The tennis courts at Stonewall Park in Manassas, cracked and flaking and warped like a dry river bed, have been locked for the last five years. The chain on the gates has been there so long, it's covered in rust.

Weed-filled cracks crisscross the courts. Foliage grows through one of the fences. Despite the searing heat, a fetid puddle of water covers what had once been a service line.

Even the lights can't bear to look--they are turned away from the courts they had once illuminated.

If there's a tennis court hell, these courts are in it.

But soon, they will be given a second chance at life.

This fall, the Manassas Recreation and Parks Department will pour $160,000 into renovating the courts. The courts will be resurfaced, the lights will be improved, and new nets will be installed.

"At one time, these were beautiful tennis courts, but now we lock them up because they are in such terrible disarray," said Jo Ann Higgs, recreation and parks director. "We were worried someone would get hurt if they tried to play."

The renovation is part of $750,000 to be put into improvements at the city's three largest parks over the next year. Next spring, the softball fields at Byrd Park are to be renovated, at a cost of $100,000. And this fall, the public softball fields at Dean Elementary School next to Dean Park will be rebuilt and get lights, pending final approval from the City Council in August.

Those projects--in combination with the projected completion in September of Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, a joint venture of Manassas, Prince William County and George Mason University, and the proposed construction of a Boys and Girls Club in Dean Park--mark a renaissance in Manassas outdoor recreation.

"I hope that residents will see the improvements in recreational facilities and know the city really cares about improving the life of its citizens," Higgs said with visible delight. "I have never had this much money to work with before."

The projects are being funded by a $10.6 million bond issue.

Growing demand has made improving existing softball fields and creating new ones a priority, said Higgs, who has been parks director for five years.

This spring, 230 children participated in the Greater Manassas Softball League, which plays from April to July. The league had to put 20 children on a waiting list to join. In addition, many of its games, which started late in the day to avoid the heat, had to be called early because of darkness.

"We have no fields, and you can only start so early, so dark rolls in before you know it," said Mike Bures, the league commissioner and a former president of the Greater Manassas Softball Association. "I have consistently, over the past four years, talked to Jo Ann Higgs about more fields, but the city hasn't had the land or money."

Bures said that the current fields are difficult to play on.

"They are tilted; the outfield drops off on one side; there are ruts in outfield; drainage is not set up properly," he said.

Bures hopes to one day host invitational softball tournaments in the new parks.

Additional renovation projects might begin in 2002, when another bond is to be issued. Higgs said one project might be to renovate the city's only public pool, in Stonewall Park.

Other long-range plans focus on Dean Park. In addition to the Boys and Girls Club planned for the park and two renovated softball fields at Dean Elementary, the city is considering moving the baseball facility adjacent to Dominion Semiconductor to 22 acres of parkland purchased in 1997.

"I would love to see Dean Park become our showcase," Higgs said. "And it will happen if I have anything to do with it."