On May 2, 2020, with hard work and preparation, confidence but uncertainty, the tennis courts were opened at North Hills Country Club. The tennis area resembled a barren wasteland more than that of a private club on Long Island, NY. There were no tables and chairs on the patio, no benches and water jugs on the courts, and no awning with the country club’s crest. Instead, there was a pandemic, apprehension, a long list of safety protocols for the members to follow, and an uneasy anticipation in the air.
I arrived at the club at 5am before the sun came up, grateful to serve as the maintenance crew rather than the Head Tennis Pro before anyone else had a chance to set foot on the courts. By 9:00 every grain of Har-Tru on the six courts had been finely swept and all court lines brushed perfectly as if I were trying to make a great first impression rather than routinely start my eleventh season working at the club. During previous seasons, I taught all my lessons on Court 4 so the members could take the showcase court next to the patio, tables, and chairs. Now, I had the teaching cart and one ball hopper, which only I was permitted to touch, set up on Court 1 so that I could also play security guard for the club in case any members showed up without a reservation.
As the first group of players tip-toed up to the patio, there was a feeling of awkwardness. How far is six feet apart exactly? No hugs and kisses permitted, but how about a handshake? We went with none of the above. Gradually the ladies set their tennis bags on the ground and began to share brief quarantine stories from the last two months. 9:00 hit, and it was time to play. I encouraged them onto the court so we could shake off the cobwebs and get moving around. I lined the ladies up behind the baseline with markers that were spaced out to remind them to adhere to social distancing the best they could, gave a quick pep talk, and we were off. I fed the first ball, a crosscourt forehand, and smiles rushed across everyone’s face on the court including my own! Instantly the feeling of normalcy swept over all of us. I have no idea if that shot went in, out, over the fence, or into the net, but there was an exhale of air I’m sure everyone heard. In that moment there had been no state shutdown, no quarantine, or the feeling that the world was coming to an end. We felt alive, breathing in the fresh air. I was not their tennis pro and they were not my students. We were out there as one, enjoying that experience together. The day continued with back-to-back lessons. Each one the same pattern: nervous anticipation followed by that same feeling of normalcy. We had all found our outlet.
As in any business there are ebbs and flows with busy months followed by slow times. But in the weeks to follow there were no lulls. Everyone that started with their lessons the first week in May continued, and many added second and even third playing days each week. In addition, more people also came out week after week. Some were tennis players who were finally comfortable to start a social activity during a pandemic, whereas others were coming out to play tennis for their first time altogether. What started in 2020 as a dying industry to the likes of pickleball, tennis was now on the upswing. Was it because of a pandemic or because it was a sport that adhered to social distancing? I did not have the answer to that question. Rather, I felt it was my responsibility to give every single person the same opportunity: a safe and fun outdoor activity in which they felt comfortable participating. Some came out and just wanted to stand and talk for the hour. Others didn’t say a word, just asked me to run them around so they could sweat as much as possible. There were adults, children, full families taking lessons together, private instruction, different levels of players together, people engaging with others who they just met for the first time. We had enough ladies participating that we even set up our own league amongst them. Every day I heard comments about how busy the tennis program was, which in turn triggered more demand for tennis. We now had people who had solely played golf at the club for years requesting time for tennis lessons. And as more people came to me asking for time, and I did my best to accommodate them. They became family to me, putting their trust in me to provide them with a safe environment, and I was grateful for every hour I was fortunate enough to spend on the court with them. During a time of crisis, the program had the most participation it had seen in all my years at the club. The tennis season was deemed a success.
It was a tremendous learning experience and I gained valuable perspective as a result over this time. The game of tennis does not need to be a niche sport for those trying to develop a skill or for the elite trying to earn college scholarships or local rankings. I see it as a continuing outlet for physical and mental wellness and an everyday stress relief. It is an activity that is just as valuable for the mind as it is for the body. Now, my purpose is not just to provide a tennis program but to encourage well-being. It is to build a community for people who are seeking a POSITIVE outlet from the everyday stresses of the hectic world that we live in. A sense of relief. Whatever that is for each individual. A no-judgement zone for each to enter and leave feeling better about their day.
TENNIS = EXERCISE, WELLNESS, AND FUN.
Using the 30+ years of experience and knowledge I have from being in the tennis world, with a healthy and positive attitude, and an open mind to learn and develop myself into a better person, it is my responsibility to take what has been a tragic year for many, carry something positive into the new year, and continue the momentum that has been created to offer the game of tennis and the outlet it provides to as many people as I can.
So, come join me, breathe in the good, and enjoy your time on the courts.
Darrel Bielawski is entering his twelfth season as Head Tennis Professional at North Hills Country Club in Manhasset, NY. He has been in the business for over thirty years and is an advocate for providing tennis as a way of health and well-being. Visit him on Instagram @dbtennis99 or manhassettennis.com.