Writer / Ann Craig-Cinnamon Photos by John Cinnamon
Zionsville has a new, state-of-the-art tennis center, the Pearson Automotive Tennis Center. According to founding director Rick Witsken, it’s the first such complex built in the Indianapolis area in 25 years. Located at 4560 South C.R. 875 East, the center provides eight USTA regulation-sized, climate-controlled tennis courts, a guest lounge, viewing platform, men’s and women’s locker rooms, and online registration and court reservation. It was established as a 501(c)(7) not-for-profit corporation.
Witsken has been a tennis player or coach for 39 years beginning at age seven. He was a two-time state champion in high school and two-time All-American at the University of Alabama and played professionally for three summers. He founded the Tennis Center as a way to honor the memory of his brother, Todd Witsken, who died at age 34 of brain cancer in 1998. Todd was a three-time All-American at the University of Southern California and pro tennis player who reached a career high ranking of number 43 in the world in singles and number four in doubles. His most memorable win was at the 1986 U.S. Open when he beat five-time U.S. Open Champ Jimmy Connors.
Before starting the Pearson Automotive Tennis Center (PATC), Rick started a company called “Team Witsken” which offered tennis programs on two indoor courts at an apartment complex in northwest Indianapolis for 17 years. During summers, Team Witsken offered programs at fifteen different sites in Zionsville, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville.
Four years ago Rick and three friends started talking about building a tennis center in Zionsville. “I wanted to honor my brother in a more explosive way than a two-court apartment complex,” says Rick. What began as a vision for four guys has turned into reality. “Certainly not easy to get this vision to come to fruition seeing as how there hasn’t been an indoor tennis center built in 25 years in Indianapolis,” says Rick. He adds, “We wanted to create a community center, a not-for-profit that would be awesome, not just for the city of Zionsville but the outlying communities as well.” The center’s location is fitting as Todd lived just a mile down the road from it.
Pearson Ford stepped up and supported the center by becoming the title sponsor. Rick says families starting jumping in as founding members to help get it off the ground. Armed with this support and a bank loan, the vision became a reality. The center is now up and running and offering tennis lessons. At full strength, the Pearson Automotive Tennis Center will offer lessons, clinics, leagues, and pickleball classes. It plans to host premier tournaments at the local and district level, with the goal of holding national tournaments as well. High schools in the area will have the opportunity to use the facilities when needed. The mezzanine area will have ping pong tables and big screen televisions and offer a place for people of all ages, especially young people, just to come and hang out.
Witsken says he spent a lot of time and effort finding the right staff to embody Todd and Team Witsken. “We have a staff that is operating
under a team approach, not isolated pros with their isolated students. It is a full-team approach. Our goal is to save lives by getting kids off their cellphones and off their electronics and enjoy a healthy active lifestyle. And adults, too,” says Witsken. He says that the PATC has the highest level of expertise in the state of Indiana.
One of the people that Rick recruited was P.A. Nilhagen, who was both his and Todd’s coach. Nilhagen, who is originally from Sweden, has taught tennis for 44 years. He made the Junior Davis Cup team at the age of eighteen before winning a scholarship to Western Kentucky University. After graduating in 1973, he was offered a job as head pro at the Northeast Tennis Club on Shadeland Avenue in Indianapolis. His next teaching gig as director of junior development at Washington Township Schools lasted 39 years.
That’s where he met and coached the Witsken brothers, and he’s coached Todd’s son, Tyler, too.
Coach Nilhagen reminisces about his protégé, Todd, proudly proclaiming that he was ranked Number one in the world in doubles for a couple of weeks and rattles off many of Todd’s statistics. He says he was privileged to be able to travel the world with Todd to many of his tournaments. He had nine wins over top 10 players in the world and five of those were in Grand Slam tournaments.
Being part of Team Witsken is second nature to Nilhagen, and he’s very pleased with what he has seen so far at PATC. “I think the design is excellent and the quality is top-notch. I’ve not seen a club like this in the Midwest in a long time. I think the unity of the staff will be a very big plus. We’re all going to work together as a team, which is something you don’t see in a lot of clubs in this business. Egos are a little bit on the line all the time,” says Nilhagen.
Another person Witsken brought on board as a teaching pro is Stephanie Hunn, who grew up with Rick and was also coached by Nilhagen. She was an All-American at Indiana University and played on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour from 1992-1996. Hunn, who has been teaching tennis since 1996, likes the year-round and community aspect of PATC.
“There’s definitely a need. The big draw is getting those kids that would normally play elsewhere staying in Zionsville year round or starting to play year round, and adults, too.” And she believes it will provide a great and safe environment.
Kurt Ehrhardt is director of men’s tennis and will run men’s and junior clinics. Ehrhardt describes himself as “obsessed” with tennis after playing at Brownsburg High School and then earning a scholarship to Indiana State. He taught tennis in Indianapolis, French Lick, Kokomo, and Muncie. Then in 1980 he had an opportunity to teach in Germany. Ehrhardt ran several academies across Europe started by well-known tennis guru Vic Braden before opening his own academy. But Indiana is home, and he returned here in 2007, serving as director of men’s tennis at Five Seasons from 2008-2016, as well as working in junior development at Five Seasons and Washington Township.
He has high hopes for the PATC. “I’m excited that tennis is getting away from the country club and going into a community setting. Because it’s a non-profit, I think that adds another dimension that everyone can come and play and learn a sport for a lifetime, says Ehrhardt. He summarizes why he feels tennis is such a great sport: “First of all, it’s very healthy for everybody of any age. Second, they can play it for a lifetime. Three, it’s very structured, which kids need nowadays. And it’s a mental, physical, and emotional game. All three of those combined prepares people for life very well,” says Ehrhardt.
Rick Witsken agrees. “It’s a lifelong sport. Tennis is proven and ranked number one in personal growth and development, and I can honestly say that every kid I’ve coached for 17 years through Team Witsken has gone on to be successful. I don’t recall one student who was a dropout, a failure, a druggie, nothing like that. Tennis molds people the right way,” he says.