by Ed Shanaphy, CMAA, USPTA
There’s a schism. In the religion that is country club life, golf and tennis have co-existed, but almost always on a different footing. Whereas James VI of Scotland became James I of England and brought golf to the southern part of the British Isles and united two warring nations, golf and tennis are on divergent paths currently. Just as Scotland has recently voted for secession from the United Kingdom, there is a divide between golf and tennis.
As in the days of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or in the halls of Lord Grantham’s fictional Downtown Abbey but in the very real downstairs of Highclere Castle, there is caste system among “servants.” As on our American show “Below Decks,” a yacht’s captain wouldn’t be caught ironing the linens of the owners just as a butler wouldn’t be caught doing a footman’s job. The same holds true at country clubs. It’s not that membership feels that it is receiving a lesser service from their tennis staff. It’s that they view the tennis and golf staffs quite differently.
Where a golf professional is paid almost entirely to teach or administrate, a tennis professional is regularly seen sweeping courts. It’s simply viewed as part of the role, if not in the actual job description. If a club championship final is finished, or just a lovely Sunday morning game on an early day in May 2021, if there is no one else around, he or she as a Director of Tennis picks up the broom, more often an Aussie Mat these days, and starts the drudgery of the airport queue formation back and forth across the court. If a tape of one of the lines is high, that Director pulls out the trusty screwdriver, clears out the clay underneath, and flattens the tape with the feet that are pulling the proverbial broom. It brings me to the words of Kander and Ebb, which I always thought were a bit condescending:
Put down the knitting
The book and the broom.
It’s time for a holiday.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum
Come to the Cabaret.
Come taste the wine
Come hear the band.
Come blow a horn
Right this way
Your table’s waiting.
Life Is A Cabaret
Life is a Cabaret. And, the tennis pros are missing it. I can actually hear a golf pro singing this tune to me, in his or her own condescending way. While the Director of Golf is schmoozing his or her way across the clubhouse’s luncheon terrace, the Director of Tennis is setting the irrigation clock for the mid-day watering timings. And it brought back words uttered to me by one of my long-serving Head Professionals: “Hey, when was the last time you saw a golf pro sweep a bunker?”
The caste system at work? Now, I understand that I am being a bit facetious, and that all of the above is slightly exaggerated – or is it? Is there a hierarchy at a country club? Is there a difference in how the two departments, and in turn the professionals, are viewed by memberships? There certainly is, and I keep scratching my head to try and figure out why.
The Sports of Kings
Both golf and tennis have royal roots. Tennis from the French, and golf from the Scots. Henry VIII made Real Tennis his sport of choice at Hampton Court Palace. He pickup up the game as it traveled across the English Channel. In fact, the Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution, really created the Third Estate’s desire of a National Assembly. Tennis was at the heart of government and politics.
Golf too has royal roots. The game which spoils a good walk was created on the East Coast of Scotland and James IV of Scotland was an avid golfer. His grandson, who united the crowns of Scotland and England, brought the game to London and Royal Blackheath, a Southern suburb nestled high above the Thames.
So why is it that golf has kept its royal roots and tennis has not? By this I mean look at the non-parallels. Each week we have a major crew from CBS or NBC covering the PGA event – and now we are getting more and more coverage of the women’s golf tour as well. Tennis Channel has just been dropped by YouTubeTV, one of the nation’s and world’s largest live streamers.
Why is it that the etiquette and love of the game seems to grow stronger on the links, than on the clay? The comments and behavior from parents and juniors alike at tennis tournaments are renowned. No such tradition or as many viewings of debauchery at junior golf tournaments. Golf has its pilgrimages to Royal St. Andrews. Again, there’s that word royal. Even the nearest city Edinburgh has the Royal Mile. Tennis just has Wimbledon, a stop on the banal District Line on London’s Underground.
Perhaps the respect for staff lies in the way the two historic sports are governed by etiquette and rules. At this year’s Masters, golfer Si Woo Kim broke his putter in slight frustration as he leaned onto it on the austere green grass of Augusta. He was forced to putt with his 3-wood. Imagine if tennis had made Serena Williams play with a Badminton racquet after cracking her Wilson Blade while slamming it into the hot American pavement of the US Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, only a few years ago.
Ah, Queens, New York. That’s possibly the closest tennis gets to royalty, especially if Harry and Meghan keep trying to dissolve the family. I mean even golf’s ultimate governing body is royal – The Royal & Ancient. It denotes a royal and glorious past with roots to ancient times. The International Tennis Federation just doesn’t have that ring to it. And, what national federation has progressed as well as golf? Golf shows a profit, both internationally, nationally, and sometimes at a country club. The United States, itself a federation of States, boasts an annual debt beyond comprehension. Oh, and tennis? Club General Managers no longer wonder if tennis departments can ever make money. They simply wonder how much of member dues should be allocated to prop up the fences for next year’s budget. I can almost hear them saying: “If we let the fences fall, we could use the courts for additional golf parking, if needed. Remind me, why did we change them from grass to clay? It would have kept the members’ cars cleaner!”
All joking apart, whatever the reason, golf’s staff are royalty and tennis’s staff are not. Just look at the difference in office and shop space. I can’t think of a club that offers both golf and tennis with a bigger tennis shop than its golf shop. Heaps of merchandise, with offices for the Director and Head Professional, the golf shop with its leather furniture exudes gravitas. The tennis shop is a shed that hasn’t been updated since they moved the course mowing equipment out of it in 1962.
The Secret Lies In Service
But seriously, how can we change the sad state of tennis in comparison to golf? Through member service. We in the tennis industry should take a good, long look at ourselves. Golf offers superior member and customer service. It’s engrained in the way the PGA educates its teaching professionals. You drive up to the bag drop, and a clean-cut bag handler with radio crackling greets you and asks with whom you might be playing. He’s clocked your name as you were buzzed in the member gate. At most tennis clubs, a member is lucky to get a grunt from the pro feeding balls in his or her cage, the teaching court. I rarely see a tennis professional sit at the front desk or door and greet people. Those that do? Well, they run the best programs in the nation.
I know I am generalizing. But I know many more golf professionals that jump in a cart and go visit all the foursomes on the course than I do tennis professionals who make the rounds to each court every morning to greet members. I know many more golf professionals that ensure the golf carts are clean and ready with water and a score card than I do tennis professionals who pull out the ball machine, set it up, get the member started with the right pace of feeds, and check on their members halfway through. Imagine if golf had a ball machine? There would be a cooler of drinks just behind the machine for the members’ free use and towels to clean the clubs between each feed! And an attendant to pick up the balls immediately for the member. Why don’t we pick up the tennis balls for our members using the machine? Golf not only picks up the range balls, but stacks them in nicely built triangles back on the practice tee.
Tennis can, and should be, on an equal footing with golf, but we let ourselves down by not going that extra mile. We don’t have that penchant for the special touch. Golf does. The next time one of your tennis members says, I really like Sprite after a match, place a six-pack of Sprite for him to find in his locker before his next match. That member will never forget it – and he’ll treat you differently from that day forward. And, he might not expect you to sweep his court while downing his beverage.
Ed Shanaphy is Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, MA. He looks longingly across the water at Kittansett Golf Club, which hosted the 1953 Walker Cup, and wonders why he didn’t take more golf lessons as a youngster.