The rise in tennis participation has been a rare bright spot in 2020; how do we keep it going in 2021? Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor give their ideas in this week’s Rally.
As you wrote last week, in a time of social distance, tennis is a viable form of exercise. It’s great to see that the courts are crowded—and that all this is happening without any need for league tennis or tournaments.
What this tells me is that people are enjoying tennis very much as a highly local process—be it with practice matches, drills, rallying, lessons, backboards, ball machines. This is quite a contrast to the more obvious, outcome-based activities that so often define tennis communities.
There’s a cozy dimension to what’s happening in the recreational world now that to me is the essence of community tennis: the sheer joy of play. And it can also be quite edifying. With no focus on generating results, this is a great time to learn new skills and tactics. I’ve seen too many recreational players compete into a corner, limiting themselves to only receiving in one court, or never learning a proper spin serve, or failing to have a proficient overhead—all because what’s most important is next weekend’s league match. Yikes, what a short-term passage to burnout.
My hope is that those in various tennis organizations recognize the current gestalt as an opportunity to further connect with millions of recreational players. Were I in charge of a teaching group like the USPTA or PTR, I would showcase instructional content and in the process both empower instructors and encourage players to invest time in lessons. Or at least provide them with a set of drills that can sharpen a stroke or a tactic. Ditto for the various independent online instructors. Stressful and painful as the pandemic is, recreational tennis players might well now be more open than usual to new ideas and approaches.
The same holds true with the ATP and WTA. Alas, the pro tours strike me as communicating to the tennis fan base largely as if they were strictly spectators—as if tennis was just like the NFL. But whenever I sit in the stands at places like Indian Wells and the outer courts of the US Open, I see tons of people who aren’t just watching. They’re studying. They want to learn from the pros.
So now, as people are taking to the courts, it would be great to see the ATP and WTA provide ideas on what we too can learn from the pros. Back in the ‘60s, Australian writer Alan Trengove created a book titled, “How to Play Tennis the Professional Way,” with chapters by the game’s best on the various strokes—Rod Laver on being left-handed, Ken Rosewall on the backhand, Pancho Gonzales on the serve. Why not similar offerings from today’s pros? A few weeks ago, I suggested that the top doubles players should get in the thick of this.
But perhaps most of all, how fortunate that many of us are able to play tennis these days. How can we begin to define the horrors and challenges of 2020? And so, tennis is a wonderful way to stay healthy and also, at least to some degree, connect with so many dear friends. Perhaps now more than ever, the prevailing attitude is one of gratitude.
What have you enjoyed about being able to play during this time, Steve?
I agree there’s a sort of unspoken bond among tennis players right now, even on public courts where you may not know any of the other people hitting around you. This fall I’ve been playing on weekend mornings at a set of high school courts in New Jersey, and they’ve generally been full from 9:00 A.M. on. There’s a wide variety of people and playing formats on display each day. Men and women, parents and their children, families and solo players, Whites, Blacks, and Asians are all represented fairly equally. They play singles and doubles, they practice and compete and take lessons, they hit and laugh and chat, and a lot of the time they just hit for the pleasure of hitting. This isn’t much different from any other public tennis facility in the past, of course, but there’s a new energy, a new reason for getting out and playing. For the moment, tennis doesn’t feel like a niche sport. It feels like everyone on the courts is looking at each other and saying, “This is a good thing to do.”
As you mentioned above, and as I wrote last week, the surge in players that many of us have seen anecdotally has started to show up in the numbers: According to the Tennis Industry Association, participation levels and racquet sales are up. Now we need to ask: How can we keep those numbers up in 2021, and, fingers crossed, in a world where Covid vaccines have made life relatively normal again? Let me suggest a a couple of simple things:
Encourage people to take the vaccine. I know the USTA is not rolling in money right now, but it would benefit everyone if the organization could get behind efforts to promote vaccination. Judging by how many people are suspicious of the vaccine right now, it’s not going to be a fast or easy process in the States.
Make sure facilities and teaching pros are there to welcome any influx of players. The USTA set aside relief funds in the spring to help keep racquet clubs open, and giving these new players a place to play, a community to join, and a path to improvement should be a priority in the new year. Right now, it’s snowing in New York, which means indoor courts will be the only option soon. If gyms are forced to close, will racquet clubs be allowed to remain open? If so, that will be another opportunity for tennis.
