Tennis has boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Physical Activity Council, more than 21 million Americans picked up a racquet over the past year, up more than a fifth. As WAMC’s Jackie Orchard found out, some of those newcomers are military veterans, finding solace during a dark New York winter.
At a time when even mentioning an indoor activity earns you sideways glances – the indoor tennis courts at Tri-City Fitness in Latham are buzzing with competitive chatter and the satisfying pop of a square forehand.
Twelve green tennis courts, divided by story-high plastic barriers and netting, stretch on under the white,
bubble dome – which echoes laughter, shouts of “nice shot,” and the thuds of tennis balls throughout the facility.
In the lounge area, where the gate-keepers wait — futuristic-looking temperature-taking robots straight out of “Wall-E” — a few veterans and family members are chatting about racquet sizes for kids.
Tennis for the Troops started with just four people in January 2020. Jenn Tabankin is the unofficial founder of the group. Her husband was deployed to Kuwait at the time, and she wanted to create a community of support for military families, veterans, active duty – anyone who might want to play with other people who speak “their language.” On the strength of word of mouth, there are now 153 veterans, active duty, National Guard and family members in the program.
Tabankin said for her and her ten-year-old daughter, Addyson, tennis helped them get through her husband’s deployment.
“We all know each other and so they would all check in and see how we were all doing, see if there was anything we need,” Tabankin said. “They would ask about Sean and the family. So it helped that people knew and that people were here for us.”
Dean Motta is a 22-year Army National Guard veteran. He now works for the Division of Military and Naval Affairs and helped launch the Tennis For The Troops program. Motta says the program can bring much needed reassurance to deployed soldiers.
“The soldiers overseas, you know, part of the battle for them is knowing everything is OK at home,” Motta said. “Once they know their spouse is fine, they’re being taken care of, they have this opportunity to come here and spend time with their kids – that’s a huge weight off a soldier who is overseas because that’s one less thing they have to think about.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans die from suicide every day.
Motta says this is why a sense of community is so important. He says veterans can find that at Tri-City.
“The camaraderie and just the atmosphere of being here, and how personable everybody is, the staff here, the people that give lessons – they’re just amazing. They’re amazing,” Motta said. “I would say it would benefit them just by coming here and getting involved. You’re going to meet people, you’re going to learn – it’s something that’s enjoyable so it takes your mind off of that — whatever that’s bothering you.”
Billy Ciejka, general manager of Tri-City Fitness, has been working there for 22 years. He teaches lessons and develops programs, like Tennis For The Troops. He says they got lucky that tennis is one of the few “low-risk,” pandemic-friendly sports people can play right now. Ciejka says there are no grants donated for Tennis For The Troops. He says owner Joe Clemente felt fortunate that the business is doing well, and wanted to pass it on.
They’ve even seen an uptick since the pandemic hit. Ciejka says they’re using that momentum to help as many veterans and family members as they can.
“You get a free membership to Tri-City Fitness,” Ciejka said. “Once they register they get a free t-shirt, free private tennis lesson, free tennis racquet, and all membership pricing whether they’re doing open time or clinics or anything like that.”
Ciejka says their atmosphere is loose but COVID protocols are strict.
“We take a lot of precautions,” Ciejka said. “I think we have 20 different hand sanitizers on the courts. We take people’s temperatures when they come in. Take employees’ temperatures. The list goes on and on, what we’re trying to do to keep everybody safe.”
Ciejka says Tri-City is a family-run business, and they don’t want newcomers to feel intimidated.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Ciejka said. “Everybody is pulling for everybody to succeed. It doesn’t matter what level you are. You could be a 5-0 or you could be a 2-0, somebody who’s just starting. Everybody works with each other to get everybody better.”
Tabankin says any service member, veteran, or family member who feels intimidated to show up for the first time should know that her group is waiting to welcome them with open arms – and courts.
“I think it can give them a sense of community and a sense of belonging and something to look forward to,” Tabankin said. “I look forward to Tuesday mornings coming and seeing everybody. There’s no skill, at all, required. When I first came I couldn’t even hit a ball. But everyone was so encouraging and they just want you to be part of the group – it didn’t matter. The hardest part is just walking through the door.”
Ciejka says, in many ways, tennis is perfect for veterans, and really anyone, who may need to blow off steam during the pandemic.
“I tell people tennis is like playing chess while you’re running on a treadmill for two hours,” Ciejka said. “That’s what it is. It’s problem solving at its highest level while you’re under stress, you’re tired, you’re fatigued. So it’s great for the mind it’s good for your cardiovascular, good for your flexibility, it’s just an all-around great sport.”
I myself am an Active Duty veteran and was able to play a few rounds at the facility.
For one, I felt totally isolated on my court – far away from the person I was playing and the courts next to me. And my favorite part: you don’t have to wear a mask because it’s so distanced. To be able to work out, indoors, in shorts, without a mask is a rare treat these days.
While sprinting for the ball or trying to get more power on my serve – I didn’t even realize I was working out. I was just having fun. And when I swung, hard, and completely missed the ball – no one made me feel bad about it.
I have to say, it’s the best I’ve felt in months.