Have racket, will travel

Have racket, will travel
Originally published in Ace Tennis Magazine, February 2003

Today’s business travellers tend to be a fairly uniform lot. Have laptop, mobile and passport, will travel.

Why not add a tennis racket? Few people travel on business with their racket. Golf, not tennis, is the international business game. But over the last decade, I have travelled to both major business destinations and more unusual places, and I’ve found that for the determined, there is always a tennis game to be found. In addition to indulging in a thoroughly enjoyable sport, tennis on your travels is both an excellent antidote to jet lag and a way to meet people outside the ordinary business whirl.

And even though each tennis court is pretty much like the last, it’s often true that finding a court takes you to corners of a city that you might otherwise never have explored.

Undoubtedly the easiest and best way to play when travelling is with friends. If you have a chance to ask business acquaintances whether they play tennis, you’ll often be gratified by the response. In a few cases, casual acquaintances have become firm friends thanks to regular tennis matches on my travels.

If you are lucky enough to be travelling with a colleague who plays tennis, your task is considerably easier. Most cities have accessible public courts which can often be booked through a hotel’s concierge.

You may also be fortunate enough (or embarrassed enough) to have a colleague with the chutzpah of a former associate of mine. We agreed to play some tennis when we were both attending the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in Sofia, Bulgaria. I assumed Martin would find a park court. Nothing was ever so simple with Martin. He bundled me into a taxi and headed straight for the national sports complex. There we found serried ranks of budding Maleevas diligently practicing on every court. But Martin was skilled in the old Soviet art of blat – bribery by any other name. A discreet word with the coach (and I suspect some carefully judged dollars) and we had a free court for the morning.

In my experience, there’s a high correlation between business success and aggression on the tennis court. One friend, who runs one of the world’s major public relations consultancies, is a wonderfully fluent serve and volley player, who loves to crush his opponents – even when his 80-something father is in the pair across the net.

I have another friend who occasionally plays doubles with billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros. The 72-year old Soros apparently has a penchant for viciously drilling volleys straight his rivals. I suppose it’s the tennis court equivalent of breaking the Bank of England.

Some of the aggression, of course, might be the by-product of the stresses of business life. Just as a few sets can get the kinks out of your jet-lagged body, so it can have a similar curative effect on a stressed-out mind.

If you don’t know someone who plays tennis at your destination, there are times when your hotel can be helpful. In most business centres, hotels don’t have tennis courts. But there are some welcome exceptions. In Manhattan, the Millennium UN Plaza has an indoor court on the 39th floor with the only explicitly Freudian tennis coach I’ve ever heard of. Steffi Graf in her playing heyday was known to practice at the Millennium when she was in New York – without the Freudian coach, to my knowledge.

In Singapore a number of the hotels have tennis courts, including the Marina Mandarin, the Shangri-La and Raffles The Plaza. If you find a helpful hotel concierge, they can often overcome the absence of a hotel court. When I stayed at Raffles in Singapore, the concierge found an Australian businessman staying across the street at Raffles The Plaza who was looking for a game.

One of the most exotic business hotel tennis courts is at the Nile Hilton in Cairo. The one court sits in front of the hotel, separated from the Nile only by a thin screen of trees. When you book a session with the resident coach at the Nile Hilton, you get a ball boy to assist you as well.

Failing a friend or a helpful hotel, you can try the local tennis clubs. You can search through the Internet for local tennis clubs, where you can usually organise a session with a local coach. In my experience the less glamorous a club, the more helpful it tends to be, either in organising an hour hitting with a coach or even finding a local player to hit with.

When I was travelling to San Francisco a couple of years ago, the grand San Francisco Tennis Club was shocked at my suggestion that, as a non-member, I might be able to find a game. The lower-key Golden Gateway club was happy to arrange time with one of their pros. If you are both shaking off jet lag and trying to fit in a busy business schedule, you might well want to play before breakfast – which tends to be an easier time to grab a coach than evenings or lunchtime.

