By Sasha Aronson
In a year where crowds were hard to come by, the New Orleans City Park seemed like a blast from the past. Cheering and clapping was audible from the parking lot and the classic windy roads of City Park were filled with people supporting their loved ones. The final of the USTA 4.0 Winter Men’s League was certainly not why the park was bustling but the match drew a crowd. Following an announcement from the match referee for fans to be socially distant, the match could finally start. The excitement of the fans to see the match was palpable, most of the people watching had no reason to watch other than because they wanted to. It was clear these people simply wanted something to cheer for and City Park served as the haven for competitive tennis, about the only sport people could safely go to.
Nic Rioja, a freshman at Tulane I work with on the Men’s Basketball Team, is no more than 5-foot-6 but his confidence on the court made him seem to stand 7 feet tall. Nic had been the best player in his division of competitors his age and now was on the verge of winning a tournament with adults from NOLA that had been playing longer than Nic has been alive. Nic’s family are new residents of NOLA, moving from Atlanta in July of 2018. He has transitioned well into his new city, attending Tulane after two years of high school in NOLA. In comparing the level of tennis competition in NOLA as compared to Atlanta, Nic admitted that moving here had been a bit of a step up in competition, “New Orleans does not have many tennis players which may make it seem like it’s easier to win here, but the truth is that it was easier to win in Atlanta. The reason behind this is that although there are fewer people that play tennis here, the ones who do play tennis are very skilled, whereas in Atlanta there were more people that played but many more casual players.”
Nic’s assertion that New Orleans’ players posed more of a challenge to him was not obvious in the match I watched him play. As he would later describe, tennis matches are like boxing, “Shots are like punches; a little jab here, an uppercut there…some matches you just have to put your hands up at your face and absorb the blows from the opponent before you counterpunch. When you win, it’s because of what you did and solely what you did.” He flew across his half of the court defending every blow his opponent tried to throw his way and responding with shots that looked like they had bad intention behind it. By the end of the match, it was clear who was the better player but Nic’s opponent showed only grace. Speaking to what Nic would later call NOLA’s “small” big city feeling, the two competitors put their masks on at the net and exchanged jokes and complimentary words. Nic described the New Orleans tennis culture as a far more welcoming one than Atlanta, one where the norm in competition was friendliness.
The natural distance between competitors in tennis makes it a perfect sport to organize during times when distance is the paramount mode of keeping people safe. As a fundamentally 1v1 sport in which the two competitors are on opposite sides of the court, players like Nic could organize their own matches around their schedules and, more importantly around positive COVID tests. Nic, and the rest of his competitors were forced to be flexible as even just a week prior Nic’s semi-final match had been canceled due to his opponent testing positive. The untimely news sent Nic straight into the finals as his semifinal competition dropped out in fear of residual symptoms. Regardless, Nic was able to complete his match, something that he was very lucky to do. Most other sports in NOLA are not being organized to the same extent as Nic’s tennis tournament was. Men’s leagues in team sports like basketball, baseball and soccer are difficult to come by and it has made individual sports such as tennis and golf more valuable nowadays simply because of one’s ability to safely play. Tennis and golf are traditionally very white-collar sports and the 25-dollar fee Nic had to pay to enter the tournament does potentially restrict who he can play against. While in normal times the NOLA City Park Tennis Courts might be home to matches that were not organized the way the tournament was, the pandemic has forced the park to only host matches that are apart of larger organized events. Tournaments like this one helped to keep parks open and certain communities together but as the city finally escapes the clutches of a pandemic, there will no doubt be residual damage done to communities where tennis is not the primary sport.