The roots of tennis in South Carolina run deep. The names and contributions of those who have invested in this sport on South Carolina’s coast are too numerous to mention. And it goes without saying that the Lowcountry is a mecca for anyone interested in playing or watching tennis. For years, the best players and coaches have passed this way, and this international tourist destination is better for it.
But the landscape is changing. Those legendary coaches and players are getting older. The traditional methods of player engagement are yielding to the fast-paced, ever-changing menu of sporting alternatives, as well as the diminishing appetite for long-term development of a single sport. The tennis courts, which first found their way to this country nearly 150 years ago, have changed. Smaller courts accommodate different racquet sports or age groups. A kinder, gentler game accommodates aging legs or young, developing arms.
Access to quality courts is also diminishing as competition for real estate increases. People who enjoy playing tennis are in the midst of an evolution. There is much for them to consider as they determine those elements that fill their leisure time — other sports, technology. Some may have a different perspective on life and how they live it.
While private clubs continue to provide tennis courts for their members and for league play, club business models, understandably, shift to accommodate their members’ requests, to remain competitive and to increase club revenue. Clubs simply can’t always afford to allocate enough courts for league play. It’s the nature of their business.
These changes have placed tennis in Beaufort County at a crossroads. And where it goes from here is crucial to its future. Either Hilton Head Island or Beaufort County must step up with more public places to play or the game — and the tourism dollars that come with it — will dwindle. PTI and TAHHI, the two USTA SC community tennis associations in the county, have sounded the alarm. Will anyone respond?
In the meantime, we are left with the dilemma of promoting growth in a lifelong sport that offers something for everyone — able-bodied or not, young or not so young — but not having enough places for everyone to play.
In our own version of field of dreams, if we build the public tennis centers, they will come. And public courts are critical to the survival of tennis at all levels. If not for public courts, we wouldn’t have had Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe or the Williams sisters. Without public courts, we might have missed those players who used the platform that tennis provided them to shape public policy and force critical conversations that impact all our lives.
Without public courts, we might miss the next tennis superstar. We also might miss the chance to help change lives for kids, retirees or others living on fixed incomes who rely on public access in order to play. The benefit of building new public tennis courts is the genesis for building community. The benefits of playing tennis recreationally can impact a person’s well-being for a lifetime — physically, socially and otherwise.
There are several thousand USTA members in the Hilton Head area, and thousands of other adult players and junior players throughout Beaufort County. These numbers don’t include the countless others who visit the Lowcountry to play tennis while on vacation. But the area runs a real risk of becoming less and less a destination for tennis unless we create new public places to play.
Sheryl McAlister is associate executive director for the U.S. Tennis Association in South Carolina.