Fort Greene Park tennis hotbed highlights growth of recreational tennis in U.S.

Arthur Kapetanakis | October 29, 2020

At the picturesque Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, New York, the line starts to form before 7 a.m. The attraction is tennis; nestled between the sprawling greenery are six hard courts, freshly painted US Open blue and green.


It’s a scene that has played out daily since these public courts reopened in July, following the COVID-19 shutdown. Around 7:30 a.m., the day’s signup sheet is posted, offering up one-hour blocks of playing time on a first-come, first-served basis. By the end of the line, the courts are booked through sunset.


“It’s been pretty crazy,” said Mohammad El-Haj Ahmad, president of the Fort Greene Tennis Association (FGTA). Pre-pandemic, a line of 20-30 people would be a good turnout for a sunny weekend day, he explained. Now, they see upwards of 50 on a regular basis, and as many as 70 on busy days.


The Fort Greene hotbed illustrates a national phenomenon, as recreational tennis has proven to be the perfect social-distancing sport for veteran players and newcomers alike. Around the U.S., the numbers back up the eye test.


Looking at 2020 third-quarter metrics (July-September), tennis racquet sales are up 38% from 2019, driven primarily by a 43% increase in sales of youth and beginner racquets priced under $50, according to the Tennis Industry Association’s quarterly USA wholesale equipment census.


“Recreational tennis continues to grow stronger than ever throughout the country, especially in public parks,” noted USTA CEO and Executive Director Michael Dowse. “Many new players are taking to the courts during the pandemic for the same reasons experienced players are heading there more often—it’s a physical and mental workout, it’s socially engaging at a safe social distance, and it’s simply a lot of fun.”


Tennis participation reached 10.1% of the U.S. in 2020, an increase of more than half from the 6.7% figure in 2019. This is according to Sports Marketing Surveys USA, which defines tennis participation as the percentage of those ages 6 and up who played tennis at least once in the past year. With the U.S. population now over 331 million, the 3.4% jump represents roughly 11 million tennis players.


At Fort Greene Park, the diversity of its vibrant tennis community mirrors that national population. El-Haj Ahmad (pictured in photo gallery), a native of Palestine, fosters a strong sense of camaraderie among players of varying backgrounds and skill levels.


It’s a place where everybody knows your name, reminiscent of the TV show “Cheers,” complete with an assortment of local celebrities like writer and media personality Touré, hip-hop DJ Stretch Armstrong, and pro poker player Vanessa Selbst.  


“There’s a really varied group of people who come through here, who want to come out and work on their games,” said Touré (pictured in gallery), who, years ago, spent a day at Andy Roddick’s home and ran sprints with Jennifer Capriati while on story assignments for Rolling Stone. “It’s a really beautiful community of people who love tennis.” 


"The park brings people together, no matter the age, the race, the gender,” added Lucy Herrera (pictured below), who grew up in Mexico, playing tennis with her father. “That's the cool thing, what I love most about tennis... It doesn't matter your background, you just have to get out there and have fun."


PHOTOS: Faces of Fort Greene tennis 

Story continues below


For El-Haj Ahmad, his social circle is largely composed of tennis friends, including his girlfriend, who he met through the sport.


“There are so many people that are passionate about the sport, so that keeps them coming back to the courts. That’s developed a lot of friendships. Even if you come out here and meet someone new, or literally just sit here and hang out, it feels good.


“That kind of feeling, a lot of people have it. I’ve heard from people who were thinking about moving out of the city, one of the first things they think about is, ‘I don’t want to leave Fort Greene tennis.’ There are a lot of people that think that way, and I personally think that way too. One of my favorite things about living in New York is this community.”


In July, when the New York City parks department gave the green light to reopen public courts, Fort Greene Park was one of the first tennis centers back in action.


“The community was so ready to get the courts up and running again,” said El-Haj Ahmad. “We had so many volunteers like, ‘Yeah, I’ll clean up the courts,’ or ‘Yeah, I’ll put up the nets.’ As soon as we got the OK, we did that in the matter of a couple of hours, and the courts were full immediately.


“It was incredible to see how it went from nothing to full in just a few hours.”


The courts, which were resurfaced in 2019 with the help of a $20,000 USTA facility assistance grant, have remained full since. More than 14,000 hours of tennis will be played at the park by season’s end.


Sam Burns, FGTA’s director of fundraising, quarterbacked the resurfacing and grant-writing process. A former Division I tennis player at Davidson College, Burns is one of many former and current college athletes that frequent the courts. He’s also the reigning champion of the annual FGTA open ‘A’ singles tournament, one of many tennis events he helps organize at the park.  


Burns (pictured in gallery) joins El-Haj Ahmad as a volunteer on the 10-person board, which guides decision-making, funding and scheduling for the tennis center. In addition to competitive tournaments and ladder play, FGTA also hosts free, weekly lessons for local kids and works with Kings County Tennis League, an NJTL chapter serving youth in Brooklyn public housing, to offer free court time for lessons and supervised play.


While their summer event schedule was limited by COVID-19, their two summer singles ladders still had over 150 players, between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ levels. In just two annual tennis events, FGTA signed up 240 entrants, with entry fees going into the association's coffers for future improvements. They've also applied for a USTA facilty recovery grant, for which a total of $5 million will be allocated nationally to help support facilities that closed to due the pandemic.


“Next year we hope to have a full schedule, with singles and doubles tournaments and the ladders,” Burns shared. There is even talk of providing adult beginner lessons next season, in response to the increased demand from new players.


With November near, the buzz at the Fort Greene courts shows no sign of stopping. The courts will remain open throughout the winter, and both Burns and El-Haj Ahmad expect more morning lines and more fully booked signup sheets in the coming weeks... as well as plenty of hitting sessions of their own. Their personal cutoff for outdoor play: 40 degrees.


As the weather cools in much of the United States, recreational tennis remains hot.

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