Photo: Ivan EvlakhovCarlos Rivera, Nadia Johnston and Mark Bonfigli (USA)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA: Beach tennis is very much a minority sport in the US, but their ambitious captain Mark Bonfigli is hoping this will not be the case for much longer.
While this is the fifth edition of the ITF Beach Tennis World Team Championship, somewhat surprisingly, the United States is making its debut this year in Moscow.
Bonfigli accepts it will take time to capture the imagination of the American public, but he believes this is certainly possible.
“The sport is very viral and it is very easy to learn,” he told the ITF’s website. “As opposed to volleyball, which takes years to master, we have pros that are making it deep into draws, but have only been playing for three or four years,” he added.
The sport’s heartland in the US is southern California, with beach tennis actively played on Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles by a growing legion of enthusiasts. There are also small communities in New York and Miami who play the sport.
Members of the LA Clippers basketball team also play beach tennis as a good and fun way to keep fit, while a couple of US tennis legends, Bob and Mike Bryan also told Bonfigli that they would love to have the opportunity to one day swap the grass and clay of the tennis court, for the chance to play on the sand.
“We played with the Bryan brothers in Tokyo and they even said that after tennis, they would consider going on the pro tour,” Bonfigli admitted.
Looking ahead to the future is all well and good, but the rookie Americans have the small matter of trying to make an impression in their debut tournament in the Russian capital.
Things are looking promising after the US enjoyed a positive start after notching up their first ever win in the ITF World Beach Team Championship following a 2-1 victory against Slovenia to put them into Round 2.
Nadia Johnston is one of the members of the US team in Moscow. Born in Queensland, Australia, she emigrated to live in America 13 years ago and has taken up beach tennis for her adopted nation.
She fell in love with the sport four years ago after being introduced to beach tennis by a friend and has never looked back since.
“Coming from a tennis background, I really like the camaraderie between the players. We can’t even describe it. You are out there competing and you get off the court and everyone is friends. Everyone does things together. I don’t think there is another sport that I know of where that happens,” she said.
Walking around the National Tennis Centre, which is located on the banks of the River Moskva, it is easy to see what Johnston is talking about. Numerous languages from across the world can be heard, while there are constant high-fives as players from different nations great each other.
The vast majority of the players have little financial support and often have to pay out of their own pockets or rely on sponsors in order to be able to compete. This is certainly a sport which no one plays for financial gain.
There is an acceptance amongst those playing beach tennis that more needs to be done to raise the sport’s profile in order to give the player opportunities to make money.
The head of the Russian Tennis Federation and International Olympic Committee member Shamil Tarpischev believes beach tennis could become an Olympic sport by 2024. While Bonfigli says this dream is obtainable, he admits that widespread media coverage, especially back at home, is needed if this is to become a reality.
“We believe the US has to be a beach tennis nation before it can be in the Olympics because of the media. I think this is the only piece missing. Once media contracts are made either by our association or the ITF – these are the things that need to happen for the world to see our sport,” he concluded.