A furniture shop's bland facade conceals a trove of tennis history

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 24, 2024

A furniture shop's bland facade conceals a trove of tennis history
Members of the Tennis Collectors of America browse Rosini Furniture Service shop’s displays in Mineola, N.Y. on Aug. 26, 2023. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Corey Kilgannon

NEW YORK, NY.- Rosini Furniture Service is a business that seems like a front for a tennis museum.

In the inconspicuous storefront with a faded sign along an industrial stretch of Herricks Road in Mineola, New York, on Long Island, across from a truck repair shop, the smell of shellac and the clatter of tools emanate from rear workrooms. But all around the margins are displays of the sport’s memorabilia and history.

About 15 years ago, the restoration service’s owner, John Rosini, an avid player and tennis history buff, began collecting old rackets and marveling at how similar their construction and handiwork was to fine furniture.

His collecting grew to include photos, trophies and other items, which he began displaying for friends and any interested customers.

“Someone might come in to get a chair refinished and start looking around and suddenly they don’t care about their chair anymore,” said Rosini of his customers’ fascination with his tennis collection. “And the ones who play tennis say, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Rosini’s family business, which has done high-end work for the likes of the Metropolitan Museum and the Rockefeller family, opened 75 years ago in the New York City borough of Queens near the Forest Hills tennis stadium. The shop has become an unofficial museum of the sport’s antiquities and collectibles.

“It’s definitely taken on a life of its own,” said Rosini, who began by arranging items around his office, but soon annexed the narrow showroom.

Fabric samples on the walls gave way to his collectibles, and “the tennis stuff just took over,” he said, walking past a display rack of antique tennis rackets set up in front of shelves of furniture books. Long rolls of upholstery material were stowed overhead.

Even the bathroom has been converted to a display room, with dozens of vintage ball cans lining the walls, and shelves with binders of photos, U.S. Open programs and copies of World Tennis magazine from the 1960s.

“It doesn’t interfere with me running the business, and it allows me to enjoy the collection,” said Rosini, who has roughly 2,500 tennis books as well as scores of autographs, programs and photos, and 1,000 rackets ranging from the 1800s to one Roger Federer brought to the 2004 U.S. Open.

In a room lined with workbenches and tool racks, dozens of antique rackets are temporarily stowed under a finishing table. Dozens of boxed tennis items were shelved near a midcentury modern coffee table and an 18th-century secretary that were being restored.

Last weekend, the Tennis Collectors of America visited the shop as part of their annual meeting in New York City.

“There are very few collections like this one and they’re almost all in private houses and most are not displayed like this,” said one member, Richard A. Hillway, a tennis historian.

Rosini buys items online and at auction, and purchases collections through word-of-mouth from other collectors.

“I have a compulsive personality. I’m always searching for that one gem,” said Rosini, who has lucked into stray donations from customers.

On occasion, Rosini has bartered furniture work for a choice item. Once, his delivery guy brought him a racket signed by Federer that had been recovered from a wealthy customer’s garage. Retired pro Gene Mayer, whom Rosini knows from church, donated his career trophies.

Rosini would not divulge what he has spent on the collection, which goes back to the beginnings of outdoor tennis in 19th-century England. But he has thousands of items, ranging from postcards that cost a few bucks apiece to rare rackets that cost as much as $5,000.

He paid a New Zealand collector $2,500 for an early automatic ball server created by René Lacoste, and he spent $3,000 for a set of racket-style trophies from the 1884 Wentworth tournament in New Hampshire.

Having run out of display space, Rosini’s buying is restricted by his wife, Rita, who monitors his eBay notifications and is not above changing the account password to impose moratoriums.

“I’m like an addict — I need accountability,” he said.

The furniture business still pays the bills, but Rosini said he plans on making the collection available for tours, and his dream is to open it as a museum.

“I really want this to be seen,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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