Who’s Playing Tennis During the Coronavirus?

I’ve taken my son out to the local public courts here in Scarsdale, New York to play tennis for the last couple of days. It was cold today, but the sky was bright and there was no wind. The other day, we went out and it was 70+ degrees and once we got on a court, the other courts started to fill up.

And thus the dilemma of playing tennis during the siege of the coronavirus. I tell my wife that tennis is the safest sport to play during these times: outside with only one other player; using only new balls and perhaps wearing thin gloves. What other sport can you safely keep the six-foot social distance space between you and your game partner? Tennis is it and I guess golf if you’re careful not to congregate at the tee and on the green.

Still, my wife is not letting Callum play tennis with anyone but me and I can’t play against him as I have a torn meniscus that I’m probably going to need surgery on whenever it’s finally okay to do elective surgery again. Up until a couple of years ago, I could beat Callum, but after hobbling around the other day, he said to me, “Dad, I could probably Golden Set you now!” (A Golden Set is when a player beats his opponent without losing a point. Sons say the nicest things sometimes to their fathers!).

But with all the courts suddenly filling up, Callum and I felt danger upon us. It’s a strange feeling to be wary of your tennis neighbors. While it bothers me sometimes when someone hits their ball onto my court in normal times; now I’m actually somewhat petrified when they do. I make sure not to pick the ball up with my hand to hit it back to them. I just double-tap it on the court and scoot it back with my racquet. Usually, if I’m hitting with Callum and I see someone on another court who looks like they can do a better job than I of hitting with him, I’ll ask them if they want to play with Callum. Now that’s out too. I can’t take that chance.

Callum is a top-30 nationally-ranked 14-and-under player (he’d be higher if he was home-schooled like most of the other top national junior players are and could play all the national events that are often held during school weeks like the Orange Bowl, Eddie Herr and the Easter Bowl, which has been canceled this year) and I remind him often that he has to play more to compete with the Jones’s of the national junior circuit. I’m a bit manic about this I know, and Callum and my wife remind me too.

Today we drove by the Scardsdale Middle School courts (they were supposed to be locked according to a telephone announcement we received from the White Plains, NY mayor, but maybe Scarsdale didn’t get the memo because they were open) and they were starting to fill up again so we drove further down the road to courts where you usually need to be a Scarsdale resident (we’re not) and have a permit. Callum said to me, “What are you going to say if they ask for a permit?” and I said, “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that now.” I guess one of the positives of playing tennis during the coronavirus is that there are no court attendants.

We got on the hard courts. The two Har-Tru courts adjacent to the hard courts didn’t have their nets up. I had Callum run around the courts twice. I didn’t feel like coaxing him into stretching so we didn’t do any. We started with some mini-tennis. Callum and I have played mini-tennis since he was a small tot and it’s something we can fall into quite easily and really enjoy ourselves. But when you have a torn meniscus; something I barely felt since I tore mine in my right knee in 2007; the pain on the inside of the knee when you pivot is like having a pick spiked into your knee. Still, I love seeing how Callum has such control of his chips and spins and slices now.

I move him back to the baseline while I stay up near the service line with my hopper-full of balls. Yesterday, I bought a new case at Costco’s as Callum always complains my balls are mostly dead; which is somewhat true, but most teaching balls are not brand new. I haven’t taught tennis for years now, but I used to teach 35 hours a week for a number of years and then after those more intense teaching years, I kept a small group of mostly teenage players that I taught on mostly private courts. So one of the things I love to do is feed balls, especially to a player who can move and hit a variety of shots.

“Easy power” is a term in tennis that means a player can generate a lot of power without seemingly swinging very hard. Callum now has this ability in spades. Balls careen off his racquet and come back at me like line drives off the bat of Mike Trout. Others zoom by me as I stand inside the service line on the opposite of the net from Callum and slash into the corners of the court. Whenever Callum or I come across a ball we deem dead, we hit it fungo-style over the fence and deep into the woods surrounding the courts. When Callum was little and I would do this on my own, he’d beg me to give him balls to also bat out of the court and he still enjoys doing so.

I start him at the baseline and feed a ball deep to his backhand so he’ll have to hit a heavy spinner crosscourt. Then I feed a ball to the middle of the court for him to attack with his forehand; then he’s up to the net for a volley and an overhead. If I hit a feed when he’s at the net that he can’t get a racquet on, he gives me a dirty look. If I give him a lob that goes over his head, Callum tells me I’m feeding too-difficult overheads. I try not to argue with him as I don’t want to get him frustrated or myself; I want him to work on his game even though I can’t hit with him.

