It’s Friday morning at Belair Park in Dulwich, south-east London, and all four tennis courts are in use. On one of them Avneet, a 26-year-old student, is taking on her boyfriend, Sol, 29. “We’ve learned that it’s best to get here early in the morning,” she says. “That way you can actually get a court. We came the other day in the afternoon and there were eight lots of people or something waiting. I was like, no way am I sitting here for three hours for a game of tennis.”
Just up the road, Old College, a private club next to Dulwich Picture Gallery, recently stopped accepting new members – the first time it has done so in living memory.
“We reopened in mid-May, and since then basically every court has been booked,” says the club’s chair, Alyson Fox. “The coaches have been overwhelmed with requests for lessons.”
Sarah Walsh, an Old College committee member, agrees that it has been far harder than normal to get courts. Fortunately, she and her husband, Phil, are members of two other tennis clubs – another in Dulwich, and one in Rye, East Sussex. By being “reasonably organised” with bookings, she says, they have managed to sustain a regime of four games a week.
British tennis, of course, traditionally experiences a surge in popularity at this time of year – largely as a result of Wimbledon, which in normal circumstances would have started on Monday. So it’s something of an irony that in the first Wimbledon-free summer since 1945, the sport is enjoying a boom – one as dramatic, some claim, as any in its history.
The sunny weather, combined with the social impact of the pandemic (millions furloughed or working from home; most leisure activities suspended), has driven unprecedented numbers to clubs and public courts across the country.
“When you stop and think about it, it’s really quite an extraordinary thing,” says the historian David Berry, author of the just-published A People’s History of Tennis. “The perception in recent times has been that tennis is a gradually dying sport. In the last 20 or 30 years, I don’t know of any club apart from maybe Queen’s and Hurlingham that has even had a waiting list. Now, even quite modest clubs are having to start them.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given tennis’s elitist reputation, the boom is most evident in middle-class neighbourhoods – and above all in the capital. Regulars at Waterlow Park in north London report courts being booked out weeks ahead. At nearby Highgate tennis club, director Lucy Dean says that 200 new members have joined in the past month. “We now have more than 700 members – the most in the club’s history.”
But the effects are also being seen in areas where tennis isn’t traditionally a big part of life. Last week Sports Direct in Gravesend, Kent, ran out of tennis balls – which a staff member admits “never normally happens”.
Michel Suleau, head coach at the local Gravesham club, reports all the courts routinely full, despite a significant fall-off in members when subscriptions came up for renewal in April. “People around here don’t have much money,” he says. “The club has really suffered financially from coronavirus. But now the sun is out, people are coming down. With everyone at home all day, it’s one of the few things they can do.”
Those involved in tennis administration agree that it will be a shame if the surge lasts only as long as the lockdown. “It would be great if tennis doesn’t simply go back to being a middle-class sport,” says Fox.
Nigel Billen, the co-founder of Local Tennis Leagues, a body that organises park leagues across the country, suggests that now is a good time for a boom, given the significant investment in public courts in recent years. “There have always been more people playing tennis on public courts in Britain than in private clubs,” he says.
But only recently have administrators woken up to this. In the past decade, substantial sums have been poured into many public facilities – not just in London but also in Newcastle, Manchester and elsewhere – and many of these were thriving before the lockdown. “There is a real opportunity to take tennis to places it hasn’t been before,” Billen says. “Let’s hope it isn’t wasted.”