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One good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic: The rise of tennis on Long Island

A competitive spirit keeps Anthony Marsh engaged with

A competitive spirit keeps Anthony Marsh engaged with tennis. Here he's playing with his regular partner, Ron Fusillo, in East Rockaway. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

When tennis was shut down across New York under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines in March, it’s future as an industry across Long Island was called into question.

Those questions linger, but since the game was fully opened in early July it’s showing signs of recovery. The outdoor game was allowed to be played starting in mid-May and it was clear that players were flocking to the courts. But the game took the biggest hit at its indoor facilities, which could not reopen until July. The outdoor game appears to be flourishing. The indoor game, which is big on the Island year round, appears to be attracting more and more players though operators still aren’t seeing full courts across the board, and cite COVID-19 concerns, particularly among older players.

"Outdoors was super busy. It was the busiest season we’ve ever had and there was more play on public courts and parks," said Claude Okin, CEO of Sportime which operates seven facilities on Long Island, five of which are indoor only. "Seemed like COVID was a good stimulus for tennis because it was one of the safest activities. There are a bit more people nervous about coming indoors."

Dick Zausner is the president of the Port Washington Tennis Academy, the Island’s biggest indoor facility with 17 courts (it does not have outdoor courts).

"As the weather gets colder they are coming in a little bit more. But we aren’t even close to prior capacity," Zausner said. "Compared to previous years we are not getting all our customers back. Almost all of them say it’s because of COVID."

At Carefree Racquet Club in North Merrick, general manager Kathy Miller has seen a surge in business, and while it might not be as usual, it is encouraging.

"I can tell you that things are very busy," Miller said. "I think tennis being deemed a safe sport has made people feel comfortable playing. We’ve gotten a lot of new customers. We’re busy. It’s great.

"Our leagues are running, our seasonal courts are running. Our junior program is up and running with a lot of new kids. We have a lot of clinics with new people coming in. We have all our regular programs running."

All facilities have put COVID-19 protocols in place, including mandatory mask wearing when not playing, no gathering before or after play, social distancing, sanitary wipe downs of the facilities daily.

Okin says the Sportime facilities are taking temperatures and compiling contact tracing information. He said that just recently a few members reported that they had tested positive for the virus, but there was no indication that they had contracted it playing tennis.

"There was no transfer of the virus, nobody has gotten sick at Sportime," Okin said. "We are basically completely distanced, we have a really aggressive masking policy, aggressive air circulation policy. We have immediately called the health department when somebody says they’ve tested positive. It’s only happened four or five times. So far nobody in contact tracing has said we have had what qualifies as a contact, meaning we have not had a sick person come into our buildings.

"All of our members would tell us if they were positive. Nobody keeps it a secret. One of the good things that has come out of this is that everybody works together."

For sure the outdoor game has blossomed.

"Clearly there was a tennis boom as people began to realize that tennis was a safe distancing sport. Play at the parks and outside was the largest outpouring in years," said Jonathan Klee, USTA Long Island Regional director. "Once the indoor facilities reopened it was clear that tennis outdoors and indoors could be played safely. We are very happy with the direction that tennis is going. The support it has received from a lot of people coming back to the game looking for safe athletic activities."

At the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, it’s been difficult to get an indoor court during prime time. The indoor facility was briefly used as an emergency COVID hospital last spring.

"The National Tennis Center is completely booked 4 to 10 p.m seven days a week," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said. "To maintain social distancing and that sort of thing, the total numbers will be down so instead of having six adults in a class you will have four. In total numbers, maybe less people from hour to hour. But people are trying to get in and then can’t get in."

Mike Dowse, CEO of the USTA, is encouraged by the numbers that have been compiled by the industry.

"Growth in play in the third quarter of this year is up dramatically [nationally]," Dowse said. "This is the real staggering one to me: Last year 6.7% of the U.S. population played tennis [in the third quarter]. This year was 10.1%."

Robbie Wagner, owner of Robbie Wagner Tournament Training Centers in Glen Cove and Glenwood Landing, as well as a facility in Westchester, is waiting for a real uptick. He says he’s put into place the necessary protocols.

"Business is decent, not back to where it was, but it’s getting better," Wagner said. "If we don’t have to close again, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Closing down again could be a fatal blow, according to Wagner, citing not only the lack of income, but refunds that were paid out during the lockdown and ongoing expenses for mortgages, taxes and the various business expenses.

"If we are forced to close again, I think 30% of clubs will close permanently and will be sold for the real estate," Wagner said. "Tennis is sort of a nickel and dime business. We are praying that we don’t close again. I don’t think we will."

He stays optimistic, as do his colleagues across the spectrum.

"People are so limited on what they can do, they are kind of flocking to us," Miller said. "It’s great."

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