Toque Tennis

by Peter Malcomson

February 2021

Playing outdoor winter tennis has become a “thing” in the age of Covid-19. Some players are finding that playing outdoor tennis in the winter is allowing them to get together with friends while maintaining a safe physical distance and providing them with some great benefits – exercise, mental wellbeing, fresh air and a little bit of friendly competition.

You know you want to! A part of you is in denial, but a part of you is itching to get out there and play some tennis – Covid-19 be damned! But your indoor club might still be closed because of Covid-19 or is so booked that you can’t get a court! You’re guessing you might have to wait until spring to play – assuming we’re even allowed. But wait, some good news. You can still play tennis right now! Outdoors! That’s correct. Outdoors!

There have long been small groups of diehard outdoor winter tennis enthusiasts around the province who have braved the elements to play tennis whenever and wherever they could, but it really hasn’t been a big thing. Until now!

For most people who want to play tennis year-round in the past, the logical thing to do is to join an indoor club and play the sport in climate-controlled bubbles or permanent facilities in the winter. For many summertime players however, whether it be for economic reasons or the lack of indoor court facilities in their communities, tennis has been a seasonal sport. Whether we play indoor tennis or not, most of us can’t wait until springtime each year to get outdoors again to enjoy the sunshine and (relatively) warm weather, while knocking the ball around a bit.

In the past, outdoor winter tennis enthusiasts who have come across courts where the nets have been left up and gates left unlocked, have been viewed with curiosity by onlookers. Some tennis “purists” view them as riff raff, while others say things like, “they must be crazy” or “they’re going to freeze their b#%*s off”. But those who enjoy themselves playing outdoors on a nice sunny winter day respond, “Why not!”

Why not indeed!

People play ice hockey outside. They toboggan, ski, go on winter nature hikes, jog, bike, play snow football, road hockey, even golf! So why not tennis? Detractors will say the balls don’t bounce very well, their hands will freeze, the courts will get damaged and that it is too dangerous. While it is true that, under certain conditions, there might be increased risk, the same can be said of most outdoor winter activities! It’s cold and often slippery. Caution must be exercised and there are going to be many days when conditions prohibit outdoor tennis, but on those glorious days when the courts are dry, the sun is glistening off the snow and there is little wind, it is all worthwhile to the die-hard enthusiasts.

Karen Orlando, Anne Wood, Michele Hall and Sinead Sarsfield don't allow a few snow drifts to get in the way of their outdoor doubles match!

Even the darkest clouds can have silver linings. About a year ago, we were all thrust into the vacuum created by Covid-19. The world was locked down as health experts attempted to figure out how to combat the virus and keep people safe. Beginning in March, as the first wave hit, people only ventured outside of their homes for essential work and to purchase necessities. Many workplaces were shut down as were most stores, restaurants and of course sports and athletic facilities, including indoor tennis clubs.

Fast forward to May 14th; in Ontario, the Provincial government suddenly announced that tennis (and golf) were both considered to be relatively safe sports when it came to physical distancing and personal contact. Tennis facilities could open, or re-open beginning May 19th – only 5 days after the announcement! Almost every other sport and fitness facility remained in lockdown in most of the province. Many OTA clubs were a bit surprised at how suddenly the rules changed but, after some hastily planned meetings to ensure that their club could open safely, most member-clubs and other tennis facilities, including outdoor public courts, opened up their gates over the next few days and weeks and invited players to play, subject to a strict set of protocols.

The results were quite incredible! Once opened, many clubs experienced a surge in play and reported that they saw an increase in membership. A lot of that increase consisted of families and first-time players. Obviously, the fact that so many other activities were not permitted drove new players to the courts; playing levels were up, pros were busy giving lessons and kids summer camps were even allowed, albeit with some safety restrictions. At the same time, public facilities also saw a tremendous number of new players showing up and joining ranks with the old-time weekend warriors.

But all good things come to an end. Or do they?

As summer turned to fall and the outdoor season wound down, regular players began to return to their indoor facilities to begin the fall/winter season. The indoor clubs were also fielding membership enquiries from new players who had enjoyed the sport in the summer and wanted to continue playing. Some indoor clubs even had to cut off new memberships after their capacities were reached.

At the same time as the indoor clubs opened, many new and “seasonal” players continued to play outdoors further into the fall, which is customary, however the courts were certainly busier in the fall than in previous years. As the days grew shorter and fall turned into winter, a strange thing happened. People continued to play tennis outdoors! Lot’s of people!

So, why the sudden surge in outdoor winter tennis?

One reason for this was that the Covid-19 second wave hit, forcing many indoor clubs to close their doors once again. Some players who were looking forward to continuing to play indoors were disappointed, but many just kept on playing outside wherever they could. The Province’s health experts were advocating outdoor activity for fitness and mental well being – and there wasn’t much else to do! In fact, the City of Toronto encouraged people to stay outside as much as possible, practicing physical distancing of course, by initiating an “Explore the Outdoors” initiative that included all sorts of traditional winter activities, as well as non-traditional ones like tennis. The City left 60 nets up and the gates open at some of their public outdoor tennis courts.

