The first time I saw one of those sped-up videos of an empty football stadium filling up, it reminded me of what tennis courts were like before and after The Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, past his prime as a tennis player and peerless as a promoter. Billie Jean destroyed Bobby 40 years and one week ago on national television, but the predictable outcome wasn’t the most important result. The hype and the match led a mad rush to once-empty tennis courts and injected new life into the sport.
In time, the weeds returned to the courts, and many playing tennis held video-game remotes, not rackets.
Is it just me, or is the sport picking up steam again?
I stopped by the Lawrence High tennis courts on a recent Sunday evening to check out the Lawrence Tennis Association’s World Team Tennis League.
What I discovered were novices and lifelong players, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, old friends and new friends having a blast as the sun set on another weekend.
“I really just wanted to meet people by getting back into tennis after a 23-year layoff,” Mark Zwahl said. “I thought I’d blow my shoulder out, but I haven’t.”
He did, however, take quite a spill during a match.
“My first fall,” Zwahl said. “I wondered what it would be like to fall at this age. Not too bad.”
Amy Berg played tennis in high school. Her husband, Josh, a football player in high school, didn’t think about taking up the sport until he watched what some believe to be the greatest match ever played. It took Rafael Nadal 4 hours and 48 minutes to defeat Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
“That inspired me,” Josh Berg said. But it wasn’t until he took lessons that he joined the local league with his wife.
At the other end of the experience spectrum — and it shows in her polished play — is Jill Cannon, who said she has been playing since she was 8. Cannon played at Cameron University, an NCAA Div. II school in Lawton, Okla., also the alma mater of first-year Kansas University tennis coach Todd Chapman.
“We’re really competitive, but we all have so much fun and know each other so well, it’s more fun than heated,” Cannon said. “This is my seventh year in the league, and I really enjoy it.”
Zwahl also likes the vibe of the Sunday night league.
“There’s a real sense of community here,” he said. “I think we forget sometimes about the play in sports. There’s a real playfulness to it. These folks get that.”
League director Jimmy Calderon and assistant Ryan Barrett organize the Sunday night league, tabulate score, keep standings and set up the playoffs. Barrett runs the organization’s tournaments, such as the USTA-sanctioned Lawrence Adult Jayhawk Open this Saturday and Sunday at the LHS courts on the corner of Virginia Street and Greever Terrace.
Calderon in his friendly way isn’t afraid to introduce himself and recruit players to his Sunday night World Team Tennis League, which wraps up this year with the finals on Oct. 13.
Calderon said he noticed Zwahl playing on a court next to him at Veterans Park, and it was then that he approached him about playing in the league.
Indoor and outdoor, public and private, Lawrence is equipped for the sport to grow.
“For a small town like this, Lawrence has a great tennis community,” said Cannon, a native of Joplin, Mo. “And the camaraderie and the friendships you develop, it’s really nice.”
Everybody competes to win, but in this league, winning seems to rank a close second to forming friendships. What a nice change of pace.