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How The Royal Tennis Court is coping with Covid-19

Oct 01, 2020

Members of RTC are fortunate indeed to play on our sport’s most historic court at the heart of one of the UK’s finest buildings. When Covid-19 struck and the extent of lockdown became apparent, one thought above all came to our minds: that Hampton Court Palace has seen more than 500 years of history, much of it turbulent – and we were not going to let this thing defeat us.

As our world rapidly changed in late March, we hoped first to be able to continue playing tennis with some controls in place. However, this new regime lasted only a few days before the national lockdown was announced with all indoor sports (and pretty much everything else) closed.

The first priority of the Board of Directors was to take all necessary steps to secure the Club’s long-term future and protect the health and livelihoods of our Professional team. The Government’s furlough scheme was immensely helpful and enabled us to continue to pay professional salaries at 100% through July. We were also very grateful to our loyal members for continuing to pay their subscriptions throughout. So, although we immediately lost around half of our usual income from court fees and playing activities, we got through this dark period.

June and July proved frustrating as other activities were allowed to resume but Real Tennis remained covered by the restrictions on gyms and indoor sports. After sterling lobbying by the T&RA and other governing bodies, finally, on Saturday 25th July, play was permitted to restart.

Since then, RTC members have risen to the new challenge and court usage is back to about 90% of the ‘old normal’ – from 7 am to 10 pm, seven days a week. All players have had to sign a Covid-19 form, drawn up by a newly designated Covid-19 Officer (Paul Newton, our Honorary Secretary), recognising the risks involved and approving the Covid-19-secure changes we have made to protect our members, our Professional team, and their families. In this, we have followed T&RA guidance plus other precautions that apply to the particular layout of the RTC premises.

Most of the Club’s Professional team – Nick Wood, Josh Smith, Scott Blaber, Lesley Ronaldson – and their families found themselves living in lockdown in an almost empty Palace, with the Court and Club rooms taken over by the new needs of homeschooling and entertaining three lively children, while the Professionals themselves worked hard to maintain their Court training time and fitness.

Since re-opening for play all Professionals have taken on the demanding additional duties of cleaning the Court and wiping down Dedans, galleries, and other surfaces in between matches. All matches still last an hour, but 15 minutes downtime between matches has been built in to carry out this vital work and allow the Court to ‘breathe’.

All players must now arrive ready-changed as the changing rooms remain closed. Contact in the corridor leading to the Court has to be minimal; the corridor itself is closed to the general public. Gloves (white, of course) are supplied and must be worn on the player’s non-playing hand. On changing ends, balls are gathered and passed between racquets maintaining two yards distance, as measured out on the Court’s stone floor. Handshakes have been replaced by tapped racquets. Match fees are now by direct debit; scores are recorded by e-mail; bookings the same. The game’s traditions of sportsmanship and civility live on.

Sadly, the Club’s lounge, dining room - and drinks cabinet - remain out of bounds for the moment…

Although the social scene is much different, members are all delighted to be back on court and accept the limitations on normal club operations. One further very welcome ‘win’ came when doubles play was reintroduced in the middle of August.

Internal tournaments are still taking place, albeit with some rule or social changes. Our Junior section is back on court and threatening the old guard ever more. Social events such as prize-giving ceremonies and the Club’s much-loved Carol concert in the historic Royal Chapel may be under threat, but morale remains high.

Hampton Court Palace, and its historic court, still stands strong against this strange invader. May it ever be so.

Michael Day, RTC Chairman

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