Norm McGlaughlin plays tennis at a community club in the east-end of Toronto in the summer. He has long been an advocate of outdoor winter tennis as well as an active participant and says, “you shouldn’t knock something until you’ve tried it.” He, for one, is happy with the City of Toronto’s decision to leave so many of their public courts open this winter and would like to see more community clubs doing the same. “A group of us used to play tennis all year round at our summer club. In fact, it had been going on for 40 years. In recent years, the club felt that there were potential liability and damage issues and so locked up the club at the end of the fall season. Beginning in 2016 we lobbied the City to leave the nets up at more of their courts and to encourage community clubs to do the same. With each winter that followed, the City allowed a few more public facilities to remain open and put several more nets up at different locations. And, this year, look what happened – over 60 nets were left up on public courts for use this winter! The courts have been jammed! I never thought I’d have to wait to get on an outdoor tennis court in January! But, it’s great. I think the City saw the physical and emotional benefit that players experience from being active outside in the winter, especially during a pandemic. Hopefully, Toronto and other municipalities will continue this policy for years to come - after the threat of Covid-19 has passed - and community clubs will follow suit.”


Snow? What snow? Norm McGlaughlin has played outdoor winter tennis for years and says that more people should give it a try and more courts should be left open all year.

To glove or not to glove. That is the question.

Another foursome of tennis friends from Toronto have also gotten into the swing of things this winter. Michele Hall, Anne Wood, Sinead Sarsfield, and Karen Orlando have played both outdoor summer tennis and indoor winter tennis for years. After a great summer with lots of enjoyable play after the Covid-19 restrictions were loosened, the women were just beginning to play indoors again when the second wave hit. Being the enthusiasts they are, they were desperate to keep playing, but with their indoor club once again in lockdown, they had no choice but to look to the great outdoors.

Michele, a recently retired teacher, was asked to return to work on a contract this year due to the teacher shortage caused by the pandemic, so she was keenly aware of Covid-19 protocol as well as the importance of physical exercise and emotional wellbeing. “I always encourage my students to try to do something joyful outside every day! For me, being cooped up in my house doing virtual teaching and then staying inside the rest of the day, with no physical outlet, was not an option. I was already missing tennis, so I got in contact with my tennis friends and said, let’s give this winter tennis thing a try.” The four met at local outdoor courts and started playing – and they loved it! They have been playing regularly for several weeks now when the weather permits and have even found themselves shoveling snow off the courts on several occasions. Michele noted, “We were all really surprised at how much we enjoyed the experience of playing tennis outdoors in the cold. It was exhilarating; as long as you play with a little bit of caution and dress warmly, it is actually really fun and you go home feeling great!”

In case you want to give outdoor winter tennis a try Karen, Anne, Michele and Sinead are pleased to offer these common-sense tips and advice:

Cold Weather Tips

Stay warm and remember a slice is a very effective shot in outdoor winter tennis.

  • Bundle up wearing layers and play during the warmest part of the day (early afternoon). Bring sunglasses as it can be quite sunny!
  • As balls get colder, they will lose some of their bounce and feel heavier. Bring a few extra balls and keep some of them in your pockets so your body can keep them warm. Try to keep them dry.
  • Invest in warm gloves that are not too bulky. Test holding the racquet with your gloves before you head out to play. Ski gloves tend to be too bulky.
  • During warmer days, you can play with your bare hands. Alternatively, you can grip the racquet with your bare hand, then take an old sock, cut a hole in the toe and put in over the back of your hand. Your bare hand grips the racquet and the sock covers your hand to keep it warm. (tip from Michele’s friends Suzie & John Molnar).
  • Public courts aren’t maintained by the City in the winter. A snow shovel and a broom are helpful to clear the courts, as is a bit of salt to melt icy patches. Safety first. Walk around the court and check for icy patches before you play.
  • Take time to do a proper warm up. Keep moving to stay warm. This also has the added bonus of preventing you from being “flat-footed” once you start playing.
  • Bring a hot beverage in a water bottle. A cold beverage too. Alcohol is not a good idea – it’s against the law, there are no washrooms, and it can promote hypothermia.
  • Try a lower string tension – easier on the joints and strings are less likely to break.

Winter Tennis Etiquette and a Positive Attitude

  • Don’t forget about physical distancing. Try to stay 2 metres apart and bring a mask for before and after play. Bring hand-sanitizer. Touch racquets instead of shaking hands.
  • Enjoy the sense of community. Tennis players share snow shovels and laughs with one another as they enjoy the craziness of winter tennis. Hockey players at the rink next door have also shared their shovels with the tennis players and have watched in fascination.
  • Remember that it is a first come, first served booking system on public courts. If all courts are in play, hang up your racquet for the next available court and wait 30 minutes.
  • If other players have shovelled off a court, give them the courtesy of a bit of extra playing time. They did the heavy lifting by taking 30 minutes or more to clear the snow off the court before they could play.

Winning Winter Tennis Strategies

  • Because there can be snow patches here and there on-court and you are wearing bulky clothing, you tend not to be as fast on your feet when chasing down some of your opponents’ shots. It’s better to take the ball in the air when you can. Winter tennis will improve your net game.
  • As the balls get colder and have a lower bounce, sliced groundstrokes and drop shots are very effective. The same goes for slice serves. The ball dies. You’ll get great practice at hitting low balls.
  • Wide angled shots are very effective given the piles of snow between courts. No one wants to run into the snow shovel pile lol. The same goes for deep lobs due to the mini-snow banks at the back fence.

Who knows, maybe outdoor winter tennis will continue to build momentum. It’s clear that there is already an enthusiastic player base braving the elements to play the sport they love. Perhaps one day, there will be organized winter tennis leagues, or how about the Ontario Outdoor Winter Tennis Championships! After all, what is more “Canadian” than putting on a hat, some gloves, grabbing a Tim Horton’s coffee and going outside to enjoy some physical activity and embrace a nice winter’s day! Tennis anyone?