I notice his volleys have gotten cleaner. He doesn’t drop volley nearly as much as he used to do when he comes up to the net. His wrist is solid at contact and he moves forward into the volley more with his footwork. His hands, a word every junior coach loves to expound on as well as proud parents when they talk about their son or daughter’s aptitude for the game or natural talent, have gotten so much better than from when he was a 8 or 9 and pros he worked with would joke that his game was the prototype of most young junior players’s games: from the baseline they look like they’re 16, but at the net, they look like they’re 8 or 9.

He works hard; good intensity and good focus. He helps me open the new cans of balls (always put the tin top inside the can after you spill the balls into the hopper so they don’t flitter around the court, I tell him), but after we finish a full hopper, he tells me I have to pick up all the balls (while he goes on his cell phone to do I don’t know what). I pick up the balls without demanding he help me (I know Uncle Tony wouldn’t approve) because I just want to see him work hard during the practice. I don’t want to argue with him and get either of our nerves’s rattled. Also on this sunny Sunday, I’m content to walk around with the hopper and push balls under its metal bars with my racquet so they settle into the hopper. I’ve always found a certain peace in picking up balls with a hopper.

We both go back to the same baseline and Callum starts serving. His motion is fluid and his serve has also come a long way from even last year when he would sometimes drop his head in disappointment when we practiced serves because his serve was much weaker and inconsistent. Now it pops off his racquet. I tell him to move his body more on the diagonal and toss out to the net post so he can get more hip and shoulder rotation into his serve and better hide what part of the box he’s aiming for.

“You want me to stand sideways the way you serve,” he said.

This has been a contention with Callum and I since he was around 8 or 9; he thinks I want him to play the way I do/did and it upsets him. But his game is totally different and obviously much better than my game; even when I played in college I couldn’t come over my backhand the way he can. I served-and-volleyed or chip-and-charged on almost every point; Callum rarely does either and he rarely slices a backhand either. I never liked or could stay on the baseline for more than a few shots; Callum’s coach tells me one thing he loves about Callum is that he’s very relaxed and doesn’t feel the need to go big into corners early in the point; he can stay back and be patient; work the point.

“Your serve is already better than mine was when I was serving at my best,” I said. “I’m just telling you something Tom Gullikson told me about your serve in Orlando (at the USTA National Junior Development camp).”

Callum moves his feet more on the diagonal and gets his toss more to the right of his body. If I invoke a coach that he respects, Callum will follow instructions much more than if I suggest something. Finally, I stand in front of him on the service line looking back at him as he serves.

When he hits his serve, I immediately toss a ball to his right or left for him to practice his “Serve + 1” patterns as the coaches had him doing in Orlando. Callum hits a serve and then steps into a forehand, hitting it savagely. The object is to finish a point in only two shots when you’re serving. One time when Gullikson saw Callum take a return of his serve hit down the middle of the court with his backhand rather than run around the ball and aggressively hit it with his forehand, the former American Davis Cup captain asked him, “You like your backhand better than your forehand?” After doing about 20 “Serve + 1” combos, we hit a few more dead balls over the fence watching them soar into the limbs of the bare trees.

Callum asks me how many of his friends do I think are playing tennis these days during the coronavirus. I say everyone of them. It’s a debate we have even in calmer times; how much is Callum playing compared to his tournament friends? I contend they’re working harder than him. I remind him of what Gullikson said at the conclusion of the nationals’s invite camp: “Every day, when you walk on the court, you have to try to get one per cent better: as a person, a player and a competitor.”

I make a bet with him that two of his most ardent tennis friends have played today even though it’s only 48-degrees out and all the indoor clubs are closed by city or state mandate. I text two of them asking if they’ve played today and they both text back right away: One says, “No, I have not. Too cold to play;” while the other says; “I haven’t played since Wednesday. My mom doesn’t want me to leave the house.”

I lose the bet. Callum is vindicated. His dad isn’t always right. I can lay off of him about playing until at least tomorrow.

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  • Scoop Malinowski · March 26, 2020 at 9:52 pm

    Serena may be the most unfortunate victim of this pandemic. She is in the home stretch and every month counts. Wimbledon is her last shot to win a major.

  • jg · March 26, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    There’s a lot in the stimulus bill to help affected individuals and businesses to get monetary relief, there is probably something for ATP and WTA US players who are essentially out of business, including an expanded definition of a business, challenger, lower ranked players contact me!

  • Jon King · March 26, 2020 at 11:45 pm

    Latest update, Palm Beach County going crazy. Our wide open double size soccer field at a deserted park, where maybe 4-5 sets of parents and a kid, at least 100 feet apart, working on their sports, was closed today, with 2 police cars standing guard. Then we went to our neighborhood tennis courts, no one ever uses them, absolutely no danger or risk of spreading the virus….they closed them down.

    Common sense has left the building now. How people can not make the distinction between something risky of spreading the virus and something with absolutely zero risk is beyond me.

