This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s new series on the joy of tennis, and also part of our guide to London
I learnt to play tennis on a municipal court in south London as a boy in the 1980s. The location was my rundown local park, where I bunted balls propelled towards me by a tennis instructor. Every mis-hit was met with ragged jeers from the park’s daily congregation of street drinkers. I still hear the echo of their calls whenever I thrash a forehand into the middle of next week or propel a second serve meekly into the net.
These days I play in a different London park. The thought of joining a private club occasionally comes to mind, but I can’t really see myself there. As my tennis life began, so shall it continue — amid the miscued shots and interruptions of the public court, where fantasies of elite excellence are punctured by neighbouring players asking for their ball back. This 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 sport’s image as a genteel country-house pastime, it was a popular urban pursuit. In 1924, tennis writer AJ Aitken wrote about how his study overlooked “one of the largest fields of public lawn tennis courts in Great Britain”, where play began early in the morning “so people can get a set in before work at eight”. Aitken estimated that 500,000 players regularly used Britain’s 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 that are contracted to run them. Most offer free membership for booking. A few courts are free to use as well, although the typical charge is about £10 an hour.
Most players rarely stray from the tramlines of their local courts. But there is a quixotic thrill to exploring London with a tennis racket. Places to play range from leafy royal parks to the grey underside of the Westway flyover dual-carriageway. They are mainly hard courts, although it is possible to play on clay and synthetic surfaces too. With the closure of the grass courts in Golders Hill Park, part of Hampstead Heath, municipal lawn tennis has retreated to a last redoubt at the edge of south-east London. The grass courts at Eltham Park South are available for free use during the summer — the only place outside private clubs where the casual player can indulge in dreams of playing at Wimbledon.
Golden Lane Sport & Fitness
Fann Street, Fann Lane, golden lane estate, London EC1 0SH
Good for: Modernist architecture buffs
Not so good for: The wallet, at a costly £22 an hour. The surface is well-maintained but the courts are shabby: a broken chain link in the fencing left a rip in my sweatshirt
Architecture is the main draw for the courts in the Golden Lane housing estate in the City of London. Modelled on Le Corbusier’s work, it was built in the 1950s/early 1960s. The courts are overlooked by what was the highest residential building in Britain when it opened. To one side is a section of flats whose design anticipated the construction of the next-door Barbican estate. On my visit, I play a friend who is a tennis fanatic and pinch a lucky one-set-all draw. Our only companions are primary-school children doing exercises on the other court. The Tennis Fanatic plays with athleticism but imprecision. I play in the solid but static style of a statue. A solitary onlooker turns out to have been gazing idly into space while listening to music on headphones: he looks startled when I tell him the result. Mon–Fri, 8am–8pm; weekends, 8am–4pm; £22 an hour
Bishopsgate, london EC2M 3TL
God and Mammon meet at this court in the heart of the City. It is owned by St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, an elegant 18th-century church. The court is sited in the churchyard, at the foot of several glass corporate towers. The surface is old-school concrete, with the slightly confusing addition of netball markings. The church has a history of helping the homeless in the East End. A jovial fellow on a bench, a descendant of my audience when I learnt to play, keeps up a shouted commentary during my match with a tennis-mad colleague. Unused to the good-natured barracking, the Competitive Colleague promptly loses the first set, before closing in on a second-set bagel (where the set ends 6-0). But as we have to finish with him leading 5-0, I claim a set-to-love victory. Mon–Fri, 7am–5pm; £20 an hour
Dan Mason Drive, London W4 2SH
Good for: Shouting “Vamos!” in imitation of Rafael Nadal winning his umpteenth French Open title
Not so good for: Middle-aged confidence, as the Emma Raducanus and Jack Drapers of tomorrow hone their skills on adjoining courts
The clay courts of Roland Garros have their west London pay-and-play equivalent at Dukes Meadows in Chiswick. A sprawling sports centre next to the Thames, it has four well-kept clay courts available. My game with a well-known media personality is surrounded by children hitting fast skimming strokes at their coaches. Meanwhile, the Media Personality and I galumph around our court like senior-circuit elephants. He is out of practice but gets sharper as our game unfolds, arrowing volleys like retorts on a radio phone-in show. Too late to save the result, however — a one-set victory to me. Mon–Thurs, 7am–10pm; Fri–Sun, 7am–9pm; from £10 an hour
Torquay Street, London W2 5EW
Good for: Playing 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, hidden — a solitary court under the vast concrete canopy of the Westway flyover, next to a wide expanse of railway tracks leading to Paddington station. Part of a complex of floodlit artificial football pitches and multi-use game areas, it is Centre Court’s opposite, an anti-Wimbledon. Unseen traffic rumbles overhead along the Westway, while trains head in and out of Paddington. The court is a no-nonsense affair, covered in markings for other sports. I practise alone, feeling like I am in a song by The Clash as I send down serves: “London calling, see we ain’t got no swing…” Mon–Fri, 5–9pm; weekends, 9am–10pm; £11.30 an hour
Do you have a favourite public tennis court in London? Tell us in the comments
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