If you’re one of the seemingly rare recreational tennis players who can’t afford membership to some swanky club, then you know the joys and frustrations of playing on public courts. Here is a brief overview of both:
- Playing in your community. Pursuing your passion on your home court can help you feel a part of where you live. It can be really cool to see your neighbors walking by or friends on a softball team in the field next door. When I’m out on the Mountainside Courts in late spring, I watch people from my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey visit the Iris Gardens right across the street.
- Experience of nature. More than some stuffy club, you often find yourself deeper in nature when on a public court. One night with the lighted courts to ourselves, me and my partner Daniel London watched a raccoon rummage through the park trash right by the far sideline. It’s like our match was his entertainment. I’ve also been in the middle of morning doubles about to serve when I look up and see a flock of geese flying above me in formation. You’re also exposed to the weather, which isn’t always a bad thing. I love experiencing the four seasons when playing with my friends (yes, we even play in winter when there isn’t snow or ice on the courts).
- You can wear whatever the heck you want. Sorry tennis snobs, but on public courts it’s the 21st century, and we don’t have strict rules about whites. I know it’s not mannered, but two of my hard core hitting partners in the past insisted on playing with their shirts off. Does that upset you? Then go tell your mother. These courts belong to us, at least for our allotted time. That’s how unconventional we’re allowed to become.
- Democratic demonstrations of tennis. There is something satisfying about seeing the whole spectrum of talent—from the barest beginners looping balls to each other in tremendous laughter and embarrassment to the random elite athletes you’ve never seen before that leave you wondering if you even know how to play tennis at all.
- Close to home. I’m a mere five minutes away from my public courts, which means I can get out there and practice serves before work. During peak times I sometimes walk my dog just to see if a court might become available.
- Free. By far the best thing about public courts is the cost. Tennis gets astronomically expensive with gear, coaching, etc. Court time obviously adds up, so the fact that every match or friendly hitting session costs me nothing actually leaves me feeling less guilty when I do spend money elsewhere on tennis.
- Crowd. Despite seven newly renovated courts down my street in a town that has multiple other options in different neighborhoods, on weekend and holiday mornings it can become impossible to get court time. Even public parking fills up with town residents coming to play softball and basketball, or peruse the iris gardens. (Lately, it’s easier for me just to walk to the courts than try to drive). When you do secure a court, at times you end up anxious as other players impatiently wait for their turn.
- Distractions. I doubt Federer ever had to deal with leaf blowers on the court in the middle of his match or a commuter train passing by so loudly you can’t hear your partner yell the score. Those fun loving beginners mentioned above too often hit their ball into my court right when my partner and I are having our best rally of the match. Then there’s some random kid kicking a soccer ball behind me waiting for his dad to finish his lesson with a pro as I try to serve. This week a fire truck stopped and firemen told my Wednesday morning doubles crew we may want to move, since they planned to hose down a giant wasp nest in the stadium light.
- Pickle Ballers. Lately this fad has taken over, and an older crew in love with the game has a contract with the town that reserves multiple courts, which they mark with masking tape. Even when they don’t have the court granted to them, they demand access to “their” courts. Several tennis players I’ve talked to agree that these pickle ballers have become our official town bullies.
- Though it’s often fun playing in different seasons, a windy autumn or a slightly icy winter forbids planned matches.
- Court Construction/Upkeep. Even though my neighborhood courts have recently been renovated, they definitely slant to the side. Based on other courts in my town, I know quite soon cracks will appear and weeds will grow.
This is just a brief overview of some pros and cons of public courts. I guess it would be nicer to belong to a swanky club, or, better yet, have a court in your own backyard. Even so, it’s not so bad having access to public courts. You get to play tennis for free near your home. And if you have time and energy to get out there, you’re already kind of living like rich people.