“We’re not physical, the tennis players,” Roger Federer said with a laugh a few years ago, when he was asked who would win a boxing match between himself and Rafael Nadal. “We don’t like to touch each other.”
Federer didn’t know his joking response would soon become tennis’ most attractive calling card. Perhaps no other sport is better suited for the era of social distancing than tennis. Forget six feet; now that most of us are baseliners, we’re happy to stay 78 feet apart and rally from one end of the court to the other.
By the time lockdowns had ended last year, the word about tennis was out; I wasn’t the only person who noticed that courts were busier. In November, the numbers made it official: racquet sales among first-time players jumped 38 percent from 2019, and participation was up 50 percent from the previous quarter. (On Thursday, in a press release from the USTA, “the Physical Activity Council has reported that participation has increased to 10.08% of the U.S. population playing tennis in Q3 ’20 v 6.75% in Q3 ’19, an increase of 49.33%.”)
There can be no silver lining to a disease that has killed so many, of course, but we should be happy if our sport makes people a little healthier and happier.
“The pandemic has helped us tell tennis’ story,” says USTA CEO Michael Dowse. “Everything that was beneficial about it is more so now: It’s safe, it’s good for socializing, it’s good exercise.”
How do we make this surge last? Dowse wants to guarantee there are enough facilities and instructors to handle any influx. Last year the USTA committed funds to try to help as many as possible stay afloat. The organization is also broadening its promotions by encouraging people to participate in any way they can, and not just through its programs.
“We want new players to know there are many ways to enjoy tennis,” Dowse says, “whether it’s at a park, or a USTA league, or through cardio tennis. And that the financial barrier doesn’t have to be high. Sales for racquets under $50 have jumped.” [By an increase of 43.3%, per the USTA press release.]
Veteran players may also have a new appreciation for the sport. I shifted to jogging when courts closed; when I came back to tennis, two things stood out. First, the ball: Chasing it took all of the drudgery out of running, and kept me from thinking, or worrying, about anything else. Second, my playing time: When you do a solo exercise—running, swimming, biking—you don’t need to meet up with anyone.
If you’re like me, that can become an excuse not to do it at all. In tennis, we have a date to keep, and someone we don’t want to disappoint. That by itself is motivating.
As Federer says, we don’t have to make physical contact with our opponents. But tennis gives us something else we need in these cloistered days: Someone to see, and a game for us to play.