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How We Play: Road Tennis

This lively alternative to lawn tennis is a vital part of Barbados street culture.

Last updated: August 5, 2021
How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

"How We Play" is a series celebrating athletic communities around the world who are making sport their own.

Among the multi-coloured edifices of the Pine neighbourhood of St. Michael, Barbados, on courts etched in chalk, tennis balls move with ferocity at certain times and elegance at others. Games pause mid-set to let traffic by. Onlookers help keep score, while offering a colourful (and largely unprintable) running commentary. One player, overstretching to reach a forehand, ends up on the concrete. Everyone laughs.

"Dah fuh lick yuh!"

An old-timer who is playing cards playfully taunts the player in the local Bajan dialect. (It means "Serves you right!")

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

This is Road Tennis.
This is Barbados.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

The Court

If the road is flat, smooth and free of potholes and parked cars, it's good for road tennis. Traditionally, players chalk out a 3m by 6.4m court. A "net" is fashioned from plywood, cut 20cm high and more than 2.7m wide. Increasingly, the courts are permanently painted in dedicated areas next to football pitches and basketball courts, often in the yellow and blue of the Barbados flag.

The Objective

  • Score 21 points (with a minimum lead of 2 points).
  • Hit the tennis ball within the lines.
  • Avoid the net.
  • Stay upright.

The Rules

  • A set consists of three games, each played to 21 points.
  • The player who wins the best of three games wins the match.
  • The serving and scoring system is the same as in table tennis.
  • The ball has to bounce before you hit it.
  • You score a point if your opponent hits the ball into the net, hits the ball out of bounds or lets the ball bounce more than once on their side.
How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

The Local-Celebrity Fan
Terry "Mexican" Arthur (52)

Mexican is a familiar face in the crowd at road-tennis tournaments across the island. This well-known Soca musician has made solid-wood rackets since childhood, for him and his friends to play with.

"You would sand off the edges like this", Mexican says, as he thumbs the paddles he whittled. One reason for street tennis's popularity on the island is its accessibility: No fancy equipment needed. This basic style of racket is still used today. As for the tennis balls, "You would peel off the felt from the top to skin them", he says. Road-tennis die-hards swear they move faster that way.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Get Up to Speed

Road tennis started in the 1930s, as a response to the socioeconomic barriers that kept many locals from playing lawn tennis. When the island gained independence from Britain in 1966, many English traditions such as lawn tennis and cricket remained.

Post-colonial society was both racially and socially divided. "Road tennis was perceived as the poor-people sport", says Dale Clarke, who runs the Professional Road Tennis Association. "But it is a Barbados indigenous game, so it should be in the DNA of all Barbadians".

For years, road tennis was played mainly in poorer neighbourhoods, but now it is played all over the island. "It's pleasing that in nearly every community that you go into, you can see someone playing road tennis", says Dale. "The growth of the sport has been amazing. People have painted courts. It's so good to see so many people play it to get exercise".

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

The Top Brass
Dale Clarke (44)
Title: Founder and Chief Executive of the Professional Road Tennis Association

Dale is leading the charge in establishing the game at both ends of the spectrum: in local schools and community coaching clinics for kids, and as a professional sport in Barbados and beyond.

He is working hard to drum up corporate sponsorship to support his tournaments, played under floodlights and in front of sizeable courtside crowds. There is now a fledging pro circuit on the island—and Clarke has taken some of the players to represent Barbados at international showcase tournaments in the United States and the Philippines.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

The Pros

Barbados' most elite players are living history. They're defining the new generation of the sport, and growing it for their country and the world. While this crew may not yet have the global acclaim that pros have in better-known international sports, they are bona fide professional athletes, whose determination, skill and desire to evolve perceptions of their island nation are paying off.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Mark Griffith (36)
Nickname: Venom
Profession: Full-Time Road-Tennis Pro
Men's Ranking: No. 1

He's not called "Venom" for nothing. The most potent road-tennis player on the island, Mark's beachside home in Brandons Beach, St. Michael, is heavily decorated with trophies. He's a celebrity here—and the sport's only full-time sponsored pro right now. But staying at the top takes work when there are young up-and-comers who want your crown. How does he keep his edge? He beats the competition while they're still asleep. Mark wakes up at 4am every day for a rigorous training routine.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Dario Hinds (25)
Nickname: CR7
Profession: Full-Time Sales Rep, Part-Time Road-Tennis Pro
Men's Ranking: No. 4

At 14 years old, Dario spent his evenings watching road-tennis matches on the hard courts near his house. Then, one day, a friend asked him if he wanted to play. The rest is Bajan history. Today, he's ranked number four on the island. "There are not a lot of guys walking around this island who have beaten me. Those who have, I can count on one hand", he says.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Sheldene Walrond (44)
Nickname: Smiling Assassin
Profession: Senior Officer in the Barbados Coast Guard
Women's Ranking: No. 1

Sheldene spends a lot of her time training with the top male players. "The elite of the sport tend to stick together", she says with a laugh. She is the dominant force in the women's game right now, and a born entertainer: "The crowd loves to see shots".

Sheldene wants to use her profile to get more girls into the game. "While there are currently around 20 women in the A-class [the island's top players], there can be up to 80 A-class male players at a given time", she says.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

The Sauna: A Training Facility and Community Centre

Around the indoor courts, where top players go head-to-head, the scene isn't what most people might imagine to be ideal practice conditions. There's a card game going on, and Shakeem Nurse, one of the game's most promising up-and-comers, is getting a haircut. But for road-tennis games, which take place while people go about their daily business around you, they represent what you'd find at a street-match-cum-social-gathering anywhere on the island.

"It's a cross between lawn tennis and table tennis. The colours are richer, the sounds are louder and the energy is off the charts".

Dario Hinds

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Out to the street.

While the pro circuit is growing, the version of the game that really defines the sport remains on the streets, where potholes and passers-by are part and parcel of play. The courts have long been focal points of community life.

Back in The Pine, the familiar scent of pudding and souse (a local pickled pork dish) permeates the air. People come and go, stopping to watch a few points and offer a few pointers, in between running their errands and visiting friends. The game is happening right in the middle of it all.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

This is Road Tennis.
This is Barbados.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

This is Road Tennis.
This is Barbados.

How We Play: Road Tennis in Barbados 

Words: Daphne Ewing-Chow
Photography: Aniya Legnaro
Illustration: David Linchen

Reported: September 2020

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