why does playing tennis for fun feel white and elitist?

yasmin stefanie tennis court skirt style

As someone who has been as obsessed and consumed with watching tennis for as long as I have been now, you might be surprised to know I’ve only been playing it since December. Playing for fun because pls, I can’t actually play play. I can just actually hit the ball back and have some rallies and actually win some points against my boyfriend now. When I play close up not full court lol. My thing was the fact that I loved watching tennis so much yet couldn’t even hit a ball back when I attempted to play, and nobody understood how I could love it so much when I never even picked up a racket bar a Gold Coast holiday when I was 12 and at the beginning of first year uni when I was 18 and my flatmates refused to let me be so obsessed with watching it without playing.

My back story and opportunity to talk about myself aside, playing tennis at a club or in the park is still a relatively new thing for me, and I know it’s become quite a new thing for a lot of other people mostly thanks to lockdown and socially distanced tennis in the park being one of the first things we were allowed to do outside of the house, and maybe in part because of the new tennis style trend on insta and people wanna book courts to get their Nike Court victory skirt pics on, and might actually have a hit between that if they have a racket and ball as their props. Go gals, anything to convert you all to my sport x

Something I’ve discovered when playing in the park or at a club is just how white and middle class and elitist something as simple as just playing a bit of tennis for fun in the park on a nice day can feel. And as someone who is always trying to be an advocate of getting more, new people invested in the sport – especially younger people – this is obviously going to be a big roadblock in achieving that.

If you’re reading this blog and you know me, whether it’s irl or through this blog or my Insta or Twitter, then you know me. It’s me. The tennis girl. Doesn’t shut up about it. Live tweeting during Slams and posting stories of the match I’m watching and now, more recently, posting videos of me trying to return Jamie’s serves. This isn’t anywhere near my first tennis related blog post, this isn’t even my first post about the ~things we can do to get more people invested in the sport~. For a lot of people, if you see anything tennis you will think of me, I will be the person you know who knows the most about tennis or enjoys watching or playing or talking about it the most. So if I can go down to the park or the club I was a member of in Bournemouth before I moved home for lockdown (and now for good, why am I graduating😭) and feel so judged and insecure for being this young, 5’2 girl in cycling shorts and a crop top running around hitting the ball, sometimes missing, sometimes mishitting into the courts next to ours, playing in half the court because I don’t have enough power or experience to play from the baseline, then how is someone who knows little to nothing about the sport and has never played before gonna feel when they rock up at the park with their friend and start feeling the experienced, middle-aged, white couples around them playing mixed doubles getting more and more annoyed every time the kidzzZzZZ hit a ball onto their court mid-rally?

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the people who fall into this category are lovely and laugh with us, they get it and they don’t mind and they happily stop their point to pass us our ball back and tell us not to worry about it when we apologise. But there have been countless instances now of people – especially older people, people more experienced at playing, middle-aged, white, probably middle class with expensive gear and attire and memberships – taking issue with something that we are doing on our court but not taking issue with the exact same thing when someone who looks like they are also older, more experienced and more classy than us does it.

It feels like that classic Karen vs young retail worker thing. The Karen brings a £40 pair of jeans (which are clearly marked £40 and have no indication of any other price) that she found accidentally dumped in the red tag sale rack by another customer, even though you can see dozens of other pairs of the same jeans in their normal, full-price rack to the till and demands to know why the 17-year-old college student on minimum wage who scanned the item and had it show up as £40 on the system is daring to charge them full price when it was on the sale rack and therefore must be 90% off. How dare you target Karen and change the price on purpose all by yourself as a teenage student who only works weekends! But if Pam, the Grandma everyone loves who is working retail to make a bit of extra money to treat her family before she retires, was to serve Karen and those jeans scanned at £40, suddenly all would be fine and it would be an honest mistake and nobody’s fault. Of course those jeans are full price, they don’t have a sale sticker and they were just shoved in the sale rack sticking out in a random place!

yasmin stefanie wimbledon slogan jumper tennis skirt style

One of the most unneccesary we’ve had was when we were playing on our court and it was ten to, we had the court booked for the full hour slot as you do at most places. Middle aged white man comes over to us the second we finish a rally and has clearly been waiting for us to finish so he can come over. Tells us he has the court booked for the next hour so if we’re done we should go, if not he’s gonna start on the empty court next to us but then we must leave. I kinda get the latter point but also, if there are ten minutes until your booked slot why don’t you wait those ten minutes, see if we leave, and then if we haven’t left by the time it hits the next hour you come over and tell us you have it booked now. We’ve been somewhere else and neared the end of our hour booked onto the court, and had classic middle aged white woman in all the proper gear (skirt at a modest length unlike disgusting 21 year old me who has listened to women mutter to their husbands that my skirt is too short whilst in the crowd at Wimbledon x) come over to us and tell us we have to leave because she has it now, that’s just how these things work, we need to respect it and it’s not fair if we will still be on the court the second the 11:59 on my Fitbit ticks over to 12:00. Bitch there’s sixty seconds and then we were going to be respectful and leave, I know we are young and you might think we are lil hoodrats who will be so naughty and break the rules and stay on until 12:00:01 but give us a chance to get through that minute and walk off the court.

