Tennis ball in someone's hand

Tennis sees an uptick as a socially distant sport: Will it last?

By: Amy Grenier, lifelong tennis player

Tennis players and industry pros are optimistic as a new wave of players pick up the racquet

Interest in tennis has surged as pandemic restrictions cancelled contact sports and closed gyms and fitness facilities worldwide. It’s socially distant, but still social. It’s great for all ages and can be played outdoors. Of course, we might be partial, but it’s about time tennis got it its day in the sun.

The pandemic has altered life as we know it, so we wondered if this renewed interest in the sport would last once lockdowns ended. Would new players stick with it? Would players who rediscovered it during Covid once again set it aside?

To unpack the trend and forecast what retailers could expect moving forward, we went looking for answers. Combing through existing data and conducting a 1,500 respondent survey of our own, we’ve found that many players plan to play more tennis as the restrictions begin to lift, not less.  

It’s no secret that tennis has experienced a boost in popularity over the last year.  While gyms and sports that require more physical contact have been severely restricted, many people were looking for safe ways to be active and social. The result has been that many  people picked up a tennis racquet for the first time over the last year.

Tennis Covid essentials

People turned to tennis as the perfect lockdown pastime

According to the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), 6.8 million people started playing tennis during Covid, with the majority being new players, accounting for a 44% year over year increase. This bump  is a welcome reversal of the slow popularity decline the sport has experienced in the U.S. in recent years.

This actually has come as quite a surprise. Many predicted that Covid-19 was the final nail in tennis’ proverbial coffin. Even Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, said that tennis would “no longer be the same after the coronavirus crisis.”

But, as the world gained a greater understanding of the coronavirus, tennis began to reopen before most other sports and outdoor activities. Many public tennis courts, outdoor clubs, and retail locations were allowed to open their doors and people quickly realized that tennis was uniquely capable of handling the Covid safety precautions with little disruption to gameplay. Because tennis can be played outside with little or no physical contact, many people turned to tennis as the perfect lockdown pastime.

"I've never seen anything like this in the 25 years we've been in the business"

-Anthony Paz, Owner of The Tennis Station

Fast forward to 2021, and thanks in part to momentum gained from social distancing measures,  tennis popularity has soared. Professional events are returning. Parents have introduced their children to tennis as an alternative to contact sports. Adults are playing tennis as a safe way to get outside and stay active. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the 25 years we’ve been in business,” says Anthony Paz of the Tennis Station in Northern California. “Anyone who has ever picked up a tennis racquet in their life has started playing tennis again.”  In fact, while we were interviewing Anthony, a customer brought in a racquet to be restrung. After the man left, Anthony said, “Perfect example. This racquet is 25 years old!”

What's next for retailers?

Of course, the question on every tennis retailer’s mind is: How will the end of restrictions impact sales in the short and long term? As a retailer, we wanted answers and decided to conduct research to try to get a sense of what the future holds. Are people only playing because they have no other alternatives? Or have Americans discovered (or in some cases, rediscovered) a new favorite pastime?

We surveyed more than 1,500 people across the United States to determine whether tennis’ popularity will endure, including players who picked up the sport only after the pandemic hit. The data looks promising for retailers. . The majority of tennis players responded that they expect to play more tennis once coronavirus restrictions are lifted, not less.

89% of tennis players say they don't expect to decrease their tennis playing post Covid, and half say they will play more

Results from the March 2021 Survey

We interviewed new tennis players from California, one of the most regulated states in the U.S., to better understand this expected increase in gameplay. People who realized their love for tennis during the pandemic are playing more as the complexities of Covid are eliminated. Josh, a former high school player who picked up his old racquet just to get out of the house during Covid says, “I’m sticking with tennis, I forgot how much I enjoyed it and I’m trying to find a regular game.” Teresa, a new player and mother of two says, “I found out that I absolutely love tennis. And now that my kids are back in school, I will have even more time to play!”

Perhaps young, new, pandemic-era players will ignite a tennis revolution in the U.S. In a New York Post piece,  Andre Agassi suggested, “American tennis has been facing a grass roots problem. We definitely need to get the racquet in more kids’ hands.”

"Bows", @Bows.Vegas, 6 years old, started playing tennis during Covid.

Thanks to Covid, more kids are playing now than ever before. Could it be that our future American stars will tell stories of learning to play during the pandemic of 2020? “Bows,” a 6 year-old from Las Vegas, thinks so. “When I grow up I want to be like Naomi Osaka,” she says.  She started focusing exclusively on tennis last year, and has developed a love for the game. She plays nearly every day and is coached multiple times a week.

Although it’s challenging to identify any benefits of the pandemic, one positive result is the increase in tennis’ popularity during last year’s lockdown.  We predict this surge in tennis’ popularity will continue despite gym openings and contact sports being reinstated.

New tennis players have taken those first steps in discovering the sport - investing in a racquet and maybe some lessons, and finding others to play with. Our research suggests that this will keep them playing tennis and help propel the tennis industry. Waves of new players become tennis advocates inspiring their communities and social circles to pick up a racuqet too.

While none of us know what the future will hold, we’re feeling optimistic and grateful for at least one silver lining from the pandemic: A bigger, broader, and more diverse tennis community. Now the ball’s in our court to make sure these new players stay with the sport for life.
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