A Living Legend

There are people who claim to have the ability to communicate with animals, talk with the dead, and see things that have not yet come to pass. While James “Vern” Houghtaling does not profess to have any of these abilities, I swear he can tell you how far off-level a tennis court is from the inside of his truck two miles away. Somewhere hiding under his signature white safari hat, he has a sixth sense for clay tennis courts.

At 80 years old and standing just a few notches over 5 feet and weighing maybe 120 pounds wet, Vern is one of the legends and greatest innovators in clay-court resurfacing, creating many of the tools and techniques currently used in the industry.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Vern–or rather, pull him off a tennis court–and discuss with him his career and his thoughts on clay court maintenance. It did not take me long to figure out why this man is so revered and loved, and that a bench next to a tennis court is the wrong place to interview a man with such far-reaching contacts. We were constantly interrupted by players saying hello and paying their respects. I don’t know how he remembered and connected everyone to their home club. There was one constant in everyone’s greeting, and that was an appreciation for his work.

How did you get started in clay court resurfacing?

I am an old farm boy raised on a tomato farm. I raised tomatoes most of my life until a hard freeze in 1989 pushed me out of the industry. In an effort to put groceries on the table, I went to work for a private tennis club in Sarasota, Fla. I realized while working there the need to do away with all of the massive hand labor it took to take care of clay tennis courts.

At the time, and to this day, the problem remains–too many courts, too much work and not enough help. With the lack of equipment, time and manpower, the courts could not be taken care of properly. That’s when I started developing the Court Devil Sr. for scarifying, and the Court Rake for raking Hydro-grid courts on wet mornings. That’s what I enjoyed–old farm work. You see, tennis courts are made of sand, and sand is what farming is in, so it all came together.

After working at several private clubs, I started out in an old station wagon with only a wheelbarrow, loot and shovel. It is something everyone started off with at the time, and I do respect their feelings (to the old ways of doing things). I learned by doing and asking questions. It did not take me long to figure out the old ways of taking care of tennis courts had passed, and it was time to come up with better equipment. This equipment would allow me to do more precise and efficient work, making tennis players and club owners more satisfied and happy with their courts. That’s been my goal in life.

In how many states have you resurfaced courts?

I have resurfaced courts all over the South (Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida) I have also managed to do some work in Texas and Ohio. I even did tennis courts for three years in Martha’s Vineyard. The owners flew me in, paid me for my time, and sent me striped-bass fishing. It was a great vacation. Resurfacing tennis courts is what I do, and I have enjoyed doing this for quite some time, and am still enjoying it to this day.

I understand you are quite the inventor. What are some of the pieces of equipment you have invented, and what effect did they have on the industry?

The Tungsten Carbide scarifier, the Court Devil Jr., the Court Devil Sr., the Tennis Court Rake, the laser box blades to go on the Sand Pro, the three-point hitch system on the Sand Pro and a few more that escape my mind right now. With sometimes not enough manpower and time, the equipment I invented was built out of necessity. Most of all, the equipment I create is meant to give the customer the best court possible.

Sometimes what I do is take another man’s invention and turn it into a very good tennis court utensil. The rototiller, for example, has lost its purpose because people are not farming as much as they used to. I replaced the tines on the till with carbide ones, able to scarify a court in a fraction of the time it would normally take someone to do it by hand.

I hope what I have done has given incentive to any man who wants to do something better. I started a lot of things, and I still have a bunch of things to do before I go blind or die of old age.

Why not patent your work and innovations?

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