According to the Tennis Industry Association, just short of 18 million people in the U.S. and 60 million worldwide play tennis. In fact, it regularly ranks among the most popular participation sports in the world.
A stop by the Sioux Park Tennis Complex provides a snapshot of the sport’s popularity. Nearly 80 players ranging in age from early teens to some in their 60s are taking part in this year’s Rapid City Open, a USTA tournament that wraps up play today at Sioux Park.
The atmosphere around the courts is both competitive for those on the courts to play matches and friendly for those hanging around in between matches. Everyone seems to know each other and take time to catch up while watching action on the courts.
“It’s just a great tournament,” said Jason Olson, who has run the tennis program for the Rapid City Parks and Rec department for over 30 years. “We've got a whole mix of people. It's a community event. Kids help out with the tournament. My mom makes all the food. It's a fun thing that brings everybody together at the end of the summer to play tennis.”
Olson began playing tennis when he was 10 or 11 years old when his mom brought him over to the courts at Arrowhead Country Club to play in a tournament.
“Mom said, ‘Hey, you're going to play in the tournament at Arrowhead,’” Olson said, with a laugh. “I didn't even know how to keep score, but I knew how to hit the ball. That’s how I got my indoctrination into tennis.”
Forty years later, Olson is still passionate about the game, but also coaching the high school teams at Stevens and teaching lessons through the city recreational tennis program.
“I just fell in love with it because you don't need to go out there and get a team together,” Olson said. “You just need one guy, and you can go play.”
Similarly, Jeanne Wagner and her husband Mike picked up tennis racquets for the first time while in college at Black Hills State University. They took a class to knock off a required physical education credit and ended up finding a sport they’ve played ever since.
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“We learned some of the fundamentals,” Wagner said. “We didn't really get very good at it, but it was enough to get us playing, like in summer leagues in Rapid City.”
Wagner, who grew up playing softball and volleyball, plays league tennis and takes to the courts over the winter on indoor courts at Arrowhead or the Tennis Center of the Black Hills. She said she’s played regularly since that class at Black Hills State, taking time off from playing when her kids were young.
“The only times I went away from it was when we were having children,” she said. “New moms need to focus on the baby, but as the kids get a little older then you feel like you want to get back into it and get yourself in good condition.”
For the Wagners, the sport became a family activity. Wagner’s husband Mike and daughter Paige were waiting to start their mixed doubles match, while Jeanne was waiting to play her third doubles match of the day. Sons Shane and Joel also play but not as avidly as the rest of the family.
This weekend’s Rapid City Open offers divisions for boys and girls singles and doubles, men’s and women’s singles and doubles and one for mixed doubles teams. Skill level ranges from players who picked up a racquet only a couple weeks ago to players who are among the best high school and college players in the area to players who may be in the twilight of their athletic careers in other sports but still play tennis avidly.
“I'm 50 and I’m still playing, and I’m playing against people who are 60. I have someone in my lessons who is 70,” Olson said.
“It’s fun because no matter what level are you at your level, you're always competing. You're competing against yourself, you're competing against the wind and sun and heat, and you’re competing against your opponent. It teaches a lot of lifetime skills.”
Anyone interested in learning to play tennis can reach out to Olson through the city parks and rec department. He noted free lessons will be offered on Wednesdays, starting the week after the Labor Day holiday.