Easy-access municipal courts are a key to growing tennis. But how can you deal with vandalism and abuse?
Public tennis courts are where tennis really starts. Surveys have shown that 70 percent of all players started playing on public courts. Children take lessons there, students meet for friendly matches there in the summer or after classes, and seniors meet up to hit balls and stay in the game. It’s what you as a rec manager had in mind all along.
Something you didn’t have in mind, though, is what seems to be happening with increasing frequency. Players are complaining that someone has had a fast-food picnic overnight and left food wrappers lying around. Show up to clean up the mess and suddenly, you become aware of a number of other problems. Someone has allowed their children to use one court to ride their collapsible scooters because the surface is marked. In another court, there is graffiti on the hitting wall.
The same thing that makes park and community courts great — the fact that anyone can use them — is the same thing that threatens them: anyone can use them (and unfortunately, abuse them).
With so many municipal budgets being slashed, it’s usually not possible to hire a security force to keep an eye on your tennis courts. But, say members of the American Sports Builders Association, there are a few proactive measures that sports facility managers can take to try to keep courts a little safer.
Whether it’s gang tag graffiti or the work of kids trying to establish whose high school is better, you don’t want it on your hitting wall (or anywhere else). Having a mural on the hitting wall works in some areas to deter vandals, but it depends on the area, the type of vandalism you’re experiencing, and how isolated your courts are.
Many managers find it easier to apply anti-graffiti coatings, which establish a protective surface that paint cannot bond to. There are various types of such coatings on the market, and some are more expensive than others, but when compared to the constant work of having to remove graffiti, the coatings pay for themselves. (In many cities where large murals cover the sides of buildings or underpasses, these coatings are a routine part of the artistic process, and work as an investment to keep the finished product safe.)
S.O.S. (Save Our Surface)
A tennis court is built with certain traffic in mind, namely white-soled court shoes and felt-coated tennis balls. It’s not set up to accommodate skateboards, inline skates, bikes and other uses, and the surface is going to be marked up by basketball shoes, street shoes and so forth.
Posting signs stating the rules (court shoes only; no skates, bikes, etc. on the surface) should be the facility manager’s first line of defense. Unfortunately, that only works for those who read the signs and obey the rules, two ingredients that are often missing from those who are abusing the courts.
Some managers of park courts have found that rather than trying to keep skaters, inline hockey players and others off all the tennis courts, it is easier to set aside a court (or another paved area) just for their use. That area can be simply a flat surface free of net posts, and can be fenced to enhance safety. They should also be surfaced in a different manner, according to Matt Hale of Halecon Inc. in Bridgewater, N.J.
Hale recommends a surface as flat as possible, since “the slightest crack, bump, or ridge can cause a tripping hazard, which is very dangerous to the players. Due to the nature of these sports, with hockey sticks constantly hitting the surface for inline hockey, and bikes and skateboards skidding, falling and hitting the surfaces, the surface must be tougher than a standard acrylic surface used on tennis courts.”
Damaged tennis surfaces can be repaired by a tennis-court contractor, who may also be able to provide advice on surfacing for adjacent areas for skating, basketball and other activities. Make sure that other areas are marked for specific sports, and separately fenced, to provide extra delineation.
Fencing is always a conundrum for facility managers, who need to strike a balance between keeping courts safe and keeping them accessible. Some courts have been designed with fence mazes that are effective at keeping out bicycle traffic, but this makes it difficult for wheelchair players to enter. Some court managers have designed gates just wide enough for a standard wheelchair, but note that this also leaves the court vulnerable to other abuses. Ask Alex Levitsky of Global Sports & Tennis Design Group LLC in Fair Haven, N.J., how to prevent abuse in an unsupervised area, and he simply sighs and says, “Pray.”
Unsupervised courts may begin to have problems with the net. It may sag because children have been leaning on it, pulling at it or running into it — or it may be because well-meaning players have over-tightened it prior to their game. (In some cases, an over-tightened net can lead to damage of the winding mechanism, to the post and even to the court itself.)
“We do see damage to net posts and net-post footers from over-tightened nets,” says Jonnie Deremo of General Acrylics Inc. of Phoenix. “We always tell people with open unsupervised facilities not to leave the net post crank handles on the posts, but they seem to end up there anyway. This is a maintenance issue that if checked regularly, would prevent so much damage.”
Tamper-resistant net posts, which have an internal wind mechanism, have been used in municipal installations with great success. Nets can be set to the correct tension by a court manager, then locked into place. Because there is no external handle for users to turn, there’s no way to over-tighten the net.
Fences and gates may be vulnerable to abuse as well. According to Levitsky, fences may show bulges from being leaned on, being hit by soccer balls and so forth. In addition, if movable fence gates lead to the tennis court, children may amuse themselves by riding the gates back and forth, ultimately damaging the hinges and making the gate drag on the surface of the court.
What Can You Do?
Court lighting may help the problem. Vandals and other mischief-makers hate an audience. If your facility doesn’t have all-night lighting, consider motion-activated sensors for lighting fixtures. (Bonus: It increases a sense of safety for players who want to play at night or early in the morning.)
Locking the gates around courts at night is effective, but should be considered a last resort, particularly since the point of a public court is to invite play. However, if damage is profound, it may be the only option.
Perhaps, say builders, the most effective way to prevent problems is, like anything else, to keep courts busy. Courts that see a lot of player traffic are less likely to sit idle, and less likely to be used the wrong way, or even abused.
“The key is generating tennis activity on the courts — not locking them up — then the rest will be taken care of,” says Richard Zaino of Zaino Tennis Courts in Orange, Calif.
Leagues, tennis days, clinics, camps, P.E., after-school or recess programs — it all keeps courts busy. And with activity comes stewardship — players take a sense of ownership of the courts, and are likely to report those who are misusing them. They’ll also report problems with the court itself, like cracks, marks or aging equipment, which, with any luck, will translate into those problems being addressed quickly, and play continuing, or growing.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.