Tennis players in Bethesda last June
Tennis players in Bethesda last June Credit: Kelyn Soong

This story has been updated with new USTA guidelines and reactions from Tim Hahn.

Tim Hahn doesn’t get to see his children together too often. His daughter is finishing up her second year at the Howard University College of Medicine, while his son studies at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

All three, along with Hahn’s wife, are now at home in Rockville. And to pass the time, Hahn had been going to the tennis courts every other day with his children, both former NCAA Division I tennis players, for the past few weeks.

“Compared to other sports, it’s probably one of the last recreational activities to shut down,” Hahn says.

But throughout the D.C. area, many tennis courts have been closed, leaving tennis players scrambling to find another physical activity that’s allowed during the stay-at-home mandates in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) released updated guidelines on Friday night encouraging tennis players “to take a collective pause from playing the sport we love.”

On April 1, Montgomery Parks, which oversees the courts in Montgomery County, announced it would be closing all of its tennis courts. 

“Our tennis and pickleball courts will be off limits for play, starting today,” Montgomery Parks wrote in a post on the neighborhood message board Nextdoor. “All use is prohibited because the sports go against our COVID-19 guidelines about social distancing and use of shared equipment. Use our parks and trails from sunrise to sunset for fresh air and exercise, like hiking, biking, running, and walking.”

The responses ranged from agreement to disappointment to confusion to outright anger. 

“Tennis is not a contact sport,” a resident from Woodley Gardens responded. “I don’t see the danger or possibility of spreading virus. Yes both players are holding the ball when serving but one can easily clean hands after the game. Are you planning on closing all public transport? After all, people hold the railings in the bus. How about all grocery stores? … I fear we’re degenerating into a nanny state with the state making up irrational rules and the people all watching and complaining about each other.”

“This is ridiculous! Surely you can play tennis with someone you live with! Joggers run 1 foot away from my face on the paths, forget 6 feet,” added a resident from Manor Oaks.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the stay-at-home orders do not specifically ban people from playing tennis, and some tennis courts near schools and neighborhood courts remain open. 

In D.C., the Department of Parks and Recreation has closed all of its tennis courts. “No playing on our courts as we are closed,” a DPR spokesperson tells City Paper.

Arlington County parks, fields, and playgrounds are also closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

But outdoor tennis courts under the Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County are still open. “We are enforcing social distancing and will close outdoor courts if not followed,” a spokesperson from the department writes in an email to City Paper.

Before the USTA released its guidelines, Hahn and his children had been playing at Wootton High School and Frost Middle School in Rockville, and he says the three of them were taking precautions: They used hand sanitizer, didn’t pick up anyone else’s tennis balls, and kept an empty court between them and other players.

Some medical experts warn that even with precautions, tennis poses a risk. In a conversation with ESPN, Lauren Sauer, the director of operations with the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, warned that the virus can be transmitted through the ball.

“A single cough can produce up to 3,000 droplets,” Sauer told ESPN’s Tisha Thompson. “These can slowly fall to surfaces such as balls and gym equipment. Any surface that is coming into contact with potentially infectious bodily fluids is a risk, especially in the environment where you may have a false sense of security because you’re thinking that you’re social distancing—like tennis, for example.”

The USTA updated its guidelines based on recommendations of the USTA COVID-19 Advisory Group. 

“Although there are no specific studies on tennis and COVID-19, medical advisors believe there is the possibility that the virus responsible for COVID-19 could be transmitted through common sharing and handling of tennis balls, gate handles, benches, net posts, and even court surfaces,” the statement reads.

Hahn had originally planned to play with his family as long as courts at schools are open, but upon reading the USTA statement, he says he intends to spend “quality time inside.”

“During this important times, we all have to abide by policies for safety of all love ones,” Hahn writes in a text.

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