The quality of game you find in this way can be highly variable. A friend who used to cover Asia/Pacific for The Economist recently told me that he felt a bit guilty when he was able to beat the local “pro” in a provincial city in Indonesia.

Some clubs have open sessions where they might welcome visiting players. In New York, the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club has practice sessions on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings from 7-9am. In addition to two hours of tennis, both singles and doubles, managed by the club pro, coffee, bagels and orange juice are provided. And best of all, to get to the club you take an extraordinary cable car over the East River. The views of the east side of Manhattan in the early morning light are unrivalled.

Sometimes Internet searches for clubs can produce other opportunities. My travels used to take me regularly to Silicon Valley. Looking for a friendly club there, I found instead a local coach who seemed unattached to any particular facility. For the next few years, whenever I was in Palo Alto, Gary and I had a wonderful hitting session early in the morning in one of the city parks.

Another way to find a game is through Sportsladders.com, a website established in 1997 precisely to create a world-wide tennis ladder. Trial listings are free. According to founder and executive vice-president Mike Dombrowski, Sportsladders.com now has 15,000 registered members, 80% in the US. But there are members worldwide. There are, for example, six members listed in Beijing, ten in Buenos Aires and 11 in Cairo. I haven’t tried the Sportsladders service, but it looks purpose-designed for travelling tennis enthusiasts.

There’s no doubt that travelling with your racket can be fun, but what does it do for your game? I think there are some dangers in being coached by too many people, but in my experience most club pros are alert to the problem and won’t try to reconstruct your service action in a one-off hitting session. What can help, however, is hearing some familiar advice expressed in a slightly different way that might just click for you. But perhaps the greatest practical value in playing on your travels is learning ways to adapt to different surfaces, climates and players. If you stick to the regular crowd of opponents at your local club, you’ll never know what you’re missing.

Sidebar: the hacker’s slam

You probably gave up the dream of playing on Wimbledon’s turf long ago. But what about playing on the courts of the other grand slam tournaments? Two of the slam venues welcome players of all abilities, outside the handful of weeks when the pros are on court.

Unsurprisingly it’s the homes of the US and Australian Opens that open their doors to the meanest hackers.

The National Tennis Center in New York is not the most picturesque place to play. But it can be handy for a last-minute game before your flight: La Guardia Airport is virtually next door and JFK International isn’t far away. The USTA pays New York City $400,000 to rent the centre for its own events (notably the US Open), but 11 months of the year anyone can play there.

The USTA reckons the National Tennis Center is the largest public tennis complex in the world, with 33 outdoor courts and nine indoor courts. Indoor courts cost up to $48 per hour, but outdoor courts are only $24 in peak time (weekday evenings and weekends) and $16 during weekdays.

Melbourne Park is more attractive. Its 22 outdoor courts and four indoor courts are ranged alongside Yarra River, near the main business district of Melbourne. Even at peak times (weekday evenings) courts cost no more than A$38 per hour. Bookings are taken a maximum of six days in advance. There are organised tennis workouts every weekday at lunchtime and on Wednesday evenings. There are even informal mixed competitions on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Inevitably (this is Australia, remember), the facilities at Melbourne Park include an outdoor BBQ area for group bookings.

And Roland Garros? A spokesperson for the Fédération Française de Tennis, which owns the complex, was horrified at the thought. “If we allowed visitors to come and play,” she declared, “it would be anarchy.”

Fact box

All business travellers like to keep their baggage to a minimum. If you’re also planning to fit in some tennis, you’ll need to take your tennis shoes, shorts and a shirt. You can sometimes get away with leaving your racket at home – most US clubs, in my experience, have demo rackets available.

New York City
National Tennis Center
Tel +1 718 760 6200
Millennium UN Plaza
tel +1 212 758 1234
Roosevelt Island Racquet Club
Tel +1 212 935 0250

Tel +65 6337 1886
Raffles The Plaza
Tel +65 6339 7777
Marina Mandarin
Tel +65 6338 3388

Nile Hilton
Tel +20 2 578 0444

San Francisco
Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club
Tel +1 415 616 8800

Melbourne Park
Tel +61 3 9286 1600


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