Tom Rabbitt holds court at Island Inn
It's 10 am on Sunday morning at Island Country Club Tennis in Oak Bluffs and the courts are packed - just the way Tommy Rabbitt likes them. A dozen men and women play doubles on the three clay courts and about 20 more hang out on the adjacent decks, shooting the breeze about last night's band at Lola's, Obama's choice for running mate, and Mary's new purple outfit making its debut on court two.
While so much on the Vineyard has changed over the years, tennis at this intimate club tucked behind Island Inn and Lola's on Beach Road has remained remarkably the same. Mr. Rabbitt, an eighth generation Islander, has managed the club for 25 years. According to those who play there, he's built not only a Vineyard institution but hundreds of friendships among a diverse group of residents and visitors as well.
"Tom's the nucleus of a large tennis crowd," says Ellen Bresnick, a tennis player for more than 50 years. A part-time Vineyard Haven resident, she has polished her game at clubs all over the Boston area but finds herself happily at home each summer on the courts at Island Inn. "Tom always has a smile on his face and a warm greeting. He's pulled together a diverse mixture of people, unlike anywhere else I've ever played," she explains.
Diversity is a theme echoed by the large crowd assembled this particular Sunday morning in late August. Young and old, black and white, expert and novice - scores of tennis players find their way to this dusty sage green surface.
"I tried to build a club where everyone was welcome, where people could feel comfortable with one another no matter what their background," Mr. Rabbitt says. "If I felt someone wasn't happy with that, I'd tell them I'd put them on our waiting list - the one that only existed in my mind," he adds with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye.
At 73, he is justifiably proud of the club he's built. People come from all over the country - and from other countries as well - to play and socialize here. It's often the first stop tennis addicts make as soon as they drive off the ferry.
Joel Turner, a self-professed tennis junkie, has come to the Vineyard the week before Labor Day for 23 consecutive years. What brings him back? "The game," he declares. He began playing 34 years ago and keeps at it six days a week year-round. While he says the Oak Bluffs public courts used to be the hangout years ago, the club at Island Inn replaced them. "People got older and looked for soft courts," he explains. "Now they come here to play, network, plan their matches. I stop by to see Tom and check in the first hour I'm here. He's a nice, laid-back guy - a storyteller."
Born and raised in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Rabbitt has plenty of stories to tell. His maternal grandfather was a Daggett (an old Island family name) who built the East Chop lighthouse. His father owned a three-story resort in Vineyard Haven near the public library that boasted a clay tennis court. At seven, Mr. Rabbitt began wielding a racquet and helping with the labor-intensive maintenance of the court surface. An Olympic tennis player taught him the game, he says. By 1970 he owned The Sandpiper Restaurant in the same spot and built two hard courts next door. He ran his own residential real estate company, the restaurant, and the tennis club in Vineyard Haven. Then, in 1983, everything changed.
"I had a very close friend who died of cancer that year. I spent a lot of time with him before the end and I said, 'That's it.'" Mr. Rabbitt sold his businesses and leased the three dilapidated clay courts at the Island Inn. "When I first took the courts over, I did it just to keep busy in the summer," he explains. Over the following years he improved the courts, expanded the small pro shop, adding wooden decking adjacent to the courts and the shop and replaced fences. The once-sleepy setting slowly grew into a gathering place for tennis players.
From waitresses to attorneys, manicurists to big city mayors, players found their way to Island Country Club Tennis. "Tom has an instinctive ability to put players together," retired N.J. Supreme Court Justice Jim Coleman says. "He knows the game and has a phenomenal memory for people and their playing abilities. I've met great people here - not just great players."
Diane Morgan, a gregarious blonde and life-long tennis player, joined the club last summer after moving to the Island full-time. "I grew up spending summers here," she says, "but didn't even know the club existed. My kids found out about it and said, 'Mom, you have to join - you'll love it.' I stopped by, met Tom, and he introduced me to all the people I now call my friends. He's what the Island is all about."
Playing tennis is just a part of what people find enticing about the club. Olive Tomlinson, a full-time Oak Bluffs resident and long-time club member, has served on the club's Social Committee for many years. "Thirsty Thursday, round robins, the Columbus Day weekend Empty Out Your Refrigerator Party, barbecues, Twilight Tennis," she rattles off without pausing for a breath.
There are so many activities that Mabelle Thompson, another long-timer, stops by several times a week to visit even though she's taking a break from the game. "I come for the camaraderie," she explains. "I stop by to talk to the gang. Tom's created a place that offers great diversity and companionability - it's been an important part of my life for many years."
From spreading Har-Tru (the synthetic clay surface treasured by players with sensitive joints) to manning the phones, Mr. Rabbitt is on hand from early morning to late afternoon, seven days a week, from mid-May well into autumn. While he admits he is slowing down a little, he scoffs at the idea of throwing in the tennis towel.
"Me, retire?" he says with an incredulous laugh. He looks around at the chattering, tanned faces that surround him on this warm, sunny Sunday morning. "What would I do?"
Karla Araujo is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Times.