Your first visit to the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA Tennis Center can be a somewhat harrowing experience. Once parked inside the World Trade Center building, where the tennis center is tucked away out of sight, you are greeted by a labyrinth of floors and elevators and blank-faced security guards. There are marble floors and escalators everywhere, and a massive catwalk to the adjacent Bonaventure Hotel that offers tempting misdirection. Multiple false starts are common before you finally realize that an elevator transfer was in order all along.
Finally, winded and irritable and very late, you arrive at the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA Tennis Center, where you find a rooftop alternate dimension of irony-free retro-chic, replete with green shag carpeting. You find a fenced-in urban oasis of ball-striking that is towered over by Bank of America Plaza, Citigroup Center and other noble giants of the Financial District. You find helicopters buzzing above as light from the setting sun reflects off the windows of nearby buildings, casting the game in a cinematic hue. You find yourself in a singularly weird and awesome place to play tennis, a place that feels like you have stumbled across something secret and special, even though anyone could play there if they wanted to, provided their elevator transfer game was strong enough.
And, if you went there recently, you might even find yourself thinking I can’t believe this weird, vibrant, special little piece of Los Angeles is closing. The lovable bastion of quirky urban sport that is the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA Tennis Center will shut its doors for good on June 30, 2017, the result of its lease not being renewed.
Chris Robb, the center’s program director, reflects on the pending closure with his legs kicked up on the front desk. “I like that it’s my own world over here,” he says. “I was given freedom, and my goal was to make this the best tennis club in the world with what means I have.”
Robb arrived in L.A. in the 1980s after leaving behind a job in New York running the tennis courts at Central Park. Looking for any role fit for a tennis pro, he approached the downtown YMCA about overseeing Ketchum, which had been dropped in the nonprofit’s lap after previous owners’ attempts to make it into a luxurious private racquet club had failed.
“The Y told me, ‘Well, we don’t really have any money to pay a program director,’” Robb said. “So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Let me run it and give me a hundred dollars a week salary, and I’ll make my money on lessons.’”
The Y accepted that deal, and 30 years later Robb is still running the place, leading drill sessions and lessons nearly every day of the week. Off the court he does everything from balancing the budget to cleaning water off the courts after a rain. On the court, with his long gray hair tucked under a ball cap, he calls out drills with a rapid-fire delivery, peppering instructions with good-natured ribbing. If you can make out everything he says, you might learn something. If you can’t, it’s no big deal. For a place that is surrounded by Fortune 500 companies in a nearly impossible to find location, Ketchum might be the world’s most inclusive tennis facility, full of smiling, chatty players who are just happy to be there.
It’s a vibe that Robb has worked hard to cultivate, relentlessly holding sessions that get people playing in groups, working tirelessly to help players bond over the game, and maybe even weave their disparate threads into a kind of community.
“As time went on, I realized this is a different animal, this place,” he said. “I was used to tennis clubs being more social. You get done playing; you go out and have a drink. Everybody here is from somewhere else. There’s nobody downtown that is going to walk to this place. We’re a business community with freeways on each side. You go home when you’re done, or you go back to work.”
Seen in that light, and given how hard it is to access the courts, Robb’s three-decade run at the center is remarkable. And yet, watching him jaw with regulars, facilitate introductions, and make every single person who walks down the long carpeted hallway feel welcome, it also kind of feels like he is the only one who could have done it. Running the Ketchum tennis facility is what it feels like he was born to do. “Tennis is more than just hitting tennis balls,” he said. “It’s a people thing. I like the social connection. I like when somebody comes in and I get them to meet other people.”
With connections at other tennis facilities such as the Griffith Riverside Tennis Court, Robb has plans to continue running programs, and he has a mailing list of Ketchum devotees who want to stick with him. He doesn’t know what the building’s owner, Jamison Services, intends to do with the defunct tennis complex at Ketchum, but he suspects that, with a new Metro stop going in at nearby 2nd and Hope, the courts will be replaced with development of some kind, either residential or office. (Jamison did not return our query.) There will still be people moving in the shadows of downtown’s giants, but they will no longer be serving out the set.
“Last night there was a class, with five women and another guy,” Robb said. “They were sitting around afterward, talking, and they go, ‘You know what we’re going to miss? Just the view of these buildings.’”