This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s new series on the pleasure of tennis, and also part of our guide to london
I learned to play tennis on a council court in South London in the 1980s as a boy. The location was my ramshackle local park, where I threw balls thrown at me by a tennis instructor. Every miss was met with ragged jeers from the park’s daily congregation of street drinkers. I still hear the echo of their pleas every time I hit a forehand midway through next week or fire a second serve obediently into the net.
These days I play in another park in London. The idea of joining a private club sometimes comes to mind, but I don’t really see myself there. As my tennis life began, so it will continue – amid missed shots and public court interruptions, where elite fantasies of excellence are drilled by neighboring players asking for their ball. It is the other home of tennis in the city of Wimbledon.
London’s public courts date back to the early 20th century. Contrary to the image of sport as a distinguished country-house pastime, it was a popular urban activity. In 1924, tennis writer AJ Aitken wrote of how his study had overlooked “one of Britain’s largest public lawn tennis courts”, where play started early in the morning “so that people can get ready before work at eight o’clock”. Aitken estimated that 500,000 gamblers regularly used UK public courts.
Public lawn tennis is now as rare as hen’s teeth. But London retains an extensive network of courts, mostly owned by local councils. Anyone can book them, usually through the private leisure companies responsible for managing them. Most offer free membership for booking. A few courts are also free, although the usual rate is around £10 an hour.
Most players rarely stray far from the streetcar lines of their local courts. But there’s a quixotic thrill to exploring London with a tennis racket. Places to play range from verdant royal parks to the gray underside of Westway’s two-lane speedway. They are mainly hard courts, although it is also possible to play on clay and synthetic surfaces. With the closure of the grass courts at Golders Hill Park, part of Hampstead Heath, municipal lawn tennis has retreated to a last redoubt on the edge of south-east London. The grass courts at Eltham Park South are available free of charge during the summer – the only place outside of private clubs where the casual player can indulge in dreams of playing Wimbledon.
Golden Lane Sports and Fitness
Fann Street, Fann Lane, Golden Lane Estate, London EC1 0SH
Good for: Modernist architecture enthusiasts
Not so good for: The wallet, at £22 an hour. The surface is well maintained but the courts are scruffy: a broken chain link in the fence left a tear in my sweatshirt
The architecture is the main attraction of the Courts of the Golden Lane housing estate in the City of London. Inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, it was built in the 1950s/early 1960s. The Courts are overlooked by what was Britain’s tallest residential building when it opened. To one side is a section of apartments whose design anticipated the construction of the neighboring Barbican estate. When I visit, I play a friend who is a tennis fanatic and get a lucky draw. Our only companions are the primary school children doing exercises on the other court. The Tennis Fanatic plays athletically but imprecisely. I play in the solid but static style of a statue. A solitary viewer turns out to have stared lazily into space while listening to music through headphones: he looks surprised when I tell him the result. Mon–Fri, 8am–8pm; weekends, 8am-4pm; £22 per hour
Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3TL
God and Mammon meet in this courtyard in the heart of the City. It belongs to St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, an elegant 18th century church. The courtyard is located in the cemetery, at the foot of several glass corporate towers. The surface is old-school concrete, with the slightly confusing addition of netball marks. The church has a history of helping the homeless in the East End. A jolly fellow on a bench, descending from my audience when I learned to play, holds a shouted commentary during my match with a tennis-mad colleague. Unaccustomed to the good-natured barracks, the competitive colleague quickly lost the first set, before closing in on a bagel in the second set (where the set ended 6-0). But as we have to finish with him leading 5-0, I claim a victory on a set-to-love. Mon–Fri, 7am–5pm; £20 per hour
Meadows of the Dukes
Dan Mason Drive, London W4 2SH
Good for: Shouting “vamos!” in imitation of Rafael Nadal winning his umpteenth Roland-Garros title
Not so good for: Middle-aged confidence, as tomorrow’s Emma Raducanus and Jack Drapers hone their skills on adjacent courts
The clay courts at Roland Garros have their paying equivalent in West London at Dukes Meadows in Chiswick. A large sports center next to the River Thames, it has four well-maintained clay courts. My game with a well-known media personality is surrounded by kids who are quick to punch their coaches. Meanwhile, the media personality and I gallop around our pitch like elephants on the senior circuit. He’s out of practice but gets more accurate as our game progresses, doing arrow volleys like lines on a phone radio show. Too late to salvage the result, though – a one-set win for me. Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri–Sun, 7am–9pm; from £10 per hour
Torquay Street, London W2 5EW
Good for: play in the rain
Not so good for: Strawberries and cream. There are restricted hours of availability during the week
I hesitate to describe this as a hidden gem. It is, however, tucked away – a solitary courtyard under the vast concrete canopy of the Westway flyover, next to a wide stretch of railway tracks leading to Paddington station. Part of a complex of floodlit artificial football pitches and multi-purpose play areas, it is the opposite of Center Court, an anti-Wimbledon. Unseen traffic rumbles overhead along the Westway as trains drive in and out of Paddington. The pitch is a no-frills affair, covered in markings for other sports. I’m training alone, I feel like I’m in a The Clash song as I send serves: “London call, see we ain’t got no swing…” Mon–Fri, 5pm–9pm; weekends, 9am-10pm; £11.30 per hour
Do you have a favorite public tennis court in London? Tell us in the comments
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