    We ended up driving 45 minutes into the country where we found some open courts. Pretty much the middle of no where so hopefully no one even thinks to close them.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 1:47 am

    Scoop – yes, Serena will be a victim, tennis-wise, since there seems zero chance of W’don happening, and she’ll be stuck forever on that nearly-record. On the other hand some players are going to benefit if they have long-term injuries, thinking Bianca, and the lack of match play will present a level playing field.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 2:26 am

    Jon – it’s the same here – there are a few public courts near me which I’ve never seen occupied, but it’s more practical to have a blanket ban than employ local council staff to run around checking every open space in London just in case people turn up to use them, for tennis or anything else.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 3:37 am

    Re lower ranked players suffering: expecting the Big 3 to contribute is a pretty 19th century idea and isn’t going to happen. That’s why all competitors ought to have some insurance, as they are self-employed, but of course low ranked players generally earn so little that they couldn’t afford it.

  • Jon King · March 27, 2020 at 7:16 am

    catherine, I totally get the closure of public courts. As you said, its impossible to police their alternate uses.

    In the case of our neighborhood courts, they are located right next to the ladies house who runs the neighborhood. The ‘board’ of the neighborhood is just 4 people who live here and are retired so they have time to worry about which flowers to replace at the entrance and important things like that.

    I contacted them and requested they change the ban from a total closure of the courts to a common sense approach that they be tennis only and players be from the same household in the neighborhood. One already said she could go along with that idea so we shall see.

  • Jon King · March 27, 2020 at 7:23 am

    Stringing is also an issue. The tennis shop that handles most of the county has been forced to close. We did find a guy who runs a shop in a county that had not closed as of yesterday. He did a racquet while we waited since his store was empty. He also said he had a machine at his house and would do our racquets there is they made him close his store.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 27, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Jon, why not build your own court? Put a row of garbage cans or something in the middle of the street and play tennis in the street.

  • Dan Markowitz · March 27, 2020 at 9:39 am

    I’m learning how to string right now. I bought a Gamma electric machine and going over the method on You Tube videos even though I’m not the most mechanically-inclined. All of the courts in Westchester County New York are closed. I’m going out on my bike now to see if I can find one that isn’t closed. My son and I were shooting baskets at the outdoor courts near our house when. a police officer came by and told us we had to leave. Luckily, our neighbor has a driveway hoops that we kept shooting on.

    Here’s my tennis mania story. I went to a wall to hit yesterday and this guy in a BMW cut me off, entered a one-way parking lot the wrong way with kids playing in the parking lot on their bikes and skateboard, just to get to the wall in ahead of me. Problem was, while he was fiddling with his racquet, I stepped up to the wall and started hitting. He got incensed and called me an asshole and I called him one and kept hitting. Finally, he asked me how long I was going to hit on the wall and I said 10 minutes, but it got a little heated and I notice the license plates on his car, it had law on it so I think he was either a lawyer or judge. It’s getting crazy out here even on the tennis walls.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 27, 2020 at 10:20 am

    When I first started playing tennis twenty five years ago I used to go to a laundromat and while laundry was laundering I’d go out and hit tennis balls on the side of the building. You can find walls at many strip malls and shopping centers. Find your own wall. Plenty out there waiting for you.

  • jg · March 27, 2020 at 10:45 am

    Dan-does Lendl still live in Greenwich, if yes I bet one of Callums coaches can arrange for you to play there– a guy who lives here was a hitting partner for Lendl when the guy played at Yale and they hit at his house (there was a story in tennis magazine a few years ago the guy wrote about as Lendls dog bit him)there must be others with courts who would welcome a top junior using their court.

  • jg · March 27, 2020 at 10:57 am

    I played yesterday outside, had to wait for the court, and after playing indoors the past months since October the transition from indoors to outside is tough–especially when its not really that warm. the balls don’t have the same bounce and everything seems off.

  • Sam · March 27, 2020 at 11:22 am

    “Common sense has left the building now. How people can not make the distinction between something risky of spreading the virus and something with absolutely zero risk is beyond me.”

    I think it’s mostly emotionalism rather than hardheaded logic.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Jg – Lendl hasn’t lived in Greenwich for a long time. He had a house in Connecticut, maybe still does, but seems to spend most of his time in Florida, on the golf course.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 27, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    Evan King and Noah Rubin both told my friend that No players are hitting. All are in quarantine. But that is not truth. Opelka just posted photos of he and Tommy Paul hitting at the Goldstein Sheets mansion in Beverly hills.

  • Dan Markowitz · March 27, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    Jg–Catherine is right I think. He moved to more upstate Connecticut a while ago, but is mostly in Florida now. I know of a few friends/acquaintances who have private coaches, and as much as I want to ask them if I can use their courts, I can’t get myself to do so because I feel it’s unfair during these times to do so.

