The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), in SW19, London and the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club (AILTC) in Charles City, Iowa are 4,078 miles apart. During The Championships, 18 of the 38 grass courts at the facility are used for tournament competition. At the AILTC, there is but a single court that hosts all the play.
Neil Stubley, the Head of Courts and Horticulture at the AELTC, has a permanent staff of 15, which grows to 28 during the tournament. Mark Kuhn is Stubley’s “one-man” counterpart. Every year’s third Grand Slam is played in the posh Borough of Merton where The Grounds, owned by the All England Lawn Tennis Ground PLC (Public Limited Company), is a sizeable 42 acres. Kuhn and his wife, Denise, own an 850-acre farm in a city that was the birthplace of the farm tractor industry, and has a population of around 7,400 people.
As it turns out, Kuhn, who will turn 71 in September, was introduced to the game as a nine-year-old when he was listening to a 1960 BBC Wimbledon broadcast hosted by tennis legend, Jack Kramer. He heard it on his grandfather’s short-wave radio. No pun intended – a seed was planted and in time, he began playing local junior tournaments. Years later, it actually took root when he decided to turn a cattle feedlot on his farm into a grass tennis court.
In 2002, he began the project by having truckloads of sandy soil brought to the property in order to provide the perfect foundation for growing tennis court grass. Slowly, he, along with Alex and Mason, his sons, and a collection of friends, turned the plot of land into a playable surface. The AILTC and its one court opened in 2003. (It should be no surprise that the grass tennis court, in the middle of nowhere, is open to the public as long as a reservation is made; donations are accepted for court maintenance.)
Kuhn explained the setting is actually similar to the AELTC and includes a white picket fence surrounding the court and of course, a green and purple color scheme. He wanted it to be “Wimbledon in the Midwest” so people could experience what it’s like to be at The Championships.
He continued, “I interned at the AELTC for eight glorious days prior to the 2012 Championships. I wrote a blog for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) about the experience, and it may still be available online. The blog was turned into a book. You can go to blurb.com and look up my name and read about it in the preview section. The title is ‘Never Forget Your Dreams’.”
“I was there the year of the Olympics and learned how the grounds-staff pre-germinated the seed, soaked the courts, then hand sowed them immediately after The Championships to get them into [match] condition prior to the start of the Olympic Tennis Championships.”
He returned to the AELTC in 2015 with his son, Alex, who was actively involved in the upkeep of the court at home. They were anxious to learn more about the complexity of tending a grass court. (Returning to Iowa after their trip, Mark Kuhn wrote “Wimbledon 2015: Dreams Fulfilled & Mission Accomplished”, a book about their adventure.)
A year later, Kuhn made another visit to SW19 and returned home buoyed by the additional information he had gleaned that would make his court better. Sadly, very soon thereafter, his and Denise’s lives changed unexpectedly and tragically.
Alex Kuhn, who had been elected to the Mason City Council in 2011, opposed the construction of a $240 million pork-processing facility in the area. His concerns about the new development and its effect on the community grew as the company responsible for the undertaking continually altered the agreement in an effort to bolster local support. While discussions were taking place, “Big business” maintained a full-court press to ensure the deal would be consummated favorably.
For being true to his beliefs, Alex was hounded unmercifully. Some townspeople felt his vote against the project would be the reason that the area’s economy and employment would be impacted negatively. Bated and besieged, the turmoil completely overwhelmed him. On July 15, 2016, the 34-year-old took his life.
Grief is always personal. Mark and Denise slowly worked their way through the private process. They finally decide the best way to honor their son would be to annually host the Alex J. Kuhn Memorial Tennis Invitational, a junior team event on the appropriately named Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams. (Kuhn noted in 2016, “Since Alex died, no one had played on the court. I cancelled all the reservations. I just couldn’t host anyone.”)
That changed in June of the next year. “The court has been renovated,” he said. “I used ryegrass and fixed the irrigation system. It’s all part of a plan to re-open and hold a 12 & Under team competition. Both the Missouri Valley (which includes Iowa) and Northern (where Minnesota is located), which are USTA sections, support the new tournament. In fact, Missouri Valley provided a grant so that individual trophies, as well as a traveling perpetual trophy, could be purchased.”
In early July, every year since Alex’s death, with The Championships underway, our thoughts turn to Mark and Denise Kuhn and the tragedy that is part of their daily life. Their son had scruples and at the same time, was charismatic. He was also empathetic and believed, because of his principled stand against building the pork plant, he had let people down. In addition, like many in today’s world, he was endeavoring to balance a range of emotional conflicts, including co-parenting his two sons, Rylan and Collan, after a divorce.
