Tennis, a favorite sport of Atlanta’s seniors, returns after pandemic shutdown briefly clears the courts

Bob Fitzgerald’s introduction to Atlanta tennis came about 30 years ago, soon after he moved from Pennsylvania into a new East Cobb subdivision. When he met his neighbors, “Somebody said, ‘Do you play tennis?’ I said, ‘no.’ They said, ‘Well, do you drink beer?’”

He did. Soon he was holding a racket and batting balls on the mean courts of Atlanta’s suburbs and drinking beer afterwards with his teammates in ALTA, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association. ALTA, which turns 87 this year and claims to be one of the largest tennis associations in the world, is an organization that promises to give “big-city Atlanta a small-town feel.”

ALTA brought both exercise and social life to the shiny new tennis courts spotted across Atlanta’s sprawling burbs. “It was a great experience,” Fitzgerald said. “You got to meet all the neighbors.”

To hear ALTA’s fans tell it, pretty much everybody in Atlanta’s suburbs plays tennis. The organization claims nearly 60,000 racket-wielding members, but as Fitzgerald and others point out, you only had to go to a grocery store on a weekday morning and count the customers wearing tennis dresses to see evidence of the game’s reach.

ALTA 2020 President Sandy Depa, 2021 President Debbie Gaster, and 2022 President Lamar Scott.

Sandy Depa, who settled Atlanta in 1994 and now lives in Forsyth County, said the metro area was so well known as tennis-obsessed that friends in Tulsa told her even before she moved that she would have to learn the sport to fit in. “I said, ‘I don’t have to do anything,’ she said. “But I got sucked in.”

Both Fitzgerald, who’s 64 and lives in Woodstock now, and Depa, who’s in her 60s, are still playing regularly. Both got so deeply involved with ALTA that they ended up running the organization. They were chairman and president of ALTA during 2020, which Depa calls “the wonderful year, the year that takes all the prizes.” Fitzgerald was ALTA’s chairman and Depa its president when the COVID-19 pandemic cleared Atlanta’s tennis courts.

Depa calls ALTA tennis “a lifesaver” for its players. “It’s your outlet to get away from work and it’s your social life. It’s outdoors,” she said. “I think it’s huge.”

ALTA’s organized play has always attracted older players alongside younger ones. The association officially defines “senior” players as those older than 45 and says about 37,000 of its members are older than 45. But many players who are much older regularly hit the courts, with half of ALTA’s members aged 50 or older, nearly 12,000 aged 60 or older, 3,000 aged 70 or older and nearly 300 aged 80 or older still playing regularly, ALTA marketing director Emmy Powell said. Members live in communities spread from Peachtree City to Hall County, Powell said.

Then came last spring and the sudden rapid spread of the pandemic. Because of the coronavirus, “last year was exhausting,” Depa said.

As the virus quickly spread last spring, ALTA officials weren’t sure what to do. “We really didn’t know,” said Debbie Gaster, ALTA’s president for 2021. “When it first started, [we had questions such as] ‘Are the tennis balls dangerous? Everybody’s touching them.’”

Bob Fitzgerald, ALTA’s chairman during 2020, returns a shot.

“We were scared,” Fitzgerald said. “What if it wasn’t safe? … The last thing we wanted to do was put people’s lives in danger.”

ALTA stopped its league play in March 2020 as the first wave of shutdowns were ordered in Georgia and some tennis facilities started to close. Depa said ALTA’s leadership finally decided to end play once they saw the Cobb County schools were closing because of the pandemic. That meant some players likely would have to stay home with their kids. Shortly after ALTA announced it was ending its season, the state issued orders that just about everybody shut down non-essential gatherings.

The decision to shut down ALTA play wasn’t popular with everyone. “My inbox was flooded with about 500 angry emails calling me every name in the book, telling me how stupid it was,” Depa said.

The next question was whether and when to reopen. By summer, articles began appearing listing tennis among the safer sports, Depa said. “Tennis was number one,” she said. “It was in the newspaper, it was in articles, it was on the internet, so we did make the decision to open,”

ALTA play returned in July. Fitzgerald calls the decisions to close and then to reopen “two of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”

The decision to reopen also drew critics, Depa said. For its reopened matches, ALTA leadership imposed new rules: no lunch spreads after matches; no hanging around before or after play; players had to stay distanced from one another; rules on forfeits were broadened to account for teams that couldn’t compete because their players didn’t feel safe. The new rules effectively ended much of the social aspect of the matches that ALTA members prided themselves on.

Still, players raced back onto the courts. And the older players led the way. More players signed up for senior league play in the summer of 2020 than had the year before, even though those players faced the greatest threat from the coronavirus. “I was so shocked,” Depa said. “It actually grew.”

Woodstock tennis pro Mark Billson saw a similar resurgence of interest at the center where he teaches. The center shut down briefly last spring because of the coronavirus. Despite the threat, players wanted to get back on the courts, he said. “Everyone wanted to open,” he said. “The ones that didn’t want to open, they didn’t have to come…. It was a bit of a risk, but we were careful and people were careful. They needed it for their sanity.”

Billson, who’s 60 and learned the game growing up in South Africa, instructs ALTA players and plays on ALTA teams himself. The oldest student he’s had was 88, he said.

“It’s not really a young person’s game. That’s what’s so great about it,” Billson said. “The cliché is, ‘Tennis is a game for a lifetime.’ You can play this game forever.”

He sees the advantages for older players as obvious, compared with other sports. “The risk of injury is low, You get good exercise. There’s a lot of camaraderie in tennis and you can compete with all ages. Sixty [year olds] can play with 20 [year olds] pretty easily. … I’m 60. I’m a lot slower, but I can play with almost everybody. I know my small area [of the court] pretty well. They can’t run me out of it.”
Fitzgerald says the Friday Night Seniors league has become one of his favorites. “They’ve been playing a long time and everybody’s there to enjoy the match. … You say ‘nice shot’ more than you used to. It’s not as intense. I’d say everybody’s got a number of years under their belt. You’ve won and lost enough.”
But maybe they still haven’t played enough. Depa said that when ALTA restarted after just a few months off for COVID-19, some players were thrilled.

“I can still remember one lady coming up to me and saying, ‘I want to say thank you so much for getting tennis back. You saved my marriage.’”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.