tried to treat it, but was a little too late. So we’ve got these spots.”
“How do you treat it?” I asked, not knowing the first thing about dealing with a fungus that would have the audacity to attack a grass tennis court.
“Apply a liquid fungicide. And keep off it for a while,” Mark responded. Seemed to make sense to me. “One time I did that, I came home, and there were a bunch of guys playing on it.”
Assuming, perhaps naively, that trespassers were rare given the isolated nature of the court, I asked if that was a common occurrence.
“Oh yeah,” Mark replied. “It always amazes me that it happens. But oh well. It doesn’t happen a lot. But sometimes. And the worst was the time we put the fungicide down. You know, tennis-ball-hands-mouth-fungicide — NOT GOOD.”
Our conversation took us to the other singles line, where we lined it up with a string and he began painting every other line. Three-quarters of the way through, however, the can emptied.
Walking away from the court into a second, larger shed that contained Mark’s farming equipment, we began talking about the schedule of the court.
“We usually start playing on the court by Memorial Day,” Mark said, “but this year we actually didn’t open up for a lot of play until the first week in July, due to a wet spring. And then we go all summer into fall, but by October I’m starting with the harvest and don’t have time to do all this, because I’m harvesting corn.”
Mark Kuhn had a hell of a life. He was like a two-sport athlete, playing tennis for half the year and then switching it up and harvesting corn for the rest of the year.
As I daydreamed about the two things I’d like to be doing in my sixties, eventually landing on tennis and weekend radio Slow Jamz DJ, we finally entered the shed.
“Mark Kuhn: State Rep.”
And the Mark Kuhn plot, again, thickened.
“So, are you still a state representative?” I asked, stunned by this new finding.
“I was, from 1998 until 2010.”
Ruling out the possibility that he may have lost, and assuming he gave up the dirty world of politics to focus on his love of tennis, I continued:
“So you were just ready to get out of the political sphere?”
“Well, actually now I’m at the county level,” Mark said, smiling. “I’m on the County Board of Supervisors. We’re the executive branch of the county government. And there’s only three members on that board, but in the legislature there’s 150 and the governor. It’s actually more enjoyable. You can implement some of the things we did in Des Moines. And I don’t have to drive to Des Moines.”
He grabbed the new spray cans and we walked back to the court. “And this isn’t a bad place to be,” he added.
Finishing the singles line and the doubles line, this patch of grass was actually beginning to look like a tennis court.
“Now all we have to do is this net and we’re good,” Mark said, eagerly.
Enlisting extra hands, because the net was heavy and certainly a three-to-four-person job, we put the final touch on turning this plot of land from a cattle feed lot to a fenced-in grassy area to a fenced-in lawn to a fenced-in lawn with lines to a lawn tennis court.
Ever the perfectionist, this final step was certainly not the time for Mark to start taking shortcuts. Everything had to be right, from the net being properly tied to the posts:
… to the height of the net at the center strap.
And just like that, 90 minutes later, the All-Iowa Lawn Tennis Club was open for business.
“Have you ever been to Wimbledon?” Mark asked me, about 20 minutes after completing the court. We sat and watched the two early arrivals hit balls back and forth from his porch.
“No, it’s very high on my life bucket list, though. One day. You?”
“The last two years,” Mark answered quickly. He had a giant smile on his face. I could tell he wanted to talk about this.
“So you saw Murray?” I jealously inquired, remembering watching the Scot win from a hotel room in New Orleans.
“Actually, I didn’t see him this year. I did last year, though. Last year, I was there the whole time. This year, we were there for the first seven days.”
“How was being there the entire time, last year?” I continued, feeling as if he had a story.
“Well, I’d been sending letters to the Wimbledon head groundskeeper, a guy named Eddie Seward, but never got a positive response back. Later, I found out they were all form letters — they get about 150 to 200 requests a year. But then in 2006, Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Wertheim wrote a story about [this] place and then they came and did a video, he came with the Tennis Channel, and the video ran during the championships two years ago. And then the video was sent to the club secretary at Wimbledon, a man named Martin Guntrip, and all of a sudden I got an e-mail from the head groundsman inviting me to “intern,” which is what I wanted to do. So, in 2012, I interned at the All England Club for EIGHT days.”
I’d never seen someone happier to label himself an intern in my life. And at that moment, I could tell how much tennis, and Wimbledon, and this creation he’d built meant to him. By building this, partially for his own enjoyment, mostly for the enjoyment of others, he was giving back to the sport that had given him so much.
Mark was an accomplished man, as I’d learned over the course of the day, but the joy in his voice when he described finally making it to Wimbledon, after building a court inspired by that very place, was pure elation.
You know, the Christmas-morning joy. And it was infectious. I needed these two people on the court to leave immediately. I had to play on this court. With Mark.
Retrieving my things from the car, I asked to change clothes inside the house. Walking through the house, it warmed my heart to know how tennis consumed this family. The newest issue of Tennis magazine sat by the toilet. The purple-and-green Wimbledon towel hung in the restroom. A Wimbledon ticket stub was affixed to the wall. A collection of wooden rackets sat above one of the doorways.
The passion was phenomenal. And then I walked outside and met the dogs, one of whom was named Murray.
Short for Andy Murray.
This was the best.
A few minutes later, Mark walked outside, outfit changed, ready to play.
“You see these?” he said as he walked toward me. I looked at him, then looked down.
Mark Kuhn, former Iowa state representative, was showing off his matching FILA/Wimbledon sneakers and socks. Somehow, the roles had been reversed. I suddenly felt like a proud dad. Like I was about to drop him off at junior prom. This was heaven.
And then he ran back inside. Two minutes later, he opened the front door and gestured me inside. “Put your shoes on in here,” he said, waving me into the living room.
The occasion? Mark Kuhn needed me to see something on television. His DVR, to be specific.
It was last year’s Wimbledon coverage. During the morning show, Breakfast at Wimbledon, they showed highlights from a semifinal match. After one highlight, the camera panned to the crowd and Mark paused the action.
But it was blurry. So he rewound it.
We watched it again, and then he paused it again.
This time, it was clear. And in the front row, standing up and cheering: Mark Kuhn.
Mark Kuhn was on television, Mark Kuhn went to Wimbledon, Mark Kuhn had great seats at Wimbledon, and now Mark Kuhn had proof until the end of time that all of these events took place. And I couldn’t have been happier for him. He deserved it.
Finally, after a four-hour buildup, we walked out on the court to play tennis. Before I hit the first ball in play, he shouted across the net, “There’s no charge to play here, by the way. Just sign the guestbook.”
Many thanks to Maxwell Neely-Cohen for the recommendation.