While traversing some communities of Barbados, you may encounter an outline of a small painted court on the roadways in several neighbourhoods. If you’re lucky, groups of people are gathered around watching two players in a fast-paced, heated game.
At first glance, it seems as though lawn tennis is being played on the roads of these communities, but in an atmosphere that is even more exciting. However, upon closer inspection, the local game of Road Tennis is revealed. Our island is the home of road tennis, which emerged from humble beginnings when Lance Bynoe (deemed the Father of Road Tennis) started the game in 1930 and began developing the sport in Barbados.
Road Tennis was born from the passion of impoverished communities to play a sport that mirrored lawn tennis or table tennis. In the early years, lawn tennis was not affordable for most Barbadians, and so resourceful Bajans created something of their own. Tennis courts were drawn out on tar or cement in communities, and vines or chalk were used to mark the boundaries. The skin was peeled from the lawn tennis ball, and rackets were crafted from square pieces of plywood. Today, the sport in Barbados has evolved with bright blue and green courts, circular wooden rackets and players vying for the coveted title of the Road Tennis Champion.
Though it may seem like a simple community sport, in Barbados, road tennis is truly a game of endurance, for the nimble and not the faint of heart. The low crouching technique ( required to play over the 8-inch net) and quick footwork take years to master, and players tend to get better and better with age as their technique develops.
An engaging road tennis match is a sight to see and fills the air with more and more excitement with the loud crack of every ball. Scoring is easy - the first player to reach 21 points (with a minimum two-point lead) wins. The first player to serve bounces the ball on his side of the court ( a 10 - foot square) before serving to the opponent standing in position. From there, players shuffle back and forth on the court for five serves, to gain the most of 21 points.
The sound of the ball being hit back and forth, the screeching of shoes on the tar show that players are upping their game as it heats up. While they continue to face off, cheers, chatter and applause can be heard from fans enhancing the ambience and creating an air of intensity. Suddenly, body language changes and beads of sweat on the players’ faces increase as the game progresses, getting closer and closer to declaring the winner who will take the crown. Notably, for the top road tennis champion, the win is now more valued and prestigious than ever before. Not just for bragging rights but for hefty prizes as well.
Because of the fun-loving nature of Barbadians, as with many other sports and games in Barbados, the game has evolved over the years to involve a bit of peacocking and teasing, with players assuming personas to intimidate their opponents. One example of such is the fashion statements made by players to complement their equipment, and the nicknames players give themselves (Bajan names are traditionally creative and unforgettable). Venom, Michael Jackson and Lil’ Man, are aliases that take over when popular players step on the court. Their names represent who they are as road tennis players, and remain with them even off the court. These players with memorable nicknames have earned their place among the best on the island. Tiny Jordan, Gill Map Bovell, Limp Richardson and Mighty Gabby are among the earlier players to have made a mark. Today, the top players in road tennis also have regular names and include Junior White, Deighton Roach, Antoine Daniel and Mark Griffith. But, road tennis is not just a sport for males, as females have packed just as strong a serve over the years, most notably Kim Holder and Sheldene Walrond.
Other popular players include:
- Deighton Roach, whose contribution to road tennis has been so impactful that it led to a road tennis facility being created in his name.
- Junior White, who reigned as the number one road tennis player for many years. He amassed 51 championships - the most for any individual.
- Mark Griffith, the number one player for almost ten years and the first male player to win a car.
- Philip Garner, a force behind creating avenues for players to harness their talent in Barbados and beyond. Ensuring the development of the sport in the Caribbean by taking local teams to countries such as St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Cuba.
The Barbados Road Tennis Association is one of the chief pioneers working to develop players of all ages to master the sport. Tournaments are staged annually, zoning in on developing Junior players to keep the culture of the sport alive. The Professional Road Tennis Association also contributes to the growth of the sport and remains dedicated to the expansion of the sport in the Caribbean and far beyond Barbados’ borders. The overarching vision is for road tennis to be an Olympic sport. Improved gear, rackets, and greater use of technology are ways in which the sport can be enhanced to market it on the international courts.
The sport has a stronghold in St. Michael, and outside of competition, it remains a destresser for persons who genuinely love the game. The camaraderie and togetherness brought by road tennis have certainly been a significant part of its evolution. “Trash-talk” is used to show one’s confidence in his/her abilities over that of the opponent. On a cool Friday evening or warm Sunday afternoon, players within the communities can be found in an action-packed game with a small group watching. Persons hoping to catch players in the hype of the game can visit communities in St. Michael, or the Dover Sports Club in Christ Church.
As Barbados’ indigenous sport, the future is bright for road tennis. Islands in the Caribbean have picked up on the sport, and international recognition has created exposure to the western world. During your stay in Barbados, do not let the opportunity, to pick up the wooden racket and learn the skill of playing road tennis, pass you by. Run back and forth to compete with players who can show you the right way to play. Who knows you might get a nickname of your own and memories to last a lifetime!