Road tennis rising: How the revival of a street sport empowers Barbados

by Whitney Eulich, CSM Special Correspondent from Bridgetown, Barbados

152005Anthony “Baku” Simmons (left) transformed his mechanic workshop in Bridgetown, Barbados, into a neighborhood road tennis court and training center in the late 1990s. Whitney Eulich

June 14, 2023

When septuagenarian Keith Griffith was a kid, he remembers gathering with friends in front of his home, dragging a low wooden plank into the middle of the street to play a uniquely Barbadian sport called road tennis – and having the time of his life. 

Barbados may be known for its white-sand beaches, crystalline waters, and killer fish sandwiches, but many here hope road tennis will soon become synonymous with the Caribbean island.

The sport emerged in response to classism and racism in the 1930s that excluded many Barbadians, or Bajans, from private clubs and tennis courts. Locals like Mr. Griffith remember kids collecting stray tennis balls that flew over traditional tennis court fences and removing the green fuzz to use the rubber inside for their games. Any time a car approached, they’d move the long board, about 8 inches tall and used as a net, onto the curb.

“Road tennis was a gem for us,” says Mr. Griffith, now 79, who played until about six years ago when he retired for health reasons. “You could just step outside and play.”

The game is likened to a combination of table tennis and lawn tennis. Players use what look like oversized wooden table tennis paddles with flat handles, which makes wrist work key. The “net” is so low to the ground that players must be, too. That means backs, buns, and knees get a thorough workout.

Today the sport is more formalized with standard court sizes, official governing bodies, and government-backed efforts to export the game around the globe. A single tournament can net a winner thousands of dollars, or even a new car. But the professionalization of road tennis and the dream of taking it far beyond Barbadian borders hasn’t erased the beauty of its humble beginnings, players and proponents say.

152005Whitney EulichAs the afternoon wears on, more and more neighbors turn out at the community road tennis courts in Belfield, Barbados, to play, watch, and socialize.

“This sport is about taking what you have and making something beautiful out of it,” says Dale Clarke, CEO of the Professional Road Tennis Association. “Road tennis, like Barbados, is a story of innovation.” 

A welcoming sport 

Tucked behind rows of candy-hued houses and cars in various stages of repair sits The Sauna, a mechanic’s workshop-turned-community gathering place and training center.

On a recent sweltering weekday afternoon, a group of men ranging from late teens to late 70s watches a white rubber ball fly back and forth across the 10-foot by 21-foot court. On weekends bystanders play cards, get haircuts, and munch on hot, local sandwiches like roti and fish cutters. Indoors or out, road tennis is a central part of daily life – a magnet for socialization, says Anthony “Baku” Simmons, who transformed his car repair shop into The Sauna in the late 1990s. “I just love the sport,” he says of his motivation to build the space.

In bringing communities together to socialize and exercise, road tennis creates a sense of unity, says Frederick Blunt, president of the Barbados Road Tennis Association. “Those who are good want to see the sport keep going and growing.”

Across town in the neighborhood of Belfield, Trevor Ifill sits under a shaded pavilion alongside three bright blue, green, and yellow-accented road tennis courts. He says despite his background playing cricket and soccer, he didn’t give road tennis much attention until the pandemic, when it became one of the only social and physical activities still taking place across the island. Today, he’s hooked.

Road tennis is “truly a welcoming sport,” he says. “You can call even the best player in Barbados, and if they’re free, they’ll come out to play you or coach you.”

Carlyn “The Model” Herbert, a former road tennis world champion, started playing with her brothers when she was a kid. Today, her adult children are racking up wins, following in her footsteps. “It keeps you fit – and gives you bragging rights,” she says.

152005Whitney EulichBajans of all ages come out to the road tennis courts in Belfield, Barbados, to exercise and socialize – even former road tennis world champions like Carlyn "The Model" Herbert (right), shown here May 17, 2023.

Trash talk is part of the fun. “Someone might see you and say, ‘Oh, you good!’” Mr. Ifill says, as a father and son start volleying on one of the courts beside him. “But then, loud enough for everyone to hear, they’ll add, ‘But I’m gooder!’” he says, laughing.

Road tennis’s revival 

Road tennis started to lose steam around the 1990s, says Mr. Blunt, but it’s been revived in recent years as clubs began formalizing in different neighborhoods, courts became more prolific in community parks, and prize money for tournaments grew exponentially. 

“Road tennis was on its deathbed,” says Mr. Clarke. “It was only played in the poorest areas, and it had this reputation of being a ‘lower-class’ sport.” That’s changed, in part thanks to Mr. Clarke’s vision to professionalize the game. “It used to be $300 and a plastic trophy,” if you won a tournament, he says.

He sought sponsors to up the prize pool, set up seating around courts, and cordoned off viewing areas, giving it a more professional air. Local media started covering big matches and tournaments, and both women’s and men’s divisions earn the same amount of prize money, emphasizing equality in the sport.

“There was an opportunity to have a mini social revolution. To empower people through the sport,” he says. “The amazing thing is how accessible it is – to all people, all classes. No one will keep you away. It’s inclusive, and that’s at its roots.” 

The elements that gave the game the reputation of being a “poor man’s tennis,” as Mr. Clarke puts it – like no need for fancy equipment, stadiums, or even shoes – are what give it so much potential today. The Barbadian government sees the sport’s promise, billing road tennis as the nation’s “only indigenous sport,” and nominating it for inscription on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. 

Barbadians have traveled everywhere from Dubai to Cuba to play and offer coaching, and courts are popping up across the globe. Prime Minister Mia Mottley pitched road tennis as an Olympic sport to the president of the International Olympic Committee in March.

“We have much to share and to give to the world as small as we are,” said Minister of Culture Shantal Munro-Knight in an address at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society in May. “We are elevating road tennis ... because we understand the value that we have.”Bottom of Form

At the end of a cul-de-sac in the neighborhood of Barbarees Hill, septuagenarian Cecil Ferdinand sits next to a road tennis court painted in the middle of the street. 

When he was a child, Mr. Ferdinand remembers watching his uncles field lost balls from lawn tennis games in wealthier parts of town. They’d come home and draw a court with charcoal on the road. Today, players can buy balls made specifically for road tennis. There’s plenty of change he likes to grumble about, he admits, and yet, one thing remains the same: “It’s a sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet game.”

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Page created on 6/19/2023 1:49:20 PM

Last edited 6/19/2023 2:13:58 PM

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