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USTA facility recovery grants helping tennis thrive from coast to coast
In conjunction with the broader efforts of the Tennis Industry United program, the USTA facility recovery grant program was announced in May with the goal of defraying costs associated with reopening expenses, including purchasing of health and safety equipment, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the months since over $4.5 million was awarded to nearly 1,500 locations around the country., these clubs and facilities are thriving, making them a crucial part of a recent upswing for tennis in the United States.
At the Brandon Valley Community Tennis Complex in Brandon, South Dakota — a community tennis association (CTA) about five miles east of the state capital of Sioux Falls — Rebecca Blue and others in the tight-knit tennis community were faced with a host of questions as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly. The home of the boys’ and girls’ varsity tennis teams at nearby Brandon Valley High School, the facility is also typically bustling each summer in the suburban community of about 8,000 with youth programming for kids aged 5-14 — but doubt was soon cast upon its 2020 plans, and quickly, in March.
“Right when it all broke open was when the boys’ high school season was supposed to start. As we watched, and their season didn’t happen, we were thinking about what was going to happen to our summer,” Blue, who is president of the CTA and a recently-retired geriatric nurse, recalled.
“We’re basically a summertime organization, and with living in the upper Midwest without indoor courts, all of our stuff happens outside in the summer. We were collaborating with the parks and recreation department in the town and other associations like baseball and soccer — we were trying to all learn together what would be possible.
“I would honestly say that I’m so proud to be a part of tennis because our national organization was so supportive and responsive. When the word came out that tennis was one of the best and safest social-distancing sports that you could do, that gave us a lot of confidence as well."
Blue noted that the funds provided by the USTA allowed the organization to purchase masks and cleaning supplies, as well as more balls and racquets for their summer programming that launched at the start of June — only a week behind its regular schedule.
While Blue estimated that formal attendance was down about 20 percent from pre-pandemic numbers, she said that the facility was also able to hire more tennis instructors to accommodate for court time with smaller groups and other safety measures. In addition, she observed, via the standard eye-test, an increase in recreational play, and also noted that Brandon Valley High’s girls’ varsity tennis season went off in the fall without a hitch.
“The times that I would come to the courts and see mothers, daughters, people in their own nuclear families just playing tennis, I would say that was up, but that’s just my impression of the public courts in town… In general, I would say that the courts were used more than they ever have been. If people couldn’t go to the local pool, they were looking for a way to exercise and have a fun time,” she said. “The grant allowed us to have these little ‘bubble groups’ in each two-court area, and have plenty to equipment, hand sanitizers and everything. With the practicing of social-distancing, good sanitizing processes, sanitizing of balls and all that kind of stuff, everyone stayed healthy and it worked.
“When you look back, all of these things that we did are just kind of normal now, but at the time, it was so foreign and a little scary. There were so many things that were taken away from these kids during the summer, so we were just so happy to be able to give them tennis. Parents told us that, too, saying things like, ‘Thank you for giving us this normal summer activity.’”
While the financial assistance allowed the tennis community in Brandon to get back on its feet, the Balboa Tennis Club, nestled in San Diego’s Balboa Park, has exploded like never before, according to executive director Colleen Clery Ferrell.
“I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never seen the club so crowded. Our membership is up by about 400 — we’re at 1,623 members at a public facility with 25 courts — and we’re just busy all day,” Clery Ferrell said.
"We never used to be this busy from 8 a.m. in the morning to 9 p.m. at night... After we were closed for two-and-a-half months, it's just been great for tennis."
A popular hotbed for tennis in San Diego that's typically home to seven tournaments, over 40 leagues and countless opportunities for recreation, league and social play annually for players of all ages and ability levels — including a Wounded Warrior program — Clery Ferrell described a “hollow” feeling amongst staff and patrons when tennis events and programming were canceled en masse in the spring, before the park eventually closed entirely from March 18 to May 30.
“The only people here were me and the park rangers,” she said. “It was very eerie, very strange. People were upset… but we had to go along with the city and county health departments who were setting the protocols."