In the aftermath of his son’s passing, Mark Kuhn brought out, in newspaper interviews, that Alex had been bullied by those whom he believed were his friends. (Another story about Kuhn’s death alleged some city officials had sided with “Big Pork” and had bullied several of those who opposed the plan to open the plant…)
In a poignant poem written following his son’s death Mark said in part, “… There won’t be any bullies to burden your way. No words that cut like a knife at the end of the day…”
Other than having seen her compete on television, the Kuhns do not know Naomi Osaka. As it turns out, the Kuhns “Shea dōyō no kimochi” (share similar feelings). At Roland Garros, Osaka, as most know, was chastised for not doing media interviews, fined $15,000 for skipping the required press conference following her first match victory in Paris and subsequently withdrew from the tournament. On Instagram, she discussed having had to contend with anxiety and depression for some time before concluding, she needed to take time to focus on her own mental wellbeing. (In the hope of making continued progress, Osaka went on to withdraw from The Championships before it began.)
The pandemic brought about the cancellation of The Championships and the Alex J. Kuhn Memorial Tennis Invitational last year. In 2021, the fourth annual event, with four boys and four girls from Iowa playing the same mix of players from Minnesota will take place at the AILTC, July 23rd – 25th. A point is awarded to the winners of each of the singles, doubles, and mixed matches.
In the end, the state with the highest total takes the perpetual trophy home. When they are not competing, each of the participants serves as ball boy and ball girl for the other players. (As an aside Kuhn revealed “the age limit for this year’s event has been raised to 15 years old, and Alex’s son Rylan will play”.)
At the end of the competition, tournament officials and coaches select the Sterling Lord/Frank Deford Sportsmanship Award winner. The trophy honors the player who exhibits the best sportsmanship throughout the event.
Kuhn has made it clear, “A primary focus of the annual event is to instill kids with the lifelong values of good sportsmanship and civility. Both values were character traits of my late son. In addition, hopefully it will remind anyone in need of help to seek professional assistance in dealing with depression.”
Though neither the AILTC nor the AELTC held the intended events in 2020, The Championships posted a collection of videos during the tournament’s sabbatical including an emotional interview with Kuhn made in 2019. The views were record setting and the reaction to the presentation was just as stunning.
“I was contacted by a Pennsylvania teaching tennis pro named Ryan Knarr,” Kuhn said. “He asked if he could stage a professional tournament on the grass in which players from back east faced players from the Midwest. He got sponsors to put up $1,400 in prize money. (The winner earned $1,000 and the finalist received $400, and the event was livestreamed on an app.) We went through all kinds of Covid protocols for the eight players and had a safe, fun, no-spectator competition.
“At the very same time as the tournament was getting organized, Denise and I decided we wanted to create a non-profit foundation with the mission – To grow the game of tennis on grass by allowing the public to play on the court, host kids’ tournaments, fund reading programs and keep the Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams open and operating well into the future. Alex was a regular Rotary Club volunteer, and spent time reading to grade school kids in Mason City. The tax deductible donations that come from the court use will benefit causes close to Alex’s heart”.
This year’s Court of Dreams Classic, as the tournament is called, has both a men’s and women’s six player draw and will take place July 30th – August 1st. Kuhn continued, “I’m retired from farming now and can devote my time and passion to developing the foundation. It provides me with another way to keep Alex’s legacy alive. We also participate in suicide awareness walks and are open about how depression and mental illness can affect anyone. The Classic is the biggest fund raiser of the year for our newly formed non-profit”.
Madison Keys was born in Rock Island, Illinois less than 200 miles from Charles City, Iowa. Her grandparents operate a farm in the state, but she was astonished to learn that there was a grass tennis court less than three hours from her home. A vigorous anti-bullying advocate, she decided to act. She made a donation to the foundation. (So did David Kramer, Hall of Famer Jack’s son.) But Keys didn’t stop there. “Madison wants to do a fundraiser event for the foundation that is being planned for 2022 right after The Championships,” Kuhn revealed.
The sculpture of Alex J. Kuhn, with his sons, Rylan sitting on the basketball and Collan sitting next to him, is located in front of the Mason City Public Library in an area with other statues that are part of the “River City Sculptures on Parade”.
Mark and Denise Kuhn, with support from Mason City businesses and individuals, raised the necessary funds to commission sculptor Bobbie Carlyle to design the Alex J. Kuhn Memorial because, “He was a beloved community leader who had a great impact on the Mason City community. And I think he still does. As stated on the plaque that is placed at the sculpture, ‘….May his legacy of civility, integrity and leadership shine on until tomorrow’”.
From the very beginning Kuhn has admitted, “Losing Alex is a heartache that will never mend, but seeing kids playing tennis on his grass court keeps Alex’s legacy alive.”
In a recent e-mail he clarified, “I won’t be attending The Championships this year but hope to return in 2022”.
Whether it is the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club or anywhere in the world, it is critical to remember that when it comes to mental health “searching for an elusive somewhere is a journey that actually often takes prisoners and not travelers…”