Part 24 of USA TODAY's Working Out From Home (#WOFH) series focuses on how to safely play tennis under social distancing guidelines. Sign up for Good Sports, our weekly newsletter that will bring you more home workout tips and the best stories of the good throughout the world of sports:
Even as the parts of the country start the process of opening back up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the truth is that most recreational sports are not compatible with the kind of measures to keep people healthy that may be in place for weeks and months to come.
But that’s where I’m lucky. My sport is tennis, and according to the United States Tennis Association, there’s a way to play it safely in cities and states that have entered Phase 1 of the White House’s reopening guidelines.
“Our sport is conducive to social distancing,” the USTA’s CEO and executive director Michael Dowse said in a phone interview. “Health and safety is paramount and tennis comes second, but once that first box is checked and it’s deemed safe, it’s the perfect sport for all of us to participate in coming out of this pandemic.”
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Dowse, of course, has an interest in promoting tennis. But if you follow the guidelines his organization released last week, it really is an ideal competitive activity to take up during this period where it’s uncertain when pickup basketball or flag football games will be safe to play.
First and foremost, tennis is a non-contact sport played mostly outdoors where the participants in a singles match are typically at least 60 feet from each other. But even then, the USTA has produced a document in accordance with its Medical Advisory Group that suggests ways to make tennis even safer.
In addition to all the obvious suggestions like hand washing/sanitizing, avoiding touching your face or other surfaces and staying home if you are experiencing any symptoms associated with coronavirus, the USTA suggests the following modifications to typical tennis protocol:
- No post-match hand shakes or high fives
- Don’t change ends of the court during a match
- Use a new racquet grip every time you play
- Wipe down and disinfect racquets and all equipment after use.
And though there’s no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted via a tennis ball, Dowse said the scientists have advised that there are “too many variables to really understand it” and thus advise an extra layer of precaution by using four or six balls instead of the usual three. That way, you can ensure each server only touches balls from their own can. In the event that your ball ends up on the other side of the net, your opponent should scoop it with their racquet or use their foot to send it back across the court.
“We always want to err on the side of being overly cautious, so as much as we can put in to make it safer, each player having their own can of balls makes a tons of sense,” Dowse said.
Though singles is the preferred style of play for optimum social distancing, the USTA says “all incidental contact” should be avoided in doubles including no chest bumps or whisper strategy sessions.
“Ultimately, it’s up to each individuals’ decision-making whether it’s proper to come back in the communities they live in,” Dowse said. “But if the local guidelines have approved outdoor recreation, go for it. Tennis is the perfect sport to start playing in this phase. It’s social, it’s physical and it’s intellectual and that’s what we’re starved for.”
The hardest part may be finding a court, at least until more clubs, parks and public tennis facilities open up around the country.
But some early indications suggest that more and more people are gravitating toward tennis since the pandemic began. Dowse, who was the former president of Wilson Sporting Goods before moving over to the USTA late last year, said he’s heard reports that mass merchants of tennis balls and pre-strung racquets had a double-digit surge of sales at the end of March.
That suggests the purchasers are new players, not people who already have equipment.
As far as people who already play competitively or in local leagues, the USTA is stressing that they should follow community guidelines on when it’s safe to play. USTA sanctioned leagues and tournaments have been paused through May, and Dowse said they’ll revisit that decision at the end of next month to see when it might be appropriate to start up again.
In the meantime, though, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for tennis players. Whether it’s going out for a casual hit or playing a match, tennis might be the safest sport around that combines competition and cardiovascular exercise.
“When tennis is played in a safe way it can provide all of that,” Dowse said. “People are hungry and starved for that -- not just current players but new people to the sport as well.”