The courts at Archersfield have seen a steady stream of players in action since the club was reopened following lockdown
The silence around Archersfield had been deafening when Kilkenny was in the height of lockdown - but the still air has been broken again by the steady thwack of tennis balls.
Nestled away beside the Beechpark estate, a Roger Federer volley away from the Kilkenny Castle Park, the Kilkenny Lawn Tennis Club might be a place many in the city could pass without a second glance, but for more than 140 years they’ve been a part of the county’s proud sporting history.
However, the game was halted when the coronavirus pandemic forced the club to lock the gates on the courts and put up the ‘CLOSED’ signs all around.
It was a frustrating time for players and committee members alike. However, the lifting of restrictions means tennis has returned.
And, judging by the many smiles on people’s faces as they move up and down the busy courts, it’s clear to see everyone is glad to be back!
“I think it’s great to be back playing the sport that we love,” said Shirley Trimble, club PRO, her comments interspersed with the sound of tennis balls being returned across the nets of the club’s eight courts.
“That’s the most important thing. We are really, really grateful that we’re able to play. There’s been so much work put in behind the scenes to get the place up and running.”
“There was a lot of work to do,” echoed club captain Helen Fitzgerald, explaining the work that went into getting things moving again. “We had to work with Tennis Ireland, who put a lot of protocols in place.
“It started with having people supervising the booking system on the gate - we have been using an online system which is new to us - while we have also been making sure people use the hand sanitiser stations across the club grounds. It’s all very organised and structured.”
Club members have been hard at work to make sure everything was in place for a return to action, but even they were amazed by how much had to be done before a ball could be hit.
“There was a lot of work to do,” said Helen. “The clubhouse was closed off, we had the hand sanitisers put up at all the entry points and we had the gates at the courts taken down so no one could physically open them.
“All the furniture around the grounds was removed too - it was all done to cut down on the things people could touch around the courts. Anything that could be touched and would then have to be cleaned is gone.
“It takes away from the social element, but we have to encourage people to come play their game and then go,” added Shirley. “We also have a gym, table tennis and dartboard so the social part is a huge section of club life, but it’s great to be back.”
Mention of the gym and other activities highlighted the social side of a club which offers more than just tennis. Usually, people can come along to watch games, chat and meet friends.
“Normally the bar would be open, while we’d have tournaments on the Friday night,” added Helen. “All that’s gone for the time being.
“Hopefully it will be coming back soon,” added Brian Doyle, tennis coach at Archersfield. “Once restrictions are lifted as we go through the phases we remain positive that on June 29 we’ll be able to get four people from different households on a court - at the minute we’re only allowed singles or doubles if partners are from the same household - but hopefully camps and matchplay singles competitions will start shortly. Fingers crossed it will all come back in due time.”
Every sporting body has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but tennis has been fortunate to come back earlier than other organisations.
“We’re lucky that tennis isn’t a contact sport,” said Brian. “If you were playing soccer or hurling you’d be close to people and in physical contact, but with a singles match there’s plenty of distance between the players.”
The courts have been busier than ever since the club reopened, a sure sign people were missing their regular tennis fix.
“Everyone wanted to know when the club was coming back and when they could play doubles,” said club administrator Rena O’Connor, who has also been heavily involved with volunteering at the club. “There’s a lot played at the club.”
“What was funny was how people thought that once we opened we’d be straight into our American tournaments,” said Brian. “We had people ringing up to see if they could play that Friday night! I’m sure they thought things would be back to normal straight away, but all in good time.
“As we go through the phases we’ll be able to open more parts of the club and get back to normal. Hopefully by September we’ll have the back to school activities going.”
While the workload has been hectic getting to this point, the club has quickly found an army of volunteers waiting to assist.
“People have been really helpful,” said Helen. “We have 42 people volunteering to help with supervision. We’re open 12 hours a day so people are doing two-hour shifts, but plenty of club members are helping out and more have said they will come on board. There’s great goodwill there in the club.”
The goodwill is a reflection of the tennis club and many others like it throughout Kilkenny. The spirit of the volunteers has shown the real value of each club.
“People have been very good,” said Helen. “It’s a big ask for people to give up their time and supervise, but they’re willing to do it as it means the club has been able to open. People are delighted with that; they want to get back playing and they know it has to be done.
“We’ve been lucky that the weather has been good,” added Shirley. “Getting people to do desk duty in the sunshine is a lot more appealing than if the weather was bad!”
