Latest volley in Anchorage tennis debate includes Agassi, Williams sisters

Nathaniel Herz
Venus and Serena Williams of the USA celebrate winning the women's doubles finals against Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova of the Czech Republic during the Summer Olympic Games on Sunday, August 5, 2012 in London, England. Assembly members say the famous sisters have called them to weigh in on the proposed construction of indoor tennis courts in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood.
Robert Gauthier
Tennis player Andre Agassi enters the Downs after making an appearance on the red carpet at the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, Saturday, May 5, 2012. Assembly members say Agassi is among the famous tennis players who have called them to weigh in on the proposed construction of indoor tennis courts in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood.
Charles Bertram

How on earth did tennis legends Andre Agassi and Venus and Serena Williams get drawn into Anchorage politics?

That's the question people were asking after Tuesday evening's Assembly meeting, when members heard testimony from citizens on the proposed construction of indoor tennis courts in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood.

During the meeting, Assembly members revealed they'd received phone calls offering to put them in touch with the tennis greats -- who between them have won 32 of the sport's major championships -- though none of the Assembly members followed up.

"I was truly, truly honored. But I said, 'No, thank you,' and hung up," said Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson.

The man behind the phone calls was John Hendrickson, a former Anchorage resident, state tennis champion, and West High School player, where he said he was coached by current Mayor Dan Sullivan.

Hendrickson said in an interview that he used to work for the tennis stars' coach, Nick Bollettieri. When Hendrickson heard about the Assembly debate, he enlisted Bollettieri to lobby Assembly members out of an interest in making tennis accessible to more people.

"I love the sport, and there's just nothing sinister about me trying to make calls," Hendrickson said. "We're trying to move the ball."

Hendrickson said he'd worked as a coach at Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida for two years in the late 1980s. He is also a former aide to Gov. Walter Hickel, and is married to Marylou Whitney, an heiress and widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt 'Sonny' Whitney.

Hendrickson's connection to the Anchorage project is through his brother, who's the Alaska Tennis Association's vice president.

Hendrickson said he'd been in touch with Bollettieri, and that the coach was ready to ask his former players for help.

"He said he was going to do whatever he could, and they'd do whatever Nick asked them to do," Hendrickson said.

He added that he would continue his lobbying efforts, since a vote on the courts was postponed for two weeks. But it's not clear the tactics will work with politicians in Anchorage, where Assemblyman Patrick Flynn said the evolving debate is "getting to be the weirdest thing I've seen in years."

Assemblyman Adam Trombley said he had not returned a voicemail left by Bollettieri himself.

"He doesn't live in East Anchorage," said Trombley, referring to the district he represents on the Assembly.

Gray-Jackson said that she would be happy to talk to the Williams sisters about another topic. But she questioned whether the tennis players would be able to add any relevant information to the Assembly debate, which has focused on whether the money for the courts could be better spent on other projects.

"On this particular subject, they don't have any idea of the infrastructure, or needs in our community," Gray-Jackson said in an interview.

Hendrickson said the sisters could have spoken to the value of public tennis courts, since they grew up playing on them in California.

Gray-Jackson responded, "We're talking about infrastructure in our community -- not whether tennis is good.

"Everybody knows tennis is a wonderful sport," she said.

There was one other tennis star who waded into the Assembly debate, in addition to Bollettieri's former players: 69-year-old Billie Jean King, who won 12 Grand Slam titles and prevailed over male tennis player Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973.

King wrote an opinion piece in Tuesday's Daily News after being approached by members of the Alaska Tennis Association, according to Allen Clendaniel, who's worked on the association's campaign for the courts.

"I got an email from her assistant saying that she wants to do it," Clendaniel said. "I gave her some information about it, and a draft came back."

The tennis community, Clendaniel added, is a tight one.

"People help out all they can," he said. "And if you can make a connection, people are willing to do it."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.