I learned to play tennis on the public courts at Deer Park Junior High School in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. They offered clinics for kids during summer mornings—the courts were obviously reserved for children at those hours. But, in return, there were signs indicating “Adults have preference on weekends.”
In addition, there were also all kinds of written and unwritten rules and norms. You play for no more than an hour if others are waiting, you never retrieve a ball from behind the baseline of the next court while their ball was in play, and you “reserve” a court by putting your racket in the fence under the sign with the number of the court you wanted.
Were the courts always perfect? No. There is a certain “unevenness” in what to expect out of public tennis courts. Some are in pretty good shape. Others have major cracks, causing the ball to travel in all sorts of directions. Yet others have grass and even large plants growing out of the cracks. Nets can be too high or too low and with a crank that feels soldered in one position. Some courts have fairly decent drainage, while others have puddles on them even 5 days after a rain shower. It is rare to find public courts with lights but when you find them, what a treat!
On occasion, I have had the privilege of playing on fancier courts—Yale University has 20+ courts which get re-paved each summer in preparation for a tournament which for many summers was the final pro tournament leading up to the US Open. I once played in an old-fashioned private club in the Philadelphia suburbs where white shorts and shirts and shoes were REQUIRED. I have played in some pretty fancy tennis bubbles. And of course there are the 26 clay courts of Central Park in Manhattan which have procedures and codes of conduct all their own (rules about how and when to sign up; leaving the courts the MINUTE the alarm sounds on the hour, etc.).
When I look back on the entirety of my tennis playing life so far, I think most tennis has been played on public courts. The experience of growing up on the public courts made a big impression on me and likely for thousands of others.
There is a certain charm to public courts. There is almost always a free court (though it may have cracks or branches falling from a tree which hasn’t been trimmed in a decade, and which is dripping slippery sap on the court). You can often get a game with other tennis lovers just hanging out and looking for a game. You often see a dad with a bag or basket of balls, throwing or hitting to an 8-year-old daughter who may or may not be the next Serena or Venus Williams.
And when all else fails, there is the practice wall. But don’t worry. Some desperate 3-some will find you and ask you to fill in—even if you will be the only guy for miles in the women’s doubles match!