Swinging Sanctuary

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: March 2014
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photos courtesy united states tennis association: L to R: Pro players Mona Anne Guerrant and Jake Hall, Elton John, Billie Jean King and Arthur Murray, 1970s.

Now a world-class resort, John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch on Camelback Mountain courted the rich and famous during the sport's 1970s boom.

Most of us know the phrase "if walls could talk," but if the ceiling of the recently renovated Jade Bar at Sanctuary Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley could talk, the walls would listen along with the rest of us. That's because the wooden slats overhead came from the courts of the John Gardiner Tennis Ranch, which stood on the site of what is now Sanctuary until 2000.

Late tennis entrepreneur Gardiner was a proven commodity when he arrived in Paradise Valley in 1967, having founded the vaunted John Gardiner Tennis Ranch resort in California's Carmel Valley. Enchanted by the north slope of Camelback Mountain, with its striking views of the Praying Monk rock outcropping and Mummy Mountain, Gardiner opened his tennis ranch three years later, riding the sport's wave of popularity throughout the 1970s. Professionals like Aussie Ken Rosewall tutored Hollywood luminaries Clint Eastwood, Liza Minnelli, Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby in the art of hitting a topspin backhand, and athletes learning when to poach at the net ranged in stature from jockey Willie Shoemaker to hoopster Wilt Chamberlain. Eventually, the popularity of tennis waned, Gardiner sold his interest in the business, and the resort changed focus. But the mystique Gardiner created never left the property. "The sunset view from the former clubhouse that now houses the Sanctuary's Elements Restaurant and Jade Bar continues to take your breath away," Tricia McKnight, Gardiner's oldest daughter, says. "The wood slats in the ceiling are original; if they could talk, they would tell incredible stories about some very special people."

The man who Sports Illustrated saluted in 1970 as the originator of the tennis resort grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia and attended nearby West Chester State Teacher's College (now West Chester University) on football and tennis scholarships. After graduation and military service during World War II, he briefly taught English and coached football and tennis at Monterey High School in California. "His 1948 football team, nicknamed 'The Big Green Shirt,' went undefeated and was named 'The Team of the Century' by the Monterey Herald," McKnight says. Gardiner left to become a tennis coach at the prestigious Del Monte Lodge in nearby Pebble Beach in 1950. When the lodge decided to focus on golf, he left to start John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in nearby Carmel Valley.

Gardiner exhausted his savings to create his dream facility but still came up short. "When we opened [the Carmel Valley resort] in 1957, we were a tennis ranch without tennis courts," Gardiner told Arizona Highways in 1974. With additional financing from friends, the business eventually prospered, helped along by revenue generated by its associated condominiums. Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Dinah Shore and Doris Day became regular guests and close friends of Gardiner's.

In 1967, Gardiner came to Phoenix to work as a consultant for Vik Jackson, Vik's father Russell Jackson, and William O'Brien, who had purchased 53 acres on Camelback Mountain, including the defunct Paradise Valley Racquet Club that actor John Ireland, actress Joanne Dru, Sydney Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin's son), and tennis legend Don Budge had opened in 1957. The club consisted of five courts and a clubhouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Hiram Hudson Benedict. "Sam Kitchell recommended we talk to Gardiner, as [Kitchell's] kids had attended the Carmel Valley tennis ranch," Vik Jackson says. "Gardiner had visited Paradise Valley Racquet Club in the 1950s and remembered the beautiful setting. We were lucky that Gardiner wanted to pursue new business opportunities at the time."

John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch opened in 1970 with its namesake as partner-president. Both a resort and membership club, the complex featured 41 casitas, 12 casas, 21 tennis courts – including one on the roof of a house – and landscaped grounds. But the resort's singular atmosphere really set it apart. "Everyone was there for one purpose: tennis," Tenise Kyger, Gardiner's youngest daughter, says. "At the instructional clinics and in the clubhouse, there was great mixing as passion about the sport broke down barriers between guests."

The Ranch featured more than 25 professionals on staff. "I learned a lot about teaching tennis and good drills to use there," former teaching pro Mark Nielsen says. "But I mostly remember the free racquets, shoes and clothes we received." The resort's tennis focus had one exception: There were no lighted courts, so competition ended at sunset. "John Gardiner's philosophy was to make tennis fun," Horst Falger, an Austrian-born tennis pro who still teaches at Sanctuary, explains. "But he was also fond of saying that there's plenty of time during the day to play tennis. Evenings are meant to be civilized, have a cocktail, a good meal, and enjoy friends."

Gardiner's feature event was the annual Senator's Cup, a charity tournament between Democratic and Republican congressmen back when ideologically different politicians socialized together. Merv Griffin served as master of ceremonies and the festivities included an auction of celebrity-donated items. Over its 20-year existence, the tournament raised $4 million, which went to Hospice of the Valley, where Gardiner's wife died in 1977. The organization named a palliative care unit the Gardiner Home in 1994.

Gardiner offered clinics at resorts across the country and opened a Tennis Ranch in 1987 at what is now the Enchantment Resort in Sedona. He sold his portion of the Paradise Valley resort in 1993. The property went through several name changes until, after a complete renovation, it reopened as Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in 2001. Guests can still play tennis on five DecoTurf courts.

Gardiner passed away in 2000 at the age of 82, but his impact is not forgotten. He was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Tennis Association Southwest Hall of Fame in 2013. "We had a great turnout and you could feel the weight of Gardiner's reputation at the ceremony, listening to all he'd done and the many people he'd touched," says Jeff Sykes, USTA Communications Manager. "He really was one of the true pioneers of the tennis resort concept, and his name was synonymous with the sport, especially here in Arizona."