The club and its tennis director, Geoff Griffin, utilized USTA financial assistance to purchase everything from tennis ball mowers, allowing for balls to be picked up hands-free, to products including sneeze guards, directional signage and no-touch hand sanitizer dispensers.
"We felt like we were pretty well-covered once we passed all the codes for the county health department to be able to reopen and we had all the sanitizing materials that we needed," Clery Ferrell continued. "The grant from the USTA took a burden off, because we were digging into our reserve funds to pay the bills. It really helped to be able to get all of the things we needed to reopen safely."
Since reopening, Clery Ferrell said, Balboa Tennis Club has not only seen the enthusiastic return of its previous patrons, but has also become the home courts for former players who've returned to tennis and first-time players alike, multiple days per week.
“So many people were coming out of the woodwork that it was flooding our reservation system. We don't want anybody to be turned away from tennis," she said. "I would say that a good 30 percent have come over from gyms or other sports. That's been a whole other education for people who have come from the gyms, the football fields, the basketball courts, other sports, who are taking up tennis.
"It's definitely our hope that they stay with the game, because this has been a great introduction for them and it's been helpful for us."
While the Balboa Tennis Club is afforded the opportunity for year-round outdoor tennis in San Diego, the Littleton Golf and Tennis Club in Littleton, Colo. is adhering to USTA guidelines for playing tennis safely to bring programming back to its six indoor courts, according to Brad Stafford, athletics manager for South Suburban Parks and Recreation.
With seven teaching professionals on staff who offer tennis instruction to adults and youths of all levels six days a week, as well as a junior academy program, Littleton Golf and Tennis typically averages a monthly attendance of about 500 people. The facility utilized USTA funding to replenish its ball supply and purchase a ball mower, as well as face shields, cleaning supplies, masks and spray bottles.
"Our 'Littleton Bubble' certainly gets a lot of traffic annually and we take our responsibility seriously to keep the public safe and want to do everything we can to continue to safely serve our patrons," Stafford said. "Our entire recreation district had to cut budgets in nearly every area, so it was immensely helpful to have this USTA grant so we could ensure we would be ready to go with new tennis balls and equipment when things did open back up."
Upon resumption, Littleton, too, was eager to return to the courts.
"Our main goal is ensure that our patrons are taking the necessary precautions to maintain distance when breaks are taken, and when entering and exiting the courts," Stafford said. "Despite the pandemic, participation in our programming has certainly not slowed down. We have seen the general public eager to be able to participate in our classes and have had a record amount of participants enrolled and waitlisted to get in."
The hard work and dedication of clubs like these has no doubt been a factor in more tennis being played across the country. In the third quarter of 2020, racquet sales increassed by 38 percent from 2019, according to the Tennis Industry Association’s quarterly USA wholesale equipment census, and tennis participation reached 10.1 percent of the U.S. population, an increase of more than half of last year's figure.
From Brandon, Littleton and San Diego to everywhere else in between, it's apparent that those numbers on a page are playing out in-person on the courts.
"Based on the positive feedback and participation we’ve received so far, we are hopeful that our patrons would continue to participate in the programs we offer," Stafford continued. "Offering USTA adult tournaments is another big thing that we are looking forward to hosting again. We have hundreds of players sign up for our annual tournaments and know the public is eager to get back to some friendly competition.
"We know that our patrons want to continue to play as much as they can, so it is more of a matter of finding a good balance to keep everyone safe so that we can continue to play the sport that we love."
Added Clery Ferrell: "This is also a time to capture the new market... and new members, people new to tennis. One of my employees is a basketball player... and with basketball not happening, no indoor gyms, he's taken up tennis. He's playing five days a week. Hopefully, he'll stay. He realizes it's not going to happen overnight, but he loves the sport. People like that are a good example, and hopefully, that will happen across the board at all levels. If we all work at it, we can help retain these people and keep tennis up on top where it belongs."
Photo: Youth tennis players hitting the courts at the Brandon Valley Community Tennis Complex in Brandon, South Dakota. Credit: Rebecca Blue/BVCTA
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