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WE PEOPLE

By Kurtis

The Hottest Home Grown Sport
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Road tennis is going places. Big places. 

 

Even though the island’s indigenous sport made its debut in the 1930s, it has often played second fiddle to other disciplines. While Barbadians have dominated in cricket, won international medals in track and field and made waves in the pool, road tennis has struggled for decades to step out of the shadows and into the limelight. However, there is now a sense that the sport is poised to make a major breakthrough internationally; a graduation of sorts following steady progress over the last three decades.

How it started

Road tennis has firm roots as a village pastime across the island, its equipment crafted from Bajan ingenuity that led to homemade racquets, wooden ‘nets’ and modified tennis balls. However, while established playing fields or random pastures would facilitate the growth and development of cricket and football, an absence of paved hard courts meant road tennis (as the name suggests) was played on hand-painted courts on busy roads and in car parks. The standard operating procedure would see the wooden net being lifted and lowered much like a swing-bridge in a seaside port to allow vehicular traffic to pass by.  

 

Over time, standards were developed for the courts and the racquets followed suit, giving the humble village sport a professional edge. The road tennis of the 1930s had graduated and if its players, fans and administrators are to be believed, the future is bright.

 

In 2000 The Professional Road Tennis Association (PRTA) was formed in an effort to take the sport to the next level. Twenty years later, there have been setbacks and challenges but also tremendous success. President Dale Clarke describes growing up and being a huge fan of the game in his Deacons community, but what struck him was the lack of significant prize money. Determined to make a difference, Clarke and the PRTA set out to legitimize road tennis as a viable sport. Modest car park events gave way to branded competitions for paying spectators. A first prize of $5,000 at some events,  became $10,000 and then in 2017, each winner of the Barbados Public Workers Cooperative Credit Union Monarchs of the Court Competition walked away with a car and a cash prize of four thousand dollars. This is no small feat given that this was the biggest individual prize in Barbados’ sporting history. Road tennis had hit prime time and Clarke is proud of the efforts of everyone involved. The efforts of the PRTA and other organisers have meant that the sport no longer struggles to attract meaningful sponsorship. While there will always be calls for more monetary injections, particularly in what is likely to be a difficult post-pandemic environment, many sectors of society from village shops to regional conglomerates are now backing the sport in a major way. And the world is taking notice. Road tennis now boasts satellite TV coverage to spread awareness of the game which never lacked for talent but always needed exposure.

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“I am happy about the respect now given to the sport. People from different economic brackets are now playing and courts can be found in almost any neighbourhood.” Clarke says  the growth of the sport is also evident around the world. “We get lots of requests for information and the standard of play has also improved. We have changed the image of road tennis to the point it is no longer seen as just a poor man’s sport. Hopefully we eventually reach the stage where players, officials and organisers can all make a living from the sport.”

 

Like all sports, road tennis has been rocked by the ongoing 

COVID-19 pandemic. Government protocols prohibiting contact sport meant very few events have been staged over the last twelve months and an instant return to pre-COVID levels of sponsorship is highly unlikely. Clarke, however, is already planning for the sport’s grand re-emergence. “We have reached highs in the past that I want to surpass. The key thing is to be innovative and plan well and try to make road tennis relevant again. We aim to get back on our global objective to make road tennis the number one racquet sport.” 

 

This effort was already bearing fruit. In addition to Barbados and the Caribbean, road tennis already has a foothold in the United Kingdom, Panama, the United States, Spain and the Philippines. Locally there are now established primary and secondary school competitions and coaching programs, with several of the next generation of players routinely advancing to the latter stages of major competitions.

 

Along the way there have been challenges. A high profile dispute over prize money threatened to derail the sport as sponsors were dragged into an unseemly public battle, and currently there is division about the balls used. Some prefer the traditional ball, which is an altered lawn tennis, while the PRTA has moved ahead with a custom ball, which it believes is the way forward, since this will allow the sport to have its own unique equipment much as how the NBA is known for its orange and black ball and baseballs are instantly recognizable by their red-stitched cowhide design. 

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Outside of standardized equipment, the main thing that keeps any sport exciting are its superstars. And just like basketball has Golden State versus any Lebron-led team and baseball had A-Rod, Barbados has its own league of incredible road tennis players. Flashy moves and rivalries exist in road tennis and are never in short supply. Legendary figures like Deighton “Pa” Roach, Curtis “Socks” Bailey and Edward “Dabo” Carrington paved the way for current stars  such as Antoine “Lil Man” Daniel, Julian “Michael Jackson” White and Mark “Venom” Griffith. Some of these village favourites have become parish stars, later rising to national and international recognition. People know who Griffith is as well they should. Having dominated the game over the last five years, he is perhaps the first professional player to have emerged from the sport. 

 

With a professional association, as well as medium and short term plans for the sport, what is certain is that there is no going back for road tennis. The journey that began in the back roads of impoverished areas may have slowed in recent years but it remains firmly centered on the highway of success. Regional expansion and global inroads will be more difficult to sustain, but thousands of fans, players and administrators have already been bitten by the road tennis bug. Next month, we delve further into road tennis, taking you behind the scenes to discuss the sport’s patented ball and racquet, talk to the big players and look at the financial impact of road tennis on Barbados.

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