Many who’ve played on the red clay tennis court adjacent to Mary La Fratta’s childhood house say it looks just like the French Open. It feels like the French Open, too.
Though red clay courts are more common in Europe and Latin America, the 50-year-old court that La Fratta’s late father built is the only one in the Richmond area and one of a few in Virginia, according to Matt Magner of World Class Courts, whose company reconditions about 100 courts in the Richmond and mid-Atlantic areas every spring.
In a sport dominated by hard courts, at least in the U.S., the Richmond area’s only red clay tennis court has begun to unite parts of the tennis community once again. As a kid, La Fratta remembers how it was always bustling with neighbors, friends, her seven siblings and top junior players from the area. During the years since its construction, the court became an “eyesore” as its usage declined, La Fratta said.
But a few months ago, La Fratta and a few others refurbished it, a laborious process that involved importing Italian crushed red brick and continuous maintenance since. The court’s revival has been nostalgic for La Fratta, who’s been the court’s primary caretaker since her father, Charles La Fratta, passed away in 2009. It’s returned the privately owned court to its original, and improved, state — a staple for some in the Richmond tennis community.
“Club La Fratta … the best place you can play on, the best clay,” said Michael Zuccaro, a young tennis player who lives near the La Frattas’ house in the West End of Henrico County. He joked that he’d come up with the name “Club La Fratta” when people asked about his home court because he didn’t belong to an official club.
La Fratta said kids from the area watched stars like Rafael Nadal slide four feet into a shot a few weeks ago at Roland Garros, and now try to replicate that on her family’s court. For older players, the court’s surface is softer on the joints than hard courts, former VCU head tennis coach Paul Kostin and numerous others said. On the red clay, the game is easier because the ball feels like a “watermelon,” said Gordon Macgill, who helped revamp the court recently.
“I love seeing really good tennis players who know how to slide on the real stuff,” Macgill added. “This is definitely the real thing.”
The court’s conception began one summer 50 years ago when La Fratta’s grandfather left $2,000 for the family after his death and requested that they use the money to do something for the whole group. To this day, La Fratta doesn’t know why her father chose a red clay court. At the time, no one in the family played tennis or owned a racket, she said. It may have been for the sake of a summer project, or because red clay was plentiful in the West End, but La Fratta remembers her oldest brother and her dad borrowing a tractor from a friend.
La Fratta said her brother and father drove it along rural country roads and used it to rip out the grass on the lot and level the court. Then, when La Fratta’s father noticed mounds of red clay at a nearby construction site, he asked them to dump some of the excess in his yard.
At about 10 years old, La Fratta and her younger sister were on “rock duty,” picking rocks out of the clay and clearing the empty lot. Her other siblings helped with the court’s construction, too. Another man who lived on Church Road then had built two clay courts in the same way and surrounded them with a turkey wire fence, so La Fratta’s father did the same.
They didn’t have much money at the time, La Fratta said, so the court’s first net was a sewn up one that the nearby country club had thrown out. The kids’ first rackets were bought using green stamps — they saved stamps in a book, earned from store purchases, and traded them in for prizes. The courts’ first lines weren’t permanent like the professional nylon ones that World Class Courts recently nailed down, La Fratta said.
“Every time it would rain, our hearts would break, we’re like, ‘Oh, there go the lines on the tennis court,’” La Fratta said.
Some of her siblings were older when La Fratta’s dad put in the court and weren’t as invested in learning, but the youngest sibling, Lisa, went on to play tennis at Notre Dame.
But as the siblings moved out, the court deteriorated with time.
The idea to refurbish the court started during the pandemic when La Fratta had free time to clean it up. She wanted to improve it without altering it too much from her dad’s original vision, said Jill Campbell, a family friend.
It began when a junior tennis player named Ryan Monroe noticed the court while doing some yard work at a nearby house and asked whether he could play with his friend, Drew Campbell, another junior player and Jill’s son.