“We’re also very lucky that we have a lot of great sponsors, people like Ceramica, Daltons Mills and the Lyrath Estate,” Brian noted.
“Owing to the pandemic we couldn’t run some of the tournaments, but they have said they will come on board with other events when we’re back to normal. The majority of our sponsors have a long connection with the club so they’ve been great.”
It’s not just sponsors who are loyal - members have forged long links with the tennis club over the years.
“The age profile at the club is quite wide,” said Shirley. “There is a great junior membership while the over-70s are also catered for at the club in phase one of the reopening, which was great for the club. If you were to come up to the club and spend a day here you’d see such a cross-section in terms of age profiles.”
“It’s a game for life,” Brian agreed. “You can play it at five right the way through.
“Our oldest member is 80,” Rena chipped in. “That’s Tommy Rochford snr and he’s still playing quite regularly.
“It’s good for the over-70s to be able to get back on the courts,” Helen said. “It keeps them active, especially as they had been cocooned for so long. It’s great to see them back on the courts.”
While talking to the club’s committee members it’s hard not to get distracted by the steady stream of people turning up for their game of tennis. Even with less hours to play, people are still getting their game in.
“We’re opening at 9.30am and close at 9.30pm as we don’t have access to the lights at present,” said Helen. “Pre-Covid we would have been open from 7.30am to maybe 11.30pm at night as the courts would be using the floodlights.”
Despite fewer available hours each day, the club hasn’t suffered in terms of activity.
“I would think the courts haven’t been as busy,” said Rena. “All the kids are off school and parents have been off work for a long spell so they’re here playing tennis. Brian and I would be here during the day before the pandemic and if there were six courts used in the morning time that would be busy - now you can’t get in!”
With 96 hourly slots available daily, that’s a lot of tennis to look after. However, the club have used the social distancing protocols to implement a new way for players to arrange their game.
“The new booking system means people can book up to three days in advance and pay for an hour’s tennis,” Helen explained.
“Once players arrive at their allotted time their names are ticked off the list and they can go their allocated court. There’s no confusion for the player or the person on the gate. The hour incorporates a five-minute slot allowing people to get on and off courts, ensuring people adhere to social distancing guidelines.”
And members were quick to adapt to the new style.
“People were very quick to take to the new guidelines,” the captain said. “The booking system is totally new - we had a sign-in sheet prior to this - but everyone is well able to use it and, once they had an email address set up, there were no problems.”
And the club have gone the extra mile to make sure people follow the recommended guidelines.
“The club has hand sanitisers throughout the facility so we get people to use them before and after play,” added Shirley.
“We also get them to use their own tennis balls for the match so tennis balls stay in the same household. It’s a way of complying with the regulations from Tennis Ireland.”
Presently members can play singles games at Archersfield or doubles matches if the players are from the same household.
While the 5km restriction is gone - players can travel within their county for tennis - the other protocols outlined in Tennis Ireland’s Phase Two Guidance documents, such as indoor courts staying closed and the restriction of doubles play to partners from the same household, remain in place pending further clarification from the Department of Sport Expert Group.
Coaching is also back at the club while juniors can come up and play singles matches against friends from other households. These are all signs that tennis is back and up running in Kilkenny. It may not be in full flow like normal, but..
“We’re getting there bit by bit,” said Helen, adding the finishing touch.
Club serves up some online hits
While clubs have had to endure lockdown it doesn’t mean they’ve stopped altogether.
Kilkenny Tennis Club were just one of the many organisations who got creative when it came to keeping members interested during the lockdown.
“We used our social media pages to show old club photographs from the 1970s, 80s and 90s,” said Brian.
“We also ran Facebook competitions, volleys against the wall and things like that - we even had a competition where we got people to count the number of tennis balls we took off the roof! We posted a picture of a loveheart featuring all the tennis balls we took off the roof and we gave a racquet to the winner.
“We were doing our best to keep members involved during the shutdown, to let them know we were still here and willing to get back,” he added. “Our Facebook page came on after that - we got a load of hits from items we put up. We were conscious to keep in touch with people.
“Helen did a nice piece on life in the club and what we were doing to prepare for life. It was important to do it, as it let people know what was happening.
“That links in with the community element of the club, making it about more than just tennis,” added Shirley. “It’s important that people stay involved.”