Tennis anyone? Well, yes and no.
While grass roots tournament tennis isn’t what it used to be back in the 1970s and 1980s, events such as the Schenectady County Open at Central Park and the Tri-County Open at Ridgefield Park in Albany have been around each and every summer for more than a century. This season, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both the County Open in July and the Tri-County Open on Labor Day Weekend will not be contested.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that people are still playing tennis. Yes, the United States Tennis Association has canceled all of its regional league competition this summer, but local teams are still competing against each other. And while tournaments sanctioned by the USTA, like the two events mentioned above, are taking a year off, “the sport of a lifetime” still has its loyal enthusiasts.
Things did get off to a slow start just about everywhere, but Niskayuna High School boys’ and girls’ tennis coach Jim Neal, who monitors court usage at Central Park, said the Schenectady facility has been percolating with people since mid-June.
“I actually think there’s more people coming out to play tennis, some for the first time, and they’re realizing what a great place Central Park is,” said Neal, who also teaches at Sportime Schenectady. “Early in the season, we were using every other court, there was one gate to go in and one gate to go out, and the gates were wiped down and cleaned every morning. People were doing the social distancing and keeping separate from each other, and most people have been very good about the rules.”
At Ridgefield Park, Albany Tennis Club director Larry Yakubowski, who has served as tournament director for both the Schenectady County Open and the Tri-County Open, was expecting a slow summer season due to the COVID-19 crisis, but fortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
“We didn’t have the courts ready until June 10 because of the situation, and the club was anticipating a shortfall in membership,” said Yakubowski. “Instead, I think people were antsy to get out and play, and the turnout has been enormous. The place is packed.”
According to Julie Bliss, Senior Director of Competitive Tennis for the USTA-Eastern Section, the Capital Region isn’t the only area where tennis is still alive and well.
“Unfortunately, many annual events are on a break this year due to COVID-19, but, interestingly, tennis is booming right now at the local level,” said Bliss, a Glenville native and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High grad. “We have a great mix of new and returning players out on tennis courts in parks and clubs across the state, due to the fact that officials have repeatedly cited the sport as one of the safest physical activities.
“Our main objective right now,” said Bliss, who works out of USTA Eastern headquarters in White Plains, “is making sure these players feel safe and comfortable, and that our clubs and facilities across the state feel supported as they take all the necessary measures to reopen safely. For that reason, the only providers running USTA programming right now, such as leagues and tournaments, are those who are safely in a position to hold events and who have told us they feel comfortable doing so.”
Sportime Schenectady is one of those places. Shut down on March 16, the facility opened its outdoor courts on May 15 and reopened its indoor courts July 6. While they didn’t schedule any adult tournaments for the summer, the club did start hosting junior events earlier this month, using both its indoor and outdoor surfaces.
“We hold the tournaments outside unless it rains,” said Peter Green, tournament director for the Sportime events. “There’s no furniture in the building, and there’s only one spectator allowed per player. People understand, and things have been going pretty well.”
Sarah Sharpe, general manager at Sportime Schenectady, said that while the club’s indoor fitness facility remains closed, the tennis courts are being kept very busy,
“We have a good system in place, where members or guests must contact the club in advance of coming, and make online reservations,” said Sharpe. “We have a board outside the club in which we update court assignments and times for players to check in prior to going on court.”
Members and guests prefer to play outside according to Sharpe, while the indoor courts are usually occupied by the club’s summer camp for children, group classes or private lessons. All staff and campers are given a daily health screening, and everyone else on an indoor court must practice social distancing and wear a mask.
“We are looking forward to the fall season, and as decisions are made at the local and state level regarding the opening of schools in the fall, and if it will be a in-person or a hybrid learning model, Sportime will adapt to accommodate the training schedules of our juniors, and the work schedules of adult players,” said Sharpe, a Westfield, New Jersey native and a 2002 graduate of Skidmore College. “But large group gatherings at Sportime, or spectating for events like tournaments, will not be permitted.”
Tri-City Fitness and Tennis Center in Latham also closed down in March and reopened on June 1, with some restrictions, while another popular location for tennis players, the eight artificial clay courts at Saratoga State Park, are busier than ever, according to Dan Blanchfield. One of several volunteers who oversee the courts for the Friends of Saratoga State Park group, Blanchfield said last year’s addition of four more clay courts, along with an effort to beautify the area, proved to be a great idea.
“The timing couldn’t be better to have eight courts because they have been mobbed,” he said. “We’ve been open since early June and all the feedback has been great, especially about the flowers. If you’re not on court by 7:15, the second shift starts around 9.”
The Capital Region’s 15-Love program, which began in this area back in 1990 when Arthur Ashe visited Albany’s Arbor Hill, continues to thrive although the social distancing part has been tough to maintain according to executive director Amber Marino.
“We’ve learned that breaking up hugs is harder than breaking up fights, and that kind of warms our hearts,” said Marino, who grew up just outside Watertown before heading to the College of Saint Rose and then Villanova for her master’s. “We’re running summer programs that look much different than years past, but we are thrilled to be able to offer a program at all. The program remains free, and the biggest change for us is moving away from a drop-in program to needing to have kids registered for each individual class through an online system.”
The junior program at Collins Park in Scotia, operated by the Schenectady County Tennis Association in collaboration with 15-Love, was canceled for this summer, but Bob Schmitz of the SCTA expects everything to be back to normal next year.
“We had a four to five-week junior program that was very popular, but there were just too many risks and constraints to do it this year,” said Schmitz. “We’ve had a good relationship with 15-Love, and we’re looking forward to doing it again next summer.”
And while the Schenectady County Open wasn’t attracting the huge draws it used to back during the tennis boom, it will return next year. It began back in 1916 and was run every year, even through World War II, while the Tri-County Open got its start back in 1905 and until this year was held every Labor Day without a break.
“This summer, things are different, but we’re all doing what we can to support the game and protect each other,” said Yakubowski. “Everyone seems to be following the protocols we’ve put in place. We got rid of our courtside benches, and people are bringing their own lawn chairs. People are buying into the approach and that’s great to see. There won’t be any tournament this year, but with all that history behind it I’m looking forward to getting another good draw next year.”