I have cried before when I’ve hit a ball over to the next court because I’ve been made to feel so guilty and uncomfortable for it before and get so paranoid every single time. I feel like I don’t want to be there anymore. And that feeling gets even worse when that person does get shitty with you for making a perfectly innocent mistake and mishitting the ball when you obviously didn’t intend to. We’ve even had one of them pocket our balls with theirs after til we told them they’d picked ours up. And you could see full well we had completely different branded and marked balls. I don’t want to sound like I’m being negative and pessimistic and assuming the worst in people here but there are times when you know something is an innocent mistake or harmless comment, and times when you know it’s annoyance and a punishment of sorts for the stupid youngsters who can’t control their shots and deserve to lose their ball. A kicking your football over the fence and never getting it back vibe.

Tennis is still seen as white and elitist despite the best player of all time being Serena Williams. Especially in this country where our big tennis thing is Wimbledon. Full of tradition – all white clothes, queuing for tickets instead of buying online, shown on the BBC, royals sat in the royal box, being completely hushed on the court even between games and sitting in silence where the US Open would be blasting Drake and showing kids in the crowd dancing on a big screen. I love Wimbledon and most of its traditions, but we need to show people that this sport is open and inclusive and accepting and diverse.

Myself and everyone else who loves and cares about this sport are desperate to see more people engaging with it, becoming a casual fan, being encouraged to pop down the park for a bit of fun and, who knows, maybe inspiring kids to pick up rackets and train harder and become an actual player one day. Of course the instances I’ve described are going to be the minority, they won’t happen every single time you go play tennis but they happen too often. It’s not a nine times out of ten everyone will be nice, then the one time you’ll have someone moody. It’s more 50/50. Sure, in my case we enjoy tennis enough that it doesn’t discourage us (a part of me enjoys knowing one day these people might turn on their TV and see me, the girl they think has no idea and is just turning up to fuck around in her Bo and Tee booty shorts with a cute boy, talking about Serena’s 30th Slam. A gal can dream x) but for other people my age, other people who like me aren’t white, other people who don’t have the exact shirt Roger Federer wore when he won the Australian Open in 2018 and a massive Wilson racket bag with 5 freshly strung rackets to choose from, people who don’t really know much but wanna give tennis a go and show up with an old racket they found in their parents’ house, in their sports bra and gym leggings. If these people start being made to feel uncomfortable as a direct result of people around them who seem more elitist and experienced, they’re going to be turned off playing or watching the sport because these people around them are reinforcing what I would like to hope is an old fashioned stereotype about tennis being snobby and upper-class. Except it can still be like this, and we aren’t helping the sport we love grow if we keep acting like this when someone who doesn’t fit our Wimbledon whites, hush hush tennis trope tries to get involved.

This problem is on us, those who enjoy tennis and take it a bit more seriously than the first-timer who has never watched anything other than Wimbledon, to fix. We can’t look down on someone because we are assuming they know less or care less about tennis than us. We are failing the sport we love and all the organisations within that sport pushing to become more inclusive if we belittle anyone like this for taking an interest if they don’t seem like your average tennis fan.

I know it can be annoying when you’ve invested in a good racket and good balls and you’re in the middle of an unreal rally, deep in competition at 5-5 in the final set, and someone who looks like they’re just here to mess around and not play “properly” on the court next to you knocks a ball your way and stops you playing, but you’re gonna do this sport a disservice if you tut or sigh or roll your eyes at them. Everyone who has showed up to the park or the club and booked a court is equal. You are all there to play, no matter how you’re playing, what equipment you have, what attire you have. You’re all there for the same thing and you’re all equal. So don’t assume this 5’2 gal in her gym gear is just some teenager who knows nothing about tennis and came because it’s the only thing we were allowed to do in lockdown for a bit, I’m actually 21 and just short and trying to make a whole career out of getting more people invested in tennis x

In all seriousness, tennis is for everyone. Everyone who has booked a court to play deserves equal respect no matter what. We aren’t Naomi Osaka playing a pro tournament, we don’t have the luxury of a centre court that is all by itself with thousands of seats around it but no other courts. Hitting a ball over to another court will happen. Even if you watch a big tournament on TV, if someone is playing on the outside courts they might still mishit a ball and have it fly onto the court next to them. If a top ATP or WTA player on that court next door doesn’t make a fuss and just plays a let, you can too.

So please get out there and play some tennis! And don’t get annoyed with anyone around you playing and disrupting you lol x

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