Li Anne Liew / For The Times
I’m on a quest to play at every L.A. tennis court. These friendly 15 stand out
I am on a quest to play tennis on every public court in Los Angeles.
My motivations include retiring last summer after 20 years of teaching at L.A. public schools. I needed a new way to focus all that teaching energy. Yet when my daughter said, “You should play tennis on every court in Los Angeles,” I said, “Thank you for the suggestion” but thought, “That’s nuts!”
Then school started again in August. With no lesson planning to do, I recognized the genius of my daughter’s idea and made it my own, adding a rule. To get to all these courts, I’d have to travel by bicycle or public transit. And so the quest began, with me playing at the courts in Griffith Park near the merry-go-round with a stranger I met on the Tennis Players in Los Angeles Facebook group.
Ru Kazi showed up on time — a promising start. As we warmed up close to the net, they told me about their career switch from accountant to assistant director and how being a proficient tennis player had gotten them in good with their partner’s father.
I told Ru about how the last time I was in this part of Griffith Park it was with my 80-plus-year-old mom to watch my baseball team in the playoffs from the sidelines. We showed up to be good sports — even though we knew I wasn’t going to be playing, because the manager did not include me on the postseason roster. “There is no question you can hit,” a teammate explained to me, “but there is concern about you making it to first base.”
I discussed the bittersweetness of rooting instead of playing and admitted it still stung, especially since over the summer, after hanging up my spikes, I joined a tennis team. Early in the season, I fell into a literally self-defeating habit of tippy-tapping soft lobs just far enough over the net for opponents to crush. I diligently practiced and got better, but I didn’t improve enough to play when my team won the city championship and went on to the next big competition.
I tried to convince myself that actively cheering for my teammates counted as a cardiovascular workout, but my competitive nature wasn’t buying it.
Ru was a good listener and tennis player and, in their company, so was I. Between close games, we discussed sports and aging as well as topics ranging from Chuck Berry to the theology of fallen angels in Judaism and Islam.
Afterward, I felt so elated I rode my bike an additional 5 miles in 100-degree heat to Highland Park to buy a magenta T-shirt at Big Bud Press. I had made a new friend! Me! At 61, an age when everything supposedly closes in, I wouldn’t let it. Instead, everything would open up. My game would not be defined by how I played on any one court but by how many courts I played on. I would get out of this rut of being on teams but not playing. I would play my heart out, travel all over this legendary city of ours, and make new friends.
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I played again with Ru in Elysian Park and Koreatown; with Arshak from Siberia, in Sunland, Sylmar and North Hollywood; and with Timothy from upstate New York in Burbank, Glendale and Highland Park. I am tremendously fond of all my new tennis friends because they show up on time and indulge me in meeting at a different court each time. They are here for me and there for me.
Which brings me to another important motivation for my quest, which is to be here and there for Los Angeles. L.A. has been very good to me, the home of my life as a husband and father and teacher. Our city and county have gargantuan problems. Playing tennis won’t fix homelessness and drought, but it can help build community in a divided metropolis. I found joy and friendship on L.A.’s public tennis courts, and perhaps you can too.
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I have my favorite courts so far — I’ve played on roughly 70 of the estimated 500 sprinkled throughout the county — but before I tell you about some of them, I have a few tips that will help everyone from new players to curious pickleball converts prosper on their tennis and friend-making journeys.
- Wear tennis shoes. Any racket will do. Don’t worry about balls, either. It’s nice to have a fresh can but you can almost always find balls that will do somewhere on the court. The essential thing is to wear tennis shoes to avoid twisting an ankle. You can’t make new friends playing tennis if you can’t play.
- Know your rating. Tennis is most fun when you’re playing with someone at your same level. You can easily rate yourself using this chart from the United States Tennis Assn. If you’re not sure, rate yourself one click lower than your highest possible level. Then state that more modest number straightforwardly when introducing yourself to potential new tennis friends.
- Find a partner online. Finding a tennis partner is a triumph of social media. Join Facebook’s Tennis Players in Los Angeles group or use a partnering app such as TennisPal, which I mention because it’s free and works well and my new tennis friends Phillip Kim and Valerie Garcia interviewed me on their TennisPal podcast. To get well-matched, share your rating plus where and when you want to play. For example, “I’m a 2.5 looking to play weekday evenings or weekends anytime in the South Bay.” Make the arrangements via DM and boom! You’re on your way to new tennis friendships.
- Remember the magic words. You can just show up at a court and pick up a game. Wait to enter until the point is over, close the gate behind you, and proceed swiftly to the nearest bench or other neutral ground. Then, between points, clearly say the magic words: “Who’s got next?” Anyone you’d want to play with will respect that you have shown up and staked your claim. Pay quiet attention while they continue hitting and they most likely will be glad to reciprocate by hitting with you as soon as it’s your turn.
- Play to play, not to win. I say this as a person who loves winning. That said, since we’re focused on making friends, keeping the point going is a smart strategy. Keeping the point going increases the likelihood of you and your partner being in flow and making good shots, which in turn makes it fun to keep playing together. One more thing: If there is even the slightest chance that your partner’s ball was in, call it in. That’s a very practical and effective way to demonstrate decency, fairness and human kindness, which are all things people like in a friend.
So, now that you know how to make new tennis friends in Los Angeles, let’s find you some great courts. Just keep in mind that for the purposes of recreational tennis, all courts are basically the same. The lines are the same, there’s a net in the middle and a fence around the whole thing. Every court I’ve played has been at least adequately and typically well-maintained — shout-out to the parks and recreation crews — and all but one of the following courts are lit at night. What varies is the vibe.
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Take the Metro to Echo Park Recreation Center
Bring the dog to Riverside Tennis Court
Play in the shade at Hermon Tennis Center
Become a regular at George Elder Park
Volley at the meticulously maintained Loma Alta Park
Play, get lessons and join a team at Poinsettia Recreation Center
If you prefer a more easygoing vibe, nearby Plummer Park is another great choice.
Join a league and enjoy the good vibes at Edward Vincent Park
Soak up the best parks have to offer at Charles Wilson Park
Come for the easygoing tennis at Fox Hills Park
Enjoy the swanky, but not snooty, courts at Beverly Hills Tennis
Master the backboard for free or pay to play at Cheviot Hills
Play tennis by the beach at Ocean View Park
Practice your swing at Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Tennis Center
Play on a 'beautiful court' at El Cariso Park
Getting there was a multiple-bus-and-light-rail adventure that was like living the lyrics to “I Love L.A.,” from the Westside to the Eastside, then way on up north from Union Station through Glendale and Burbank, Sun Valley, Pacoima and San Fernando, all the way to Sylmar. My delight in the vivid street signage and murals of the north Valley coexists with dismay at the squalor of endlessly dispiriting encampments of the unhoused alongside the Antelope Valley train tracks. I hope that making connections with all kinds of people can lead to Angelenos treating each other with dignity.
The four courts at El Cariso offer a beautiful platform for togetherness through tennis. Arshak and I had a blast.
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The 12 first-come, first-served courts make this a smart destination if you want a court without waiting. The back courts are good if you have a partner and want to hit low-key. The front courts are traditionally for the regulars, and the reception you’ll get as a walk-on depends on who you run into on any given day. My advice is to give it a shot. This is where I came back to tennis after a long layoff more than 20 years ago. I will be forever grateful to the patient folks who tolerated my line drives to the back fence and high fly balls to the neighboring courts until I gradually got back into the swing of things. That took a special kind of patience, which glows to this day in my heart.
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