A tennis net on a blue hard court
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Alan Popovsky went about 14 days without playing tennis, thanks to shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a forced layoff from the sport he typically plays about five times a week. But that didn’t stop the 57-year-old local restaurant owner from picking up his racket.

During that time, he would still go to his backyard with his racket in hand every day to practice his footwork and other drills. Popovsky believes he might even be a better tennis player now than he was before the lockdown.

“When you’re doing these drills at home, you’re getting faster, you’re gaining speed,” he says. “Sitting up at night looking at Instagram, my wife wants to kill me, but I found so many great videos that [my tennis friends] would send around to each other.”

That’s how much Popovsky, the co-founder of the restaurant management group PRG Hospitality, missed tennis after the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation courts were closed in late March. The sport, he says, is a way to release stress from his day job. On May 29, Mayor Muriel Bowser began phase one of lifting some stay-at-home restrictions for D.C., which included reopening DPR’s outdoor athletic fields and tennis courts. 

For two months, tennis enthusiasts in D.C. like Popovsky had to take playing the sport out of their routines, forage around for private courts, commute across state lines and into Maryland to play, or set up their own makeshift courts. Some,as City Paper previously reported, complained about local government officials closing tennis courts and felt that the sport was inherently safe for social distancing.

In phase one, tennis courts, tracks, fields, dog parks, and golf courses have been reopened, but playgrounds, public pools, recreation centers, and other indoor DPR facilities, including tennis bubbles, remain closed. Contact sports like basketball, football, and soccer are still prohibited, and even though outdoor tennis courts are now open, DPR director Delano Hunter says no organized tennis programs will resume as part of the reopening. The department will wait for guidance from the mayor regarding when to begin those again. 

As recreational tennis makes a return in D.C., players are eager to get back to the court—with appropriate precautions. Just because the courts are open does not mean players are able to play like they did before the pandemic. In April, the U.S. Tennis Association encouraged players to take a “collective pause from playing the sport we love,” and professional players have not played an official tour match since mid-March. 

The USTArecently released guidelines for playing tennis safely as cities start to reopen. Recommendations include taking extra safety precautions, like wearing gloves, avoiding shaking hands or high-fives, using your foot or racket to pick up balls, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer after coming off the court. 

Takoma Park resident Frank Hanrahan took most of the month of April off from tennis, and only started playing in Maryland when the state lifted some restrictions in early May. During the month off, the 46-year-old sports anchor at WTOP would practice by tapping tennis balls against a wall in his backyard. 

He doesn’t have any concerns about playing the sport, but still employs safety measures while on the court. When he plays, he brings hand sanitizer with him.

“It’s more about who’s playing next to you, rather than you and your partner,” Hanrahan says. “When someone else’s ball comes to my side, I kick it or pick up with my racket, never with my hands.”

Hanrahan prefers to play singles over doubles, and, during a time where medical and infectious disease experts recommend that everyone stay 6 feet apart, it may be the wiser choice, anyway. The primary mode of transmission for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is through close person-to-person contact.

“It’s not a contact sport, so that makes it less risky than other sports,” says epidemiologist Lucile Adams-Campbell, who directs Georgetown University’s master’s program in epidemiology. The D.C. native says she played tennis “a long time ago,” and would feel comfortable playing singles, but not doubles. “But of course, many things can happen on the courts. I think playing singles is definitely a big plus for social distancing when it comes to tennis. You’ve got to be more than 6 feet apart when you do the singles.”

In the professional single-site matches that have returned, players only touch and use their own marked tennis balls. That isn’t as feasible for recreational players who buy their own equipment and balls, and so Adams-Campbell suggests using hand sanitizer every 15 minutes or after every set. 

While it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 after touching a surface or object with the virus and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth,the CDC believes that is not the main way the virus is transmitted. 

“I’ve seen people take tennis balls sometimes and dab the sweat or dab their brow with the tennis ball or their arm,” Adams-Campbell says. “That’s why it’s important to sanitize coupled with social distancing.”

The USTA guidelines also caution against elderly individuals or those with serious underlying health conditions playing. Dr. Anne Monroe, an associate research professor of epidemiology at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, agrees.

“People who have been really not going out at all may not want to start going out right now, even if they could be spaced out on the courts,” she says. “I think that’s probably still prudent guidance. [Playing tennis] should probably apply to low-risk individuals. High-risk individuals should still avoid it early in reopening.”

Monroe, who is also a practicing internal medicine physician, adds that while transmission of COVID-19 through asymptomatic individuals is possible, she would “not let that prevent people from getting outside and taking advantage of outdoor physical activities safely.”

Neither Monroe nor Adams-Campbell recommends wearing a mask while playing tennis. 

“We wouldn’t expect a mask to make a difference as long as people are appropriately spaced,” Monroe says.

“I think you might have some people laid out on the ground because they’re just too hot,” Adams-Campbell adds. “I would not say wear a mask. I might say skip tennis if you think that you cannot socially distance and wait.”

Waiting did not feel like an option to Popovsky. He had missed playing tennis in D.C. for long enough. On the first day the tennis courts reopened at the Takoma Community Center, Popovsky was there, with hand sanitizer and his own can of balls. Sure, he played at Maryland courts and even used a makeshift net on a basketball court with a friend in the meantime, but D.C. is home. He returned the next day, and the day after that.

“It was amazing,” he says.