Promote the simple art of hitting. For years, I was a member at a club in Brooklyn where competition was the name of the game; the courts were filled from dawn to dusk with people playing doubles matches, and then rotating partners and playing some more. Since returning to a public facility this year, I’ve been reminded of how many people just come out to hit the ball back and forth. No serves, points, no sets, no matches, no score at all—you just drop the ball, start a ground-stroke rally, and keep the ball going for as long as you can. You and I like to sing the praises of tennis as a test of competitive wills and skills, and analyze the sport in all of its complexities. But there are a lot of people who like it to keep it much simpler, and just enjoy running after the ball and hitting it over the net.
I like what USTA CEO Michael Dowse told me a couple of weeks ago, that the organization is planning to promote tennis as a sport you can enjoy in many different ways. To me, encouraging people to simply get out on the court and experience the act of hitting is a good place to start. For a lot of players, it seems, that’s enjoyable enough.
Joel, how are things where you’re playing?
I only play at one club, so my sample base is pretty small. Still, there’s definitely the sense that we are all grateful for good health, being outdoors and the simple opportunity to hit the ball back and forth. When we see one another, even for a few minutes before and after playing, it’s kind and friendly—everyone also hoping for the time when we can also hang out on our club’s deck and enjoy that post-tennis socializing period.
And you are so right about the sheer act of hitting a ball. These days, there are people I far more enjoying rallying and drilling with rather than my frequent appetite for rough-and-tumble competition. There’s something rather pure about a volley or groundstroke drill that’s far less zero-sum than playing sets of singles. After all, who needs losses these days? Though I do intend to resume competitive matches soon enough, surely the view of their significance will be quite different given what our entire world has been through this year.
Or at least I hope that’s the case. I say this because I don’t like the way league play creates cliques and fosters a rather narrow focus to playing groups, socializing and practice. It drives me crazy to hear someone frequently say they can’t play because they’re busy playing with their team. Since when is Sunday’s match versus Stanford? So perhaps, with league play off the table for so much of this year, tennis communities will look to define themselves in a broader, looser way.
I concur with all of your ideas, Steve. Most of all, I hope that this terrible time has shown teaching pros a concept they know but often forget: They are not merely lesson providers, but need to be community builders. There are many ways to do this, both small and big – from even calling members of a facility to check in and talk about tennis, to arranging simple doubles mixers, to thoughtful emails about the game, and so much more that can truly make the difference between a self-regulated, dreary set of courts and a vibrant tennis community.
What are your thoughts on what makes a tennis community engaging?
USTA National Campus
As I wrote above, I’ve played the majority of my tennis at a private club in Brooklyn over the last 20 years, before moving over to a public facility in New Jersey in 2020. So prior to this year, I would have said that a good tennis community consisted of a group of people who knew each other, gathered regularly to play and then hung out together in the clubhouse afterward, and created a small social haven for themselves that had nothing to do with their work or their family life. And I still think that’s ideal, especially in a big city where you’re anonymous most of the time.
At first, I missed that in New Jersey. The courts are generally full these days, but few people who come to them know each other. After a few weeks, though, I started to like it. I like the variety of players, formats, and levels of seriousness about the game that you see each day. I like the small peak you get into the lives of the people who live in your town. I even like the connection between strangers that happens when a ball flies into another court—as long as nobody puts a hand on it these days.
Somehow this loose, casual form of socializing seems very American to me. It’s similar to the community of individuals you might find at a gym, where everyone comes to the same place, but does his or her own thing once they’re there. I’ve never bought into the nostalgic “bowling alone” theory that says the U.S. is in decline because we don’t join teams or clubs the way we once did. Having grown up playing on public courts, I know that tennis can offer its own, more informal community that doesn’t involve joining anything or paying any dues.
So I guess my first hope for tennis in 2021 is that public courts can become an important part of communities again. In the town where I grew up, public facilities were constructed through the 1970s and 80s, and they were busy; you even had to make reservations at one stage. In the last 20 years, those courts have slowly disappeared or been repurposed—one is now home to the town’s skateboarders. If we can stop this slide and give people a place to hit the ball, anyway they like, for free, I think that will be a victory.