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Denver tennis community hit hard by coronavirus pandemic: “It set us back several years”

When the stay-at-home order failed to keep them out, the city posted no-trespassing signs. After those went ignored, park officials padlocked entry gates on all public city courts. Try again.

Denver’s diehard tennis population couldn’t be stopped.

“People were climbing fences,” said Fritz Garger, executive director of the Colorado Tennis Association, “because they love this sport.”

The coronavirus pandemic halted organized tennis across the globe. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II. Professional tours internationally have been stuck in limbo for weeks. The United States Tennis Association instructed its members to suspend all play and events through at least May 31.

Tennis operators across Colorado are only now beginning to loosen restrictions and are hopeful for a limited return by summer.

Denver is home to the largest USTA adult league tennis program in the country, Garger said, and Colorado boasts upward of 40,000 league participants. While the CTA empathizes with Denver’s stir-crazy tennis population, it has strongly supported following the lead of public officials. Because, if athletes return to play correctly, tennis in Colorado is positioned for a swift comeback.

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“It certainly lends itself to accommodate social distancing, and it has attributes that can help pull people out of a situation that is difficult on so many levels,” Garger said. “Tennis can be an incredible release for those who play it.”

Ron Steege is the director of tennis at Club Greenwood, with privately-owned indoor and outdoor courts in Greenwood Village. Steege has overseen the club’s tennis operation for almost 25 years and leads a team of tennis professionals and 18 front desk staff. The immediate cancellation of in-progress league play and future events eliminated a significant revenue source.

Grassroots efforts have grown to support Colorado tennis clubs, mostly through online fundraising sites.

“From a financial standpoint, in terms of what we’re used to doing, it set us back several years,” Steege said. “But we’re very fortunate, at least at our facility, because a lot of clubs across the country are closing. A good percentage of our members stepped up to continue paying dues, and most of that went toward paying salaries. We were able to get our staff through the month of March and April.”

The CTA has provided its member clubs with several contingency plans for tennis policies moving forward in the pandemic; all based on potential health restrictions given by state agencies. It should allow for many tennis courts to re-open more quickly once approved by Gov. Jared Polis. Tennis facilities partnered with health clubs might face additional restrictions.

“We’ll definitely be able to get things going within a day or two of the governor giving us the green light,” Steege said. “We’ve been constructing probably for two weeks what our reopening plan will be, and what our best practices will be. We’re trying to think of every scenario that we’ll need to do.

“There is some natural social-distancing, but I’m trying to learn more about what is involved with the tennis ball itself. I have heard some good ideas.”

One simple solution for sharing tennis balls in a coronavirus world: Have one set for each person. You only serve your own tennis balls and you do not touch incoming serves beyond the racket. Other players have designated 2020 the “summer of singles,” Steege said, as doubles-play further risks contamination from a teammate.

Cindy McLemore, 60, is a member of The Club at Rolling Hills in Golden, a privately-owned facility with indoor and outdoor tennis courts. McLemore started tennis at 6 years old, played competitively in college, and has won several championships through league play over decades in Colorado. Rolling Hills recently began allowing family-play at its facility, with additional health/social distance policies enforced, and McLemore was thrilled to get in a match with her husband. Although it’s not the game itself she longs for most in the pandemic — it’s the post-match cookouts, dinner shows with tennis foes, and everything else social it brings into her life.

“All of a sudden, this sport that we love and gain so many benefits from was just gone,” McLemore said. “It really left a void.”

Colorado tennis operators are hopeful league play might continue (in a limited form) at some point this summer, but any optimism is speculative. The availability of public courts will coincide with state-mandated health policies. However, if you own a racket and ball, there are inventive ways to break a tennis-quarantine fever.

The website netgeneration.com, backed by the USTA, provides free resources for players of all abilities to practice tennis with inventive techniques — requiring only the ground and a hard surface — to stay sharp in the pandemic. For many, though, nothing replaces the thrill and health benefits of a real match.

The rise in fence-jumpers at Denver’s public tennis courts led the city to remove nets. Even that isn’t fool-proof, though, as some players have set up their own netting. The city’s last defense is having park rangers assigned to give warnings and citations for tennis rebels.

The tennis world is positioned near the starting line of a marathon-slog to normalcy. For thousands in Colorado, the tennis court provides salvation, and many simply cannot wait.

“I’ve seen people out playing all along,” Steege said. “I get it. We’re just as anxious to be out there.”

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