There are some sounds you don’t know you’re nostalgic for until you hear them. The thwack of a well hit tennis ball has been missing from this British spring. It is surprisingly cheering, on a bright Saturday morning, to hear it return. By nine o’clock yesterday, the first weekend of play since lockdown began two months ago, the 14 courts at Coolhurst Tennis Club in Crouch End in north London were full.
Among the early starters was David Berry, whose book A People’s History of Tennis is published this week. Berry talks of the relief of getting back, though a few things have changed. “What our bodies aren’t used to is playing singles,” he says – doubles is still not possible with social distancing. “My best friend Adam and I have played a mixed doubles every week for about the last 25 years. I had a Zoom conversation with two of the women we play with and they were going up the wall not being on court. It really affects people. It is the combination of that physical game you enjoy and then getting together for a drink and a gossip.”
Berry came back to tennis in his 40s after throwing his rackets away at 17 having lost at the Berkshire junior championships to someone he should have beaten. He has mellowed somewhat on court. His book makes a persuasive case for tennis as a great democratic game, unearthing among other things the story of the “workers’ Wimbledon” organised by the Labour party and the TUC in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The elite image that tennis gets has never been my experience,” he says. “Clubs want as many players as they can get.” There are nearly three million regular players in Britain. Not since Wimbledon was bombed in 1940 has there been such a hiatus in the game.
As far as they could on Saturday players were warily following the guidelines. There were efforts to play with two sets of balls, marked for each player. A few wore a surgical glove on their non-racket hand. In some ways, of course, tennis is made for social distancing; as Wimbledon’s favourite existentialist Andre Agassi observed: “In tennis you stand face to face with the enemy but you never touch him or talk to him. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.”
That is not quite how it seemed yesterday – though the clubhouse was closed and players did not linger after their matches. Russel Levi, a legal analyst and captain of the Coolhurst sixth team, has been working from home. While acknowledging that a return to playing sport feels like a huge privilege, he fears his game has suffered a bit.
“I played on Thursday and I was very rusty but it felt like a bit of WD40 had been applied by yesterday,” he says. His son bought him a “Chinese tennis trainer” – “basically a ball on a piece of elastic” – for his birthday in March and, though he could take out a bit of frustration on it, it wasn’t quite the same thing.
Among the obsessives is Nick Bateson, 66, who is ranked “about 10” in the country for his age and generally plays at least two hours every day.
“The first month out wasn’t too bad,” he says. “I was doing yoga and stuff, but the last few weeks I’ve been going bananas. I was agitated and depressed. I think my wife was hiding bottles in case I turned to drink.”
Bateson’s tennis coach went down quite badly with the virus for a month, he says, but he hasn’t been too worried about catching it himself, saying: “At my age there is obviously more risk, but I’m pretty fit.”
He is worried more about his mental health. A few weeks ago he noticed a hole in the fencing around the courts in his local park. He says: “I snuck though and was in there practising my serve. But somebody must have grassed on me and the council came and patched the hole.
“The thing is, you miss those chemicals in your blood when you hit that perfect backhand. I hit one this morning. It was like heaven on earth.”