Working out well – VTC celebrates 15th anniversary

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Connie McHugh knows winning tennis.

Serve and volley. Keep the ball in play. Set up the winning shot. Just what she’s been teaching on the Island for since 1988 and practicing in her business — Vineyard Tennis Center Workout and Spa — for the past 15 years.

Last week, the indoor tennis center and its bustling fitness center celebrated a milestone year.

The nearly 40,000 square foot facility boasts two tennis courts and a mix of elaborate exercise spaces over three floors, including a lounge and function room with a wall of windows overlooking the courts.

While Ms. McHugh and founding partner Ken Martin had a detailed plan, they were coachable.

“John Folino built this entire center, and when we began building, he advised us to extend the building beyond the two tennis courts, showers and reception area to where we are sitting now,” Ms. McHugh recalled last week in an interview in the second floor lounge.

“So we did. We called it ‘the stairs to nowhere’ in those days, but he was right. When we were ready to expand, the building shell was in place,” she said.

The center was not a eureka moment but the result of a long-term plan Ms. McHugh developed to indulge her passion for the sport. A non-tennis playing freshman, Ms. McHugh walked onto her Milwaukee high school’s inaugural tennis team and taught herself enough tennis to make the cut.

The Island high school women players are more fortunate. They had Coach McHugh working with them. The women won their first-ever conference championship “and they’ll be back this year,” she predicted.

After her Ripon College and Northeastern University college tennis career, Ms. McHugh became a sort of vagabond college tennis coach and ambassador for tennis in communities, a skill for which she thanks the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), her former employer. “They had a model for increasing participation in the sport, a lot like what the PGA (Professional Golf Association) is doing now with kids,” she said.

In 1988, she moved to the Island to marry builder Leo McHugh and began a family. By the early 1990s, she was back on the courts, setting up park and recreation leagues, coaching, teaching, and thinking about indoor tennis centers.

In 1995, she met Mr. Martin at a tennis meeting, learned he shared the same vision, and a year later, the center opened for business. “I’d had my eye on this site and one other. We sold founding memberships at $1,000 each, rounded up some investors, put in our own money, and got enough together to get started,” she said.

“We called it a center rather than a club, to communicate that it was open to everybody. At the time, there were several private clubs on the Island. There were probably between 200 and 300 regular tennis players then. Today? Probably there are 400 to 500 regular players,” she said.

Ms. McHugh has spent nearly 25 years growing tennis on the Island, often one person at a time. “I remember one time when Dominique Penicaud wanted to play so badly that Margaret [his wife] came over and babysat my kids so I could give him a game,” Mrs. McHugh laughed.

The business grew, the investors got their money back with a premium, and the bank loan got repaid. Several years ago, Mr. Martin retired and moved off-Island, selling his interest to Ms. McHugh.

Today, the center provides 12 spaces for exercise and fitness training, from Zumba classes to a heavy boxing bag in a third-floor aerie. Each space is designed for its purpose, including sound systems and baffling in the dance studio and some thoughtful touches. While the center is developing its 20-something customer base, it now has a second softer surface added to the tennis courts, allowing high-mileage legs to scramble for those difficult volleys.

Ms. McHugh pays attention to the culture at the center. Staff, including Cathy Ashmun, Phyllis Kugler, West Tisbury’s Maria McFarlane, and Kye (2DaCore) Howell, show up as self-determining professionals. Their solution-oriented approach extended to coaching a photography-challenged reporter this week.

Several are grateful refugees from corporate chain gyms.

“We’ve had four renovations since we opened, and we just unroll the blueprints and our staff goes to work planning the space. They know what they need,” she said.

The fitness explosion has changed the center over the years. “I’d say that 70 percent of our nearly 40,000 square feet is devoted to fitness,” Ms. McHugh said. “This is not what I was thinking in the beginning, but it’s better than what I was thinking.”

More changes to come?

“It’s very clear that a medical model component is coming as our population ages. The theme of our national industry convention this year is — the medical world and health club world together. Physicians, therapists and trainers under one roof. Baby boomers need that model. The American population is in trouble. We’re going to hit the emergency cord soon with cardio-vascular disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity in the thirty to forty percent range,” she said.

And she smiled as 91-year old Chester Wisniewski traipsed through the door for one of his twice-a-week exercise sessions with Ms. Ashmun, who knows him so well that she spells his last name correctly.

15th Anniversary Party, 5:30–8 pm, Friday, Oct. 14, Vineyard Tennis Center Workout and Spa, airport. Refreshments & hors d’oeuvres.

Special Guest Speaker Stephen Esser, USPTA MD Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 9–11 am, Saturday, Oct. 22, Vineyard Tennis Center Workout and Spa, airport. 508-696-8000;

Jack Shea, of Vineyard Haven, is a regular contributor to The Times.