La Fratta agreed — more frequent use made the court easier to care for — and soon a handful of adults and youths were coming by. One, Macgill, a friend of Campbell’s mother, received a text from Drew and Monroe saying, “You’re not going to believe it, we’re playing on a clay court. You’ve got to come play.” Macgill did, bringing former Douglas Freeman High School teammate David Gibbs to play a handful of doubles matches.
“At the end of each match we’re like, man, if we just find a couple people to get together and get some real red clay to put on this court to turn it into what you see in Europe, wouldn’t it be great?” Macgill said.
Previously, La Fratta tried to revitalize the court when Magner — co-owner of World Class Courts — laid down a top dressing of red clay a few years ago. It looked fantastic initially, but with few people playing on it, “it doesn’t take long for it to get rundown,” she said.
Macgill wanted to try again and suggested importing Italian crushed brick. Through a group chat where he was officially introduced to La Fratta, he pitched the idea and promised to help with the refurbishing process and the upkeep. He said he’d bring friends to play on the court frequently so the updated version would remain in good shape. La Fratta agreed.
“Well don’t you know, Gordon came back the next weekend with a shovel, and I knew he meant business,” La Fratta said. “We decided if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.”
La Fratta ordered the Italian red clay through a Charlottesville-based company called Har-Tru, but the first steps were fixing a drainage issue on one corner of the court where water previously collected. To complete the repairs, Macgill worked alongside a young man whom he mentors during afternoons.
“He and I are doing different jobs in the community and special projects that come up, like fixing up red clay courts,” Macgill said with a laugh.
Macgill didn’t have previous experience with drainage systems and said this one was “intricate,” but the two spent a few days digging trenches and laying new irrigation pipes. Looking back, he said La Fratta’s late father probably got a laugh out of them trying to figure out the correct way to fix the pipes that he laid 50 years prior.
When the crushed red clay arrived, Macgill analyzed a YouTube video of how the court at Roland Garros made to lay down the clay. He had help from one person with prior experience in court maintenance, too.
After it was finished, Macgill and others rolled the court daily for the next two weeks to compact the surface.
Magner said the two tons of Italian crushed brick that La Fratta ordered for the refurbishing isn’t what makes the court unique — it’s actually somewhat common. “Anyone can get that top dressing, but as far as what’s underneath their court, no one really has the real red clay that they actually built the court with,” Magner said. Instead, most have concrete layers underneath.
Now, the court is returning to its original lively state. This Memorial Day weekend, La Fratta held a kickoff party with those who helped refurbish the court and some other members of the Richmond tennis community.
It featured some of the best junior players in the area — La Fratta said she was reminded of Damian Sancilio, a member of the Richmond Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame who grew up nearby and used to train on the court. La Fratta said it was exciting to watch the newest generation of players sliding on the red clay.
“It definitely gives you a professional feel with the new clay and the new lines,” said Zuccaro, who played on the court before and after the refurbishing.
La Fratta’s held other gatherings since. Dan Grinnan, who won the 1989 state title at Douglas Freeman alongside Macgill and Gibbs, played with his former teammates years after first coming to the court in high school. The improvement in the court’s condition was like “night and day,” he said. He remembers training on it to prepare for the red clay courts that they used at the Italian Junior Open.
Gibbs, on the other hand, didn’t know about the court back then, but said it brings back memories of when he watched Andre Agassi play on red clay in Florida when he was young. At La Fratta’s court, he coincidentally reunited with Kostin, his former head coach at VCU.
“I didn’t believe what I saw when I first came,” Kostin, the 39-year coach who retired in 2020, said of the red clay court.
As one June evening wore on, a group of tennis players stood by to watch Macgill and his doubles partner, Cherie Lane, face La Fratta and Grinnan. “You’re going down,” Lane said, laughing after she beat La Fratta with a soft lob over the net. The playful trash talk continued throughout the match, but eventually after it ended, La Fratta walked off the court toward her 94-year-old mother, Nancy La Fratta.
“See, isn’t it great to have everyone out on your court, Mom?” Mary La Fratta said, smiling.
“My mom even said, ‘If you can watch tennis from heaven, your dad’s smiling right now.’”