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Champions on and off the Court: The Paley Tennis Family of Milwaukee

Feb. 13, 2023 at 3:15PM

You hear the word "love" on a tennis court with great regularity. Love-love. Love-15. Love-40. In tennis, love means nothing. Zero. Noda. When talking with the Paley family, who founded, own and operate Paley Tennis Center in Milwaukee, they may not say the word love much to each other, but you understand that it's always there just under the surface. In their case, love means everything, on the courts and off.

Paley Tennis Center is tucked away in a residential neighborhood west of I-43 and just south of Good Hope Road. If you've never heard of it, you're not alone. Since it opened in 2007, it's been one of the best-kept secrets of tennis and pickleball players in Milwaukee. Paley Tennis Center isn't flashy, nor does it offer many of the upscale amenities of full-service racquet and fitness centers that operate in the Milwaukee area. Its focus is on tennis because tennis is the sport that brothers Jimmy, Andy, and Bob love. That love was imbued on the brothers, by their father, Phil, when Andy was younger than his own two tennis-playing girls, Harlow, 5-and-a-half (don't you dare forget the half) and Lolita, 8. On the day of our chat, the family was headed to Chicago to support Lolita as she played in a–you guessed it–tennis tournament. The tennis balls don't fall far from the tennis ball tree in this family.

Phil Paley, a nonagenarian and the family patriarch, has been playing tennis for over 50 years.  That's the thing about tennis, Jimmy Paley emphasized, is that this is a lifetime sport. You can start when you're 5-and-a-half or younger, and you can play well into your 80s or older.

"We have three generations right here and hopefully beyond. And by the way, it's not just me that's helping with these kids," Andy said as he referenced his two daughters. "My brothers are here, my father comes every Sunday, we're all going to this tournament, and there's so many more tournaments that will be happening. So, it's a big family event. It's not just a hobby. It's beyond a hobby."

Sign outside Paley Tennis Center
Sign outside Paley Tennis Center

Paley Tennis Center has four tennis courts, pickleball nets, a personal training room, showers, and locker rooms. That's it. No pool. No basketball courts. No all-inclusive workout room. Decades ago, this facility housed one of, if not the first, indoor tennis courts in the city. It eventually was sold and became everything from storage and office space to an auto shop. Since the space was originally designed for tennis, it made it possible to re-imagine the space as tennis courts again as it was the right height and dimensions to accommodate the courts.

Bob Paley, an architect by trade, redesigned the facilities from the ground up. "They had four inches of concrete and the lifts that were used to raise cars when it was automotive," Bob Paley explained. "So, we had to get a machine that tears up highways. They came in and tore up the concrete.  We laid down the asphalt. A lighting company came in and put the lights back in that were for tennis courts. But the main thing was the dimensions worked."

Paley Tennis Center charges no adult membership fees. That aspect sets them apart from all of the other indoor tennis facilities in Milwaukee, which can charge hundreds of dollars a month for membership and court fees. At Paley, if you are an adult all you pay are court fees. If you are a junior tennis player, it's an extremely modest $128 a year plus court fees. Could they charge membership fees? Absolutely, but Jimmy and Andy want to make tennis accessible and affordable for the people who come to their facility to play. It's not just the tennis and the competitive cost that have made this family business, hidden away in a residential neighborhood so successful. It's the passion, dedication and the customer service that makes Paley Tennis Center stand out.

"It's really a second home for the people that come here. Because of the size of it, nobody feels like a number here. They really feel like a person here. And they know our people by name. By first name. So, it's really a special place to come," said Jimmy Paley. "I think that warmth that they feel when they come into the doors is really what keeps them coming back."

Andy and Jimmy both played professional and semi-pro circuits, which they describe as rigorous. When asked why he quit playing at that level, Andy humbly admits that it was largely because there were so many players out there that he knew were just better than he was. However, don't take that as Andy or any of the other Paley's don't know their way around a tennis court. All the brothers, Phil, and Andy's daughters play often, and they play very well. Andy and Jimmy give tennis and pickleball lessons and run drills, while Bob, with his analytical mind, runs the business aspects of the tennis center. Phil offers his wise counsel and advice while mother and wife, Dorene, the Paley matriarch, is and always has been there for encouragement and support. As she demurely stated, "I drove and made sandwiches," to which the Paley boys immediately protested her characterization of how much she contributed.

"She supported us," Jimmy interjected. "The one thing about our parents, and we were very fortunate, whether we won or lost a tennis match, and we played everything from the top state tournaments, the top Midwest, national, college, professional, whether we won or lost, they never stopped being our parents and they never stopped supporting us."

Jimmy and Andy Paley
Jimmy and Andy Paley

If it isn't obvious, when your last name is Paley, tennis and family is what consumes most of your life. In fact, when asked what tennis means to him and his family, Andy admitted, "It's life. It's everything. It's our life. Ya know, it's our careers. It's our passion. I mean, as we were saying," Andy says, extending his arm to his mom and dad next to him,  "they brought us up playing tennis."

Tennis pro Venus Williams said, "You win or lose the match before you even go out there," signifying that tennis is as much a mental sport as it is a physical sport. For those who have played tennis, that sense of self-reliance is palpable. For those who perhaps have not tried the sport, the Paley's say that tennis is uniquely capable of teaching players, no matter their age or skill level, important lessons and provide opportunities for personal growth. Lessons like how to be a gracious loser and a humble winner, characteristics that are sometimes in question these days in the world of professional tennis. Players like Nick Kyrgios, Serena Williams, or Novak Djokovic aren't known for their reserved personas on the court. And according to Andy and Jimmy Paley, that's better than just okay. It's actually beneficial to the game.

"I think it's a good thing and I think they should let it go even more," Jimmy Paley said. "I think personalities in tennis are what makes it more of a spectator sport. I personally think it's good for the sport. They should let them be who they are. To a point, obviously," Jimmy qualified, pointing out that physical altercations should not be accepted.  "You might want to draw the line there."

Andy whole-heartedly concurred. "They're passionate. I get it. As Jimmy was saying, let their personality be their personality. I agree with that. And also, all of their different games, the way they play, they're all different.  If you try to put someone in this cookie cutter, this is how you gotta be, I think you're losing the essence of people. People have personalities and passion. Let them be. You know, make the rules, don't let them cross the line, but let them be."

Phil and Dorene Paley both acknowledge that they are extremely proud of what Jimmy, Andy and Bob have created. "What they have done, and their reputation, and what people think about how they're running this Paley Tennis Center, is outstanding. That's what I love about them," Phil said.

At this point, the Paley's are absolutely fine with their niche in the Milwaukee tennis scene and have no intentions on expansion or attempting to take on the other fitness and indoor court Goliaths in the area. They don't advertise because they don't need to. All of their new business is funneled in by word of mouth from other tennis players. They are happy running the family business on the four courts in the current facility where it all began, but that doesn't mean they are complacent in their philosophy or approach to business.

"I mean you can't be competitive in tennis and get to a certain level and all the sudden just turn it off in the rest of your aspects of living. I think we're always looking to do better. Hopefully we're doing that. Whether it's growing the company. Whether it's becoming better coaches out there. Whether it's making sure the building or the business aspect is improving and run more smooth, I think we're all figuring out how to improve and evolve and get better," Andy said.

"If you knew our father, you'd know he's always trying to find new ways to grow the business," Jimmy Paley said.

"But for us to do what we do at a different location," Andy surmised, "we'd have to be there. That's the tough thing. We're not a chain. So, it's hard to duplicate it."

Jimmy finished, "The size is good. We sleep good at night. And that's important."

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.