When I first picked up a tennis racket, I was looking only for a fun way to get in shape. I had no idea I was entering Western New York's vibrant world of tennis, complete with professional coaching, competitive leagues and nonstop, year-round playing opportunities.
If you really want to play tennis, Western New York is the place to do it.
The area's serving of tennis courts is enough to support any kind of habit - from the occasional player to that guy who is always on the neighborhood court.
Playing tennis in Western New York means having choices. If your cash flow is low, the area's public hard courts, especially this time of year will do. Private indoor and outdoor clubs cost, but they have a strong presence on the Western New York tennis scene. Most are staffed with tennis professionals who offer lessons and drill clinics. These clubs also provide an alternative in court surfaces, especially the Har-Tru or red clay, which some players prefer since both are easier on the knees and slow the pace of the ball.
Rates vary depending on age, family or single membership, and other factors; it's best to call for specifics.
While there seems to be endless places to play - whether free or private, indoor or outdoor - some courts are more popular than others.
Where: 90 Ridge Road, North Tonawanda; 694-8877
Inside Scoop: Sportsplex has six hard courts. It's a bare-bones indoor facility that seems to be more serious about it soccer program. And its spongy, peeling surface and dim lights are unpopular among some diehards.
Advantages: Sportsplex is the least expensive of all the area's enclosed tennis courts and usually has the best court availability. As the temperature drops, Sportsplex's appeal rises as the most affordable option for tennis in the winter. And local tennis insiders foresee that attraction growing with other indoor courts planning to raise their rates.
Cost: $90 for a year-round membership; court fees are $25.50 to $32. There's a $5 guest fee.
Place: Village Glen
Where: 162 Mill St., Williamsville; 633-1635
Inside Scoop: "The Glen" which is buried on a very residential block, has six indoor hard and eight Har-Tru or clay-like courts. The facility is operating under new ownership and recently abandoned its fitness program, so the focus is more on tennis.
Advantage: The club has the best lighting and all-around hard surface, giving the ball the truest bounce. A bubble houses four of its eight Har-Tru courts in the winter, providing the areas only indoor playing on this surface. Its drill clinics tend to be in high demand in the winter, so a week-in-advance reservation is recommended. The Glen plans to add a first-floor lounge including a fireplace. Three spinning bikes, vestiges of its fitness past, are ideal for pretennis warm-ups. A sauna is available for relaxation.
Cost: Sunner membership (July to August): $72 to $160, with a flat $22-per-hour-rate. Winter membership (September to May): $90 to $200, court fees from $29 to $42.
Place: Amherst Hills Tennis Club
Where: 5959 Sheridan Drive; 632-8600
Inside Scoop: This club has 10 outdoor Har-Tru and eight fast-paced indoor hard courts. It's busy, making court availability problematic.
Advantage: The club has the mist outdoor Har-Tru courts around. Its scenery is unmatched. The 10 clay-like courts go into use in May, starting its summer season. The club bustles during the warmer moths with successful youth tennis programs. Todd Miller, the area's only master professional, teaches at this club. It has the added amenities of an indoor jacuzzi, a pool outside, and ample and spacious lounge areas throughout the facility.
Cost: Summer membership (May 21 to Sept 8): $143 to $360, with no court fees. Winter membership (Sept. 9 to May 20): $83 to $220, with court fees from $22 to $34 an hour.
Place: Fort Erie Tennis Club
Where: 373 Central Ave., Fort Erie, Ont.; (905)994-0600
Inside Scoop: This outdoor club offers five hard and two Har-Tru courts. Its season runs from June 1 until the snow falls.
Advantage: A quick ride over the Peace Bridge lands you at the area's cheapest outdoor private club. The well-maintained club has lights, a rarity for area outdoor tennis courts, allowing play into late hours. Court availability is not a problem, encouraging leisurely play.
Cost: Canadians $100; $125 for nonresidents. Guest, with members, are welcome with a $5 fee.
Place: The Buffalo Racquet Club
Where: 111 Twyla Place, Town of Tonawanda; 877-9810
Inside Scoop: This outdoor club has six red clay courts. It also has lights, allowing games to go on until 11 p.m.
Advantage: Tucked away in Western New York suburbia, this quaint club takes tennis seriously. Its courts have red clay, similar to the French Open, so players can slide into shots. Its high-quality lighting simulates conditions the pros expect. The facility also has a cozy clubhouse with an inviting porch.
Cost: Membership ranges from $54 to $300. The season runs from May 1 to Oct. 15. The guest fee is $7.
Place: Chestnut Ridge Park
Where: 6121 Chestnut Ridge Road, Orchard Park; 662-3290
Inside Scoop: There are 12 public hard courts in this popular Southtowns park. Some courts, though, have fading lines, which could compromise some calls. Signs posted speak of lights that allow play until 9 p.m. but the lights haven't worked in years due to a transformer problem.
Advantage: The lush park setting adds a scenic touch to the game. As a Southtowns tennis hotbed, novice and experienced players converge on these courts daily. When play concludes at sunset, players can take in a glorious view of the Buffalo skyline fro mthe parking lot of the courts.
Place: Delaware Park
Where: Three location in park; 838-1249
Inside Scoop: There are three sets of hard courts in different parts of this jewel of the Frederick Law Olsted-designed park system. The park's court conditions vary - dramatically. The South Drive courts are battered and cracked. But the Meadows courts, which were redone last summer, have a new surface and even a shining new fence. The popular McMillan courts, located on Nottingham Terrace, have the most courts. Save for a couple of cracks, they're in decent shape.
Advantage: As the most popular public destination for city tennis players, the courts are usually teeming with players of all levels. With such a mix of playing experience, court etiquette can become a problem when beginners chase errant balls onto the courts of other players. Nevertheless, the large turnout of players makes Delaware Park your best pick-up game.
Place: Hyde Park
Where: Hyde Park Boulevard, Niagara Falls; 286-4940
Inside Scoop: This sprawling park has three sets of tennis courts. With 13 playable courts, the park is the premier destination for the city's tennis players.
Advantage: Overall, the courts are not in good shape - one set of four, especially is weathered and discolored with vegetation along the sides. But because of their popularity, pick-up games are easy to find. The courts are also the home to long-running Industrial League and The Boys and Girls Club's tennis camp. The city tentatively plans to resurface the courts, which any tennis player would greatly appreciate.
Emma Sapong is a News staff reporter.