'The courts are in a perfect condition': Sunderland Tennis Centre ready to reopen after months preparation during lockdown
For Sunderland tennis coach Graham Fowler and many others in his position, the next few months will be crucial.
With many sports clubs preparing to reopen following a third national lockdown, there’s still a degree of uncertainty regarding memberships, restrictions and the overall experience.
Fowler, who works as Tennis Manager at the Sunderland Tennis Centre, is looking forward to seeing members back on court and insists all health and safety measures will be met following months of preparation.
Yet even at the best of times, away from the summer months during the lead-up to Wimbledon, tennis faces participation challenges when competing with other sports, particularly football, in the UK.
The last 12 months have provided even more obstacles, with clubs across the country now looking to pick up the pieces.
"The biggest challenge is that people have been away from tennis on and off for over a year and I don’t think many clubs realise what is going to return when they reopen,” says Fowler.
“People who had say 200, 300, 400 members have no idea what’s going to return after 12 months away from the sport, although we did open little bits and pieces in between.
"Our outdoor courts reopen on the 29th of March but indoors they are set to open on the 12th of April. Adults aren’t allowed to play indoors until the end of May.
"The only way adults can play indoors before the 21st of May is if they are having a one-to-one private lesson or if you are playing tennis with somebody in your household bubble.”
While members have been away, the outdoor courts at Sunderland Tennis Centre have been rejuvenated with new surfaces, while there have been social media campaigns about the upcoming restart.
And as we approach the summer months when interest in tennis usually peaks, plans to promote and supply the sport will be key.
"Our big opening is the 12th of April which will be around the school Easter holidays as well,” adds Fowler.
"That’s when our full coaching programme starts and the junior squads can restart. I’ve had a lot of emails and messages saying that people are looking forward to it and the kids can’t wait to get back.
"The LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) have got a big schools initiative to try and generate a lot of interest with schools over this summer.
"I’ve been in touch with lots of schools about taking up this initiative to try and get more youngsters into tennis.”
We have been in this position before, though, and after the first lockdown in March 2020, tennis clubs were some of the first sporting facilities allowed to reopen, even if there were restrictions.
"Initially when we first opened the only thing that was allowed was one-to-one singles, doubles wasn’t allowed,” recalls Fowler.
"We had to order brand new signage to remind people of social distancing, people had to use their own tennis balls so I would bring two tennis balls, the other person would bring two balls. You would put initials on them and I would only touch my tennis balls by hand.
"We had to provide hand sanitiser and washing stations too.
"After a while the tennis ball rule changed but indoors we had to take away all the tables and chairs, there were no spectators allowed or seating areas, certain tournaments were cancelled.
"We also had to lose two indoor tennis courts, we went from eight courts to six so it would be nice to get back to eight tennis courts.”
Tennis may be seen as an individual sport, yet the social aspect, especially for older members, has been a big loss.
"I know adult members from the outdoor club who have really struggled,” admits Fowler. "Particularly in this lockdown, the January to March.
"I think this has definitely been the worst one with the weather, not being able to get outside and all the shops being closed. People have found it really hard.
"I’ve had phone calls from some of our members saying ‘I really need tennis to get me up’ because they don’t realise how mentally they struggle.
"There are people who I never thought would say to me ‘I’m really struggling with my mental health’ and there’s a lot of people like that.
"We have quite a healthy membership of over-65 players and some of them are living on their own, maybe their partners have passed away, and they can’t wait to get back mainly for the social side.”
From a financial standpoint, Sunderland Tennis Centre, like other clubs, have frozen memberships, while national and international tournaments for professionals have been cancelled.
Luckily, those types of events are set to return in February 2022, when it’s hoped travel restrictions have been eased.
Even so, as with many businesses over the last year, the pandemic has come at a cost.
“Financially we’ve lost thousands really on the international events,” says Fowler.
“It’s also all the court hiring, the catering and the add-ons as well that we’ve lost.
“As well as international and national we do loads of regional events and county championships, lots of disability tennis as well but all of that has stopped.
“I think they are keen to get back and the deaf tennis are keen to get back as well.”
And with safety measures in place, including online booking, a one-way system and sanitiser stations, Fowler hopes the club can start taking steps back to normality.
"It’s not just our tennis club but all tennis clubs have spent a great deal of time,” he adds. "The courts in all these areas will have never been so nice.
“Lots of clubs have had their ground staff in and the courts are in a perfect condition.
"It’s brilliant exercise, brillant fresh air and let's hopefully get back to normal.”