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Why Stars Like Steve Carell and Dakota Fanning Are Picking Up Tennis Racquets


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In 2020, during the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when sheltering at home seemed an infinite reality, a neon green beacon of light shone through the darkness of mandatory isolation: tennis. A traditionally outdoor, largely socially distanced sport, known for its promise of good exercise and competitive companionship, it rose in popularity.

According to an annual study from the Physical Activity Council, 21.64 million Americans hit the courts in 2020, a 22.4 percent increase compared to 2019, after years of plateauing. Of those players, 6.78 million were either new to the sport or had returned after an extended period of time.

Tennis became a popular pandemic activity in Southern California in particular, with the lack of court-compromising weather making tennis a year-round sport. There are long wait times across the area at public facilities, and real estate agents say that tennis courts are in demand once again by homebuyers. “People were taking them out,” says Linda May of Hilton & Hyland. “Now there’s a complete revival. People are playing with their kids, and they are having tournaments on weekends.”

At one private Tarzana court in particular, the appeal of the game gave way to the creation of a whole tennis-playing, entertainment industry-centered community, led by coach and actor Chris Crabb (who worked with Robert Downey Jr. on playing left-handed and with a wooden racquet for Chaplin).

Crabb — who appeared at age 9 as Tiny Tim in 1979’s An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler — built his home court in Tarzana just before the pandemic. It’s now become a spot where his client Steve Carell often plays with wife Nancy, along with other names coached by Crabb, including Dave Grohl, Pete Wentz, Survivor host Jeff Probst and Dakota Fanning. “Chris takes tennis seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously,” says Carell. “Every class, I learn something, and at the same time it’s the most fun part of my day. He is so kind and positive, and he’s created a great sense of community among all of us.”

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Carell grabbing a racket on Chris Crabb’s court.

Courtesy of Frances Iacuzzi Www.Francesiacuzzi.Com

Beyond the mental and physical health rewards of playing tennis, Probst says the community at Crabb’s court has allowed him to “see people’s personalities in a different way” and that learning new skills in the context of tennis has kept him sharp and creative when it comes to the series he’s hosted for 41 seasons.

“Everything in my life ends up going through my Survivor filter,” says Probst. “There are similarities in the strategy of tennis that I try to extrapolate and bring into the game of Survivor. One of the truths of tennis is that it’s hard to win because when you get close to winning, you get tight and you start to choke, so I went into this new season of Survivor remembering that the same thing is going to happen for these players.”

At the five-court Beverly Hills Tennis Club, director of tennis Anne White, a former top 20 world singles athlete, has also seen a resurgence. “We have a very long waiting list to get in. When I started compared to now, it’s crazy,” she says, adding that one sign of the sport’s popularity is a shortage of tennis balls from companies like Penn. “The Penn representative was like, ‘In the 27 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had this issue.’ It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” she says. White joined the staff at the tennis club four years ago; in that time, she has coached all ages and welcomed pros like Naomi Osaka and Tommy Haas within its doors.

Darryl Goldman, a private tennis coach for more than 40 years in Beverly Hills, has observed a spike in equipment prices as a result. “I haven’t been able to get the shoes I want to get for the longest time,” he says, adding: “Also, paying 30 to 40 percent more at times for tennis balls and equipment and not being able to get them quite often, they’re back-ordered.” He long gave tennis lessons at a court on the estate of the late Robert Evans in Beverly Hills, but is now doing his coaching at another private court nearby. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a boom like this. It’s become such an incredible social sport. I don’t remember so many new players getting in the game, young and old, men and women, boys and girls,” says Goldman. “Once the CDC came out and declared tennis the safest activity, it became busier than ever.”

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Courts and a pool at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.

Courtesy of Tanne Willow

Los Angeles has long been known for its impressive private tennis club selection — Los Angeles Tennis Club in Hancock Park, Brentwood Country Club, Riviera Country Club and Malibu Racquet Club among them — but public parks with courts are a strong alternative, too. “There are a lot of parks all around Los Angeles, where people are playing and the courts are quite crowded because of the renaissance that tennis is really having right now,” says talent manager Steven Siebert, founder of Lighthouse Entertainment (where clients include Angela Bassett).

But many entertainment names prefer the privacy and status of private courts. Siebert runs a weekly tennis group, Team Uomo Live Ball, inside the gated Malibu Colony community, which attracts players (architects, actors, tech entrepreneurs and more) from all over Los Angeles, from West Hollywood to Los Feliz.

Visitors to the Team Uomo Live Ball matches have included tennis legend John McEnroe, Chinese pro Qiang Wang, actor Jonah Hill, director-producer James L. Brooks, Wimbledon winner Pat Cash, music executive Elliot Grainge and writer-director Stephen Gaghan. “If you come to our court in Malibu and you play live-ball tennis with us on a Saturday, you’ll always catch some pros,” says Siebert.

His tennis group is named after athletic apparel brand Uomo Sport, which Siebert founded in 2016 in reaction to what he saw as a fading prioritization of style and charisma in tennis apparel that players of yesteryear had. “I really couldn’t believe what happened to tennis clothing, it just kind of went by the wayside,” he said.

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Former pro player Tomáš Berdych in Uomo Sport apparel.

Courtesy of Uomo Sport

The label recently got screen time in King Richard: “Will Smith is wearing some of our pieces in the movie,” says Siebert, “including our pink polo, though they had to take the logo off.”

While several communities and clubs have watched enrollment numbers grow, tennis has not had the same success in other areas; the Arthur Ashe tennis courts at Rancho Cienega Recreation Center in Baldwin Hills have had difficulty bringing new players into the game. According to Richard Williams (but not that Richard Williams), the head tennis pro and coach at the courts since 1976, tennis’ popularity has not changed among Black players lately, but he’s noticed more white players hitting the courts.

“The area is changing, of course, they are moving into the area,” Williams says of recent and ongoing gentrification in the neighborhood. “We have a hard time getting kids out there to play tennis; it might have to do with the money aspect. Maybe they think tennis is an elitist sport and they can’t do whatever at it, but they can if they come out.”

Williams has coached countless players in the community during his tenure, perhaps most notably legendary champs Venus and Serena Williams, and their father, the subject of King Richard. Given the movie’s recent debut, Rancho Cienega’s Williams thinks “it’s going to produce some traffic … but the problem there is it’s not maintained.”

Crabb — who used to teach George Clooney and the late Miguel Ferrer at Rosemary Clooney’s house — hopes more people fall in love with the game and the lessons it can teach. “People think tennis is about just hitting a ball,” says Crabb, who adds that he sees similarities between the sport and acting. “They’re so connected in the fact that you always have an objective or obstacle you’re trying to overcome. And with acting, you’re working off the other person. That’s what tennis is!”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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