Charlestown has a hidden gem, and it doesn’t come in the form of a shiny rock, but rather a big white bubble.
The Mel Stillman Community Tennis Center – tucked away behind Charlestown High School (CHS) and next to the soccer fields – is run by the popular CHAD organization and serves hundreds of young and old tennis enthusiasts, but even so it still has been the best kept secret in the neighborhood.
Offering the unique opportunity for year-round indoor tennis, the “Bubble” – as its adherents affectionately call it – has still maintained a bit of an under the radar presence despite its large reach.
Some have always thought it to be a storage spot for the high school.
A few have quipped that they believed it to be another covered salt pile (as the MassPort salt pile exists across the street under similar, but different colored, plastic).
Still others just never noticed it in the daily grind of life – even after spending hours next to it on the soccer fields and the track.
“It really is a hidden gem back there,” said Charlestown resident Deirdre Sullivan, who discovered the Bubble three years ago. “I heard people talking about playing tennis at the Bubble and I asked them what is the Bubble? I had no idea what they were talking about and I had been next to it on the soccer fields for many years. I was totally unaware of the tennis facility and I had been hanging out right next to for hours and hours all the time.”
That’s the common refrain that Tennis Director Dennis Czech gets from first-timers to the facility – which has really taken off under his leadership and with the support of CHAD.
“It’s in an out of the way place,” said Czech with a laugh. “There are so many people who are surprised when they see it all the time. Everyone who comes here says, ‘Oh my goodness, you have everything here. I can’t believe it.’ For most cities, this isn’t available. We do 500 hours of community service. I think it’s phenomenal. We have 300 members and 500 kids a year that come – with about 99 percent of them being Charlestown or Boston residents. It’s kids, adults and families who appreciate a that a tennis club is here for them to access. Plus, we’re so much less money than any other place.”
The Bubble is actually City-owned property, as is the land, but the programming is done by CHAD Tennis – which has been in existence for some 20 years. They offer all levels of kids’ classes, from ‘Little Wonders’ for 10 and under to USTA Jr. Team Clinics for serious young players. There are adult clinics, private lessons and even Club teams – such as the Charlestown team in the Dorothy Bruno League.
The Center is open seven days a week, year-round, and is climate controlled with three courts for use. Scholarships are available for kids, and they also conduct programs for the Warren-Prescott and the Harvard Kent Elementary Schools – not to mention summer/vacation programming.
There is also a program with the Mass General for eight weeks dedicated to teaching autistic children the game of tennis.
“We have about 1,500 kids a month that we expose to tennis,” said Czech. “For a little three-court place under a bubble, it’s pretty impressive.”
And for those like Sullivan – who plays in the Bruno League for the Charlestown team – that impressive record is something that she hopes, jokingly, doesn’t get out to too many people.
“I’m afraid if I talk about how much I like the facility, everyone will know and we’ll never get any court time again,” she said with a laugh.
Sullivan heard about the CHAD Tennis program about three years ago, and having been an athlete most of her life through college, she was interested in competing in sports again – having put such things on a shelf years ago after graduating from college and emerging into real life.
When she got to the center, after not knowing where in the world it was despite being around it many times in the past, she said she was warmly welcomed by Czech and the other tennis pros. She had never played tennis, she said, and was not very good, but the patience of the instructors helped her and the rest of the Bruno team to not only get into shape, but also to win matches.
“I picked up tennis three years ago,” she said. “I played other sports growing up and it’s been really fun learning the game. Dennis has really taken our team from worst to first. When we started our team, I spent most of the time trying to find people to play. Now, we have too many people and have to turn people away. We’re also now in first place in our league. It’s been really great to be on a team again. You don’t get to do that much as an adult.”
The team plays other teams like the Wellesley Country Club and the Wightman Tennis Center in Weston – both with very luxurious clubs and facilities. When those teams come to the Bubble, it’s a little humbling, but they are proud to have the facility all the same.
“Sure the Bubble needs a little repair and doesn’t look the greatest, but we are so grateful we have a place to play tennis in the city,” she said. “That’s the attitude we take. The Bubble is not the prettiest place and it’s not a country club, but everyone agrees we are very lucky to have the Bubble here. It does the trick.”
In addition to the Bruno team, Sullivan said it was only natural to begin to bring her children to the center.
Now, it’s become a focal point for their lives, especially in the winter when parks are snowed over and it’s hard to find good recreation opportunities.
“Our family spends a lot of time at the Bubble,” she said.
The best part of her experience, she said, was the way the facility is run by Czech and his team – something all of those who use the Bubble agree upon.
“Dennis deserves a lot of credit for taking the Bubble from where it was to where it is now,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think it would be the same place if he wasn’t there. He’s one of the reasons it’s becoming so popular. He’s an amazing teacher. Look at me; I’d never picked up a racket before and I’ve made a lot of progress.”
For more information on the CHAD Tennis facility, call Czech at (857) 600-6036 or e-mail [email protected] There are also several community tennis nights scheduled as open houses in the coming weeks and months.