San Francisco tennis players connect with convicts on the court

Tennis at San Quentin

By James P. Sutton, Youth Tennis Coalition Co-Chair

Members of the San Francisco tennis community have recently been playing at an unusual location -- not a quiet neighborhood court or cushy private club, but at one of California’s largest and most notorious prisons, San Quentin.

A group of players from the California Tennis Club, led by member Mark Danis, who first heard about San Quentin while touring the prison with a group of lawyers, wanted to participate further.

“I really enjoyed the inmates whom I met during the tour,” said Danis. “They were intelligent, thoughtful, and very appreciative of the opportunity to spend time with someone from the outside community.”

So Danis sent out an email asking for 3.5- or 4.0-level players. One respondent was Michael Terris, who joined up mainly out of curiosity. “I had no idea that there was a tennis court at San Quentin,” he said. “I really had no idea what to expect.”

In preparing to visit San Quentin, all players had to submit to a list of rules and regulations more akin to Wimbledon than neighborhood courts, at least in their strictness. Players were told to wear black head to toe in order to distinguish themselves from the inmates. They also were allowed to bring their rackets and water, nothing else, as the prison was worried about items being smuggled in. At the gate, they presented their ID, were checked in the main building and had their rackets checked, went through two doors “like an airlock,” and were suddenly in the yard “completely on (their) own,” with close to a thousand inmates.

“You couldn’t help but feel vulnerable,” said Terris. “But the prisoners were so excited to see us” that they quickly felt welcomed. The inmates were thrilled to not be playing the same people whom they normally would, and they quickly began playing best of four doubles with rotating teams. And simply put, “They were really good,” says Terris.

Even though few of the San Quentin players possessed a “classic game,” they “took tennis very seriously” and ran the Cal Club players around the court in doubles. Most did not grow up playing tennis but were 3.5’s or 4.0’s from playing so often at San Quentin. And while they had to play each other most of the time, they occasionally get better competition: college tennis teams and even the Bryan brothers have played there.

“I would go back every chance I get,” says Terris. “It was a great learning experience.”

Danis agreed.

“Playing tennis with the inmates allows me to connect with them through a sport that I love, and in a small way involves me in their rehabilitation as they ready themselves for reentry into society,” said Danis.

Both said they truly enjoyed the people and not just the tennis, that hearing what the inmates had to say and talking through their stories was fascinating and fun. These were conversations and connections happening between people who would ordinarily rarely meet, but became possible through a shared love for tennis. Not bad for a “country club sport.”