In this week’s Rally, Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker talk about the joys and fears of playing tennis again, and wonder whether this relatively safe sport might experience a resurgence.
It was terrific to resume playing tennis a few weeks ago. It had been two months since I’d last been on a tennis court. This was the longest gap since I first picked up a racquet nearly 50 years ago.
As is often the case after a layoff, the first few times back on the court involved concurrent delight at the chance to hit again, an ample amount of poor ball-striking and an expectation that the rust would soon enough dissolve.
But of course, all was magnified by the circumstances of shelter-in-place and effectively managing life amid COVID-19. This includes the need to wear a mask upon entering my tennis club, concerns about contact with tennis balls and the deployment of hand sanitizer. Call it sneaky stressful—mixed in with gratitude.
Once on the court, I was very delicate about exerting my body improperly and risking any kind of injury. I’m 59 years old, and while reasonably fit, having gone this long without playing tennis, I knew that certain muscles would be tight. So these first few times on the court, I’ve made sure to hit with people I know can keep the ball in play consistently. I’ve also opted not to run for a number of balls I’d previously always chased down. Nor have I yet played doubles. A number of people I know are, but I’m confused as to how that can happen while maintaining proper social distancing. After all, aren’t both partners supposed to move to the middle of the court? What about poaching or chasing down lobs? Then again, perhaps I’m being excessively cautious.
With all this in mind, the chance to hit balls for an hour at a time has been quite engaging. Outside of a few baseline games, I’ve just rallied, content to establish a reasonable, cooperative tempo with my hitting partner. I’ve yet to hit a serve. This is very different than my usual mode, which in most cases calls for a short warm-up and then either playing sets of singles or doubles. But this period of isolation, at least for now, has stripped tennis down to its essence: Deploy skills, get exercise. All that outcome-based stuff around competition can wait.
It’s certainly strange (though necessary) to see the social component largely missing. It’s always been fun to hang out with my tennis buddies after we’ve played. My club has a nice clubhouse and deck, from which we can watch several courts, dispense comments about our fellow players and chat about other topics. It’s all closed these days. We enter the club just before our scheduled court time and leave rapidly once finished. Socializing too will have to wait—which I vividly realize is something I miss much more than competing.
Tell me more about how the playing life looks for you, Steve.
Your descriptions of getting back out on the court and hitting balls, even if it’s just to rally, are making me jealous. Getting into a nice hitting rhythm would feel so good after so much time away. But we’ve been slower to reopen, for obvious reasons, here in New York City. Members can play at my club in Brooklyn again, with precautions in place, but it’s a fairly long subway ride away for me. So far, that, and a chronically sore back, has been enough to keep me away.
What I’ve heard from other players and club members, as well as from you, is that the experience has become more purely tennis-focused. The clubhouse and locker rooms are still closed, and nobody wants to get too close to each other for too long. That means players get out of the car, walk to their court, have their hitting session, get back in the car, and go home. Like you say, the days of hanging around the club, catching up on gossip, maybe watching some pro tennis on a big screen, are over for the moment.
In theory, this should take away much of what we love about tennis. But this new isolation seems to have an upside for some: Namely, they don’t have to hear about or think about the latest pandemic news while they’re at the courts. Tennis can become a refuge for an hour or two, a place where you’re immersed in an activity. You feel like you’re in control of what you’re doing, rather than at the mercy of this invisible menace.
In the past, when I’ve come back from layoffs, I’ve been surprised by how physical the sport is. Watching on TV, it all looks so easy, so smooth and frictionless. But when I get on the court, I remember that the ball is heavy and it fluffs up; you have to swing hard to make it go anywhere; and you have a lot of ground to cover from one sideline to the other.
Overall, though, it seems to me that the pandemic has given tennis an opportunity. Recently I saw a list of activities that were ranked by how likely or unlikely they were to spread the coronavirus. Tennis was among the very safest, safer even than golf. Do you think this could lead some people back to the courts in the future, Joel? And you have you also felt like the sport has been a refuge for you?
No question, tennis is certainly a refuge, both emotionally and physically. But I’d also say this is true only partially. After 9/11, tennis was a distinct form of escape, a chance to put the tragedy of those events aside in a significant way. After all, outside of my club’s flag flying at half-mast, there was no visible, physical reminder of what had happened.
But so much from our current situation is present. Arriving to play tennis wearing a mask. Constant hand-sanitizing. Managing the balls. As reasonably easy as it is to make these adjustments, the need to do so is a constant sign that the pandemic is not merely something that has occurred. It’s happening, now. I know with me, for example, that these new rituals are a major reason why I hardly feel in a place emotionally to yet do much other than rally. The idea of playing a set feels overwhelming right now. And though I’ve been invited a few times to play doubles, I remain personally leery and have yet to say yes. Besides, the exercise of singles is far more beneficial to my game.
As far as tennis becoming more popular goes, I have heard from people all over the country, in places like Alabama and California and Ohio, that courts are becoming more crowded than they’ve been in a while. Is that because tennis is fairly safe compared to other sports? Or have some long-dormant players decided to take their racquets out of the closet and start playing again? Fascinating. I would love to learn what’s drawn them back to tennis.
Perhaps indeed, now is the time for a tennis resurgence. If that happens, I’ll be curious to see what shape it takes, if any. Will club members perhaps be a little less snobby about who they deem worthy as a hitting partner? Will players at parks also be more welcoming? Might instruction change? Several instructors have told me that they will now be conducting group lessons with no more than four players on a court. How will that affect instruction, both for adults and children? And what kind of role does the pro game play in this? I’ve seen for years how there’s more playing during events like Wimbledon and the US Open, many recreational players inspired by the greats.
In all of these cases, be it park, club, teaching court or watching on TV, I hope the spirit of gratitude is highly present. This sounds like one of those social science experiments that assess the extent of a person’s willingness to change their attitudes and behaviors.
Steve, what do you think might change in the world of recreational tennis?
You make a good point: We can run from the pandemic, but we can’t outrun it. The signs of how we live now—masks, sanitizer, no handshakes at the net and much less socializing in the clubhouse—are inescapable, even at our tennis courts. So is the feeling of constant uncertainty that the ever-more-mysterious coronavirus brings with it.
If tennis is going to make the most of this potential opportunity, I think it would be wise for the sport to emphasize its health benefits, both mental and physical. Gyms largely remain closed, and you have to wonder whether their popularity will decline even after they do reopen. For instance, I’m not sure when it will be safe to play my other racquet sport, squash, which happens indoors, in a tight space, with no chance for distancing of any kind. That’s true for everything that happens at a gym.
So there will likely be people who normally get their workout on a treadmill or in a spin class who will be looking for an exercise alternative. Tennis, which keeps us 70 feet or so apart, should fill that void nicely.
The same is true for our mental health. With so many of our traditional gathering places locked down, we need outlets and distractions and places where we can blow off steam and regain our sanity more than ever. Just seeing the vast red-clay courts at the exhibition event in Serbia this weekend felt like an escape (though the fans packed together in the stands was a little jarring, and worrying). Recreational tennis can be an escape, too, and a form of socializing. We might not be able to hang out and have a beer afterward, but we can share time with our opponents and doubles partners.
That’s where the spirit of gratitude you mention comes in, Joel. Tennis as an activity, as a form of exercise, as a mental refuge, is going to feel more important than ever. But if your experience is any indication, tennis as a forum for fierce competition is going to feel less so. That should be a shift we all welcome, and that we try to keep alive for as long as the pandemic lasts and beyond.