WAYNE — Tennis once separated commoners from the upper crust of society.
But members of the Wayne Racquet Club, with six outdoor courts at a 3.3-acre facility, have long sworn off caste systems and pecking orders.
If you can grip a tennis ball, they want you to join their friendly league on Colfax Road.
Their down-to-earth approach to the sport is being noticed, as the club’s leadership is reporting gains in membership that have seldom been seen in its 48-year existence.
Deborah Blood, the club’s president, attributed much of its initial growth to the COVID-19 pandemic. When many indoor tennis clubs were forced to close at the height of the outbreak, she said, her organization stayed open.
“The object is for everyone to find a home here,” Blood said at the club this week.
There was activity that night on every court — and a waiting list to reserve playing time. “We weren’t sure how many people would return for this season,” she said, noting that other facilities reopened. “But a vast majority came back.”
There now are 167 club members, a spike of 11.3% over pre-pandemic participation. The annual fee for returning adults ranges from $300 to $500, depending on age.
‘Reflection of America’
One of the happy consequences of the club accepting more members has been greater diversity.
The club received members who hail from 21 foreign countries this season, Blood said. They live in 53 towns in six counties in New Jersey and in Rockland County, New York.
“This is how we got through COVID,” said Yi-Fan Hu, a native of Taiwan.
Hu, of Teaneck, said she joined the club in June of last year. “This was the only game in the area,” she added. “I think this was the only club that was open.”
The club plans several off-court events throughout the season, including holiday parties and monthly barbecues. This weekend, it will host its annual paella festival; the Spanish dish is prepared on the premises. Members will enjoy an Oktoberfest-themed celebration on Oct. 16.
“We have a lot to share,” said Marcel Fohlinger, a member who was born and raised in the Netherlands.
Bhaskar Natarajan, an immigrant of India, said having new friends at the club helped him to overcome a spell of depression after his father died of COVID-19 last summer. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” he said. “This is my second home.”
Ji Park, a native of South Korea, said she viewed the club as a “safe haven” when the outbreak was at its peak last year.
“I never noticed it until people pointed it out,” Park, of Franklin Lakes, said of the diverse membership. “I think it’s a reflection of America — we’re just a little microcosm of what’s going on in America.”
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‘Thankful to founders’
Dr. Edward Robbins, 90, lounged under an awning that protruded from the roofline of the clubhouse. He has been a member of the club since it was established, and he is the only person who can make that claim.
“Hundreds of people can be very thankful to the founders,” said the retired optometrist, casting his gaze over a singles match playing out on the near court. “It affected me in many ways.”
The club bought the land from a now-defunct chapter of the YMCA. An article published in the Herald News on May 2, 1973 said its proposal only “squeaked through” the Zoning Board of Adjustment. There were 33 inaugural members, the clipping said.
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While the club’s membership has changed dramatically, Robbins said, its focus on being a welcoming place to play has never wavered.
“People come from all walks of life,” Blood said. “When they step onto the court, they’re all the same.”
Blood said the club is saving money to pay for installation of overhead lights for its two courts in the rear of the property. There are pole-mounted light fixtures above the other courts.
Most of the club’s annual budget of $65,000 goes toward maintaining the courts, which are made out of clay mined in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The surfaces are replenished with four tons of crushed stone at the beginning of each season.
The green material, known as Har-Tru — after the Virginia-based company that invented the technology — must be watered by sprinklers three times per day. The intensive care is worth it, members say, because the surfaces are at least 15 degrees cooler than hard courts and more forgiving on players’ lower bodies.
Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
To contribute toward the club’s effort, deposit unwanted balls in the green box on its patio, at 170 Colfax Road.