    I rode my bike down to Larchmont from White Plains this morning, beautiful out, and I saw these four beautiful hard courts tucked right behind the Larchmont train station. The nets were up, but the gates were locked. The fence was pretty high, but I remember in my younger days, scaling some fences to play tennis. I’m going to go out again on my bike this afternoon. My goal is to find an open tennis court.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 27, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    Sam, the whole situation doesn’t smell right. Today Trump tweeted about very positive communications with China president xiping. Lending credence that the whole thing may be a double deep state conspiracy.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Scoop I think you should communicate your remarkable insights to Boris Johnson. I’m sure he’d be glad to hear from you.

  • catherine · March 27, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    Meanwhile,back in the real world of tennis – Pavs and Sumyk part company, after a short time together.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 27, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Catherine, I think Boris Johnson desperately needs a comb or a new barber.

  • jg · March 28, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Dan, I know those 4 courts in Larchmont, my father lived in the co op under the tunnel to the courts on Chatsworth Ave, we used to try playing there when visiting but a guard always came by asking for a permit, half the time we successfully pleaded with him to let us play ( there was no one else on the courts). Where to play is a huge topic among tennis players, someone should do an app with gps so you could see the status of the courts

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 28, 2020 at 8:54 am

    I think Dan should look into buying a kids net and just put it in the street and play out on his street. If a car comes, let it pass resume play. Gotta innovate and create sometimes. Philippousis told me in the biofile they had three courts by his home and one had no net, so if they got there late they had to play on the court with no net. Gotta do what you gotta do sometimes.

  • Hartt · March 28, 2020 at 10:03 am

    Scoop’s advice about hitting against the wall of a building reminds me of when I was a kid and used to hit at a building near where I lived. The big problem was that it was just 2 storeys high, with a flat roof, so if you hit the ball too high it was gone forever.

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 28, 2020 at 10:21 am

    Hartt, just don’t hit the high ball or have a bag of dead balls to sacrifice :), the wall is good for working on ball control. Patrick McEnroe said when he was a kid he would play five set matches against a wall 🙂

  • jg · March 28, 2020 at 11:46 am

    There’s a video from last week of Tommy Hass hitting which must be a nurf tennis ball against his living room wall with his head racquet

  • Hartt · March 28, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    As a kid I spent a lot of time hitting against a wall. The best one was at a tennis court that wasn’t busy, so the wall was usually available. I would ride my bike to get there. Another local park had free tennis lessons for kids, and that was great.

  • Sam · March 30, 2020 at 11:09 am

    “Lending credence that the whole thing may be a double deep state conspiracy.”

    Scoop, I guess that would be called “double-dipping”?? 😉

    One thing’s for sure–there’s a WHOLE lot that we don’t know. But what we actually can control is our own reactions. So, we can eschew all the hysteria and just try to act rationally. If you’re reasonably healthy and practice good hygiene, your chances of catching the virus from a stranger or a public place are very low.

    Anyway, I heard about Wimbledon being canceled–not just postponed. Not really a surprise, I guess. But this year’s definitely a big roller-coaster ride!

  • jg · March 31, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    DC has a stay at home order in place, but they have a provision for exercise and in particular tennis–you can play tennis as long as you are playing with someone in your household–I played today as my son is home from college and luckily he’s a good player! (this goes for Maryland too). Is this the only tennis specific provision out there?

  • Scoop Malinowski · March 31, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Celebrity says he or she is sick. Runs first to social media to tell everyone be safe, we can beat this if we unite, stay strong stay home. While showing no symptoms. Five days later, they say they are fine. Pattern repeats. Patrick McEnroe says he has it now. Speedy recovery PMac!

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 1, 2020 at 8:12 am

    It’s all BS to create enough fear and control of the masses, to justify global immunization big pharma & CDC are going to force on world shortly, its coming. They want to vaccinate everyone without our choice, and use AI. And they will do it by policed state. Wake up world.

  • Hartt · April 1, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Andrew, if you are stopping by, I know you like podcasts, and Match Point Canada has a new one up, with an interview with Canadian player, Sharon Fichman. Sharon retired from tennis for a couple years and has come back as a doubles specialist. She is a positive, engaging woman, and I enjoyed the interview.

    She has also posted a video of her practicing in her condo with an ingenious “wall” that can be used in a small space. The ball comes back onto a board on the floor, so you don’t even bother a downstairs neighbour.

  • jg · April 1, 2020 at 8:45 am

    US Open site at Flushing Meadow turning into a temporary hospital–while I think we will be on a break from the virus by August, not sure I see the US Open happening this year without a reliable vaccine in place. Same for other tournaments. Perhaps some tournaments can be played without fans and a live stream.

  • Sam · April 2, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    “not sure I see the US Open happening this year without a reliable vaccine in place.”

    I have no idea. But with this pandemic of Covid-19 *anxiety* that we’re seeing, I wouldn’t be shocked if it were canceled.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 2, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    Usta wants those us open millions. They won’t rush a cancellation

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