The evening was warm and overcast, but a breeze kept around a dozen Beckley Tennis League players on the Woodrow Wilson High School tennis courts cool on Wednesday evening, as they played.

Dr. E.J. Salon, 52, joined the new league, which started on July 8 under the City of Beckley Parks and Recreation Department, headed by Leslie Baker.

A lifelong tennis player, Salon said the new league is a good start to rebuilding a local interest in tennis.

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“We have soccer, and we have volleyball, but I think tennis has been kind of down,” Salon said. “This is a really strong start.”

Salon, a physician, said the sport offers “really great cardio exercise.”

“It’s a mental game, meaning not only are you getting your cardio, you learn how to control your emotions, you have a strategy,” he said. “It’s just, overall, fun.”

The new league is directed by Brian Showalter, who was at the courts on Wednesday, and by Woodrow Wilson High School Tennis Coach Bernie Bostick, who was on a European cruise.

Derek Farley 18, began playing tennis two years ago as an Independence High School student, and those around him noticed that he had a talent for the sport. Farley said he joined the league to practice the game. The league is also fostering one of the young man’s goals.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue on in college,” Farley said. 

He added that the league is a good way for others with interest in tennis to practice.

“I think this is probably the best way to get into it, if you’re first starting off,” he said. “Or, even if you’ve been playing a long time, it’s a fun way.”

The summer has offered all of the fun and community spirit that Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold had envisioned last year when he asked retired WWHS basketball coach Dave Barksdale to direct a citywide athletics program, members said.

Years ago, when they were newlyweds, Barksdale and his wife, Gelilah, had organized and led a very popular city tennis league.

Times change, though, and by the time this summer had rolled around, the legendary coach had discovered the newfangled sport of pickleball. According to Showalter, Barksdale wanted to launch a pickleball program in the same way he had launched the city tennis program so many years ago— and that was how Showalter and Bostick ended up leading the 2019 tennis revival in Beckley, according to Showalter.

“Dave Barksdale spearheaded the pickleball efforts out of New River Park. He actually put together the pickleball setup,” said Showalter, adding that the sport is growing in popularity in Beckley and around the country. “He took two courts at New River and converged them into pickleball, and he decided to focus solely on that.

“He needed somebody to direct the (tennis) league, to coordinate matches and sign up players,” said Showalter, who had met Barksdale as a young person when he played golf with Barksdale’s son. “Between myself and Bernie, we share those duties.”

Showalter said he and Bostick had no problems recruiting members.

“I knew the players were out there,” he explained. “It was just a matter of getting to them.

“Word of mouth was our only point of advertising, initially,” he added. “Bernie, with his connections with the school tennis program, and the coaches and other people he’s known personally, and the people I’ve known personally, we felt like we could get a pretty decent amount of people together, and we felt it would be a very diverse group of people, too, and that’s pretty much how it’s worked out.”

Showalter said the league has players who range in age from 15 years old to those who are in their 70s. There is a good mix of women and men and all skill levels, and the end result is a league that gives everyone a chance to share a sport they enjoy, have friendly competitions and to meet others who share a love of the sport.

“The diversity is great,” he reported. “Men and women, young and old, different nationalities — all of those things.

“So much of the things you read and see every day are built around what makes us different than anybody else,” Showalter said. “Tennis is just one of those languages, like all sports, which is something (people who play) have in common.

“Instead of focusing on what makes you and me different, we’re focusing on what makes us similar.”

He said that new friendships have formed on the court his summer, and some members are planning to play together once the summer season has ended.

The league plays all three formats — singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

“We encourage people to play all three formats,” Showalter said. “They get to play more matches, they get more out of their entry fee, it’s better value, they get more experience, and it’s a lot more fun.”

League members are from Beckley, Oak Hill and Fayetteville in Fayette County, Oceana in Wyoming County and Princeton in Mercer County, Showalter added.

The league plays Monday through Thursday on WWHS tennis courts.

Showalter said that the 2019 season, which started on July 8, will end Aug. 1. Showalter and Bostick are already planning the city’s 2020 league season, and they’re also considering adding a fall and spring league, said Showalter.

Salon said the addition of an indoor court in Beckley would help the league grow and promote tennis in Beckley. Currently, the only indoor court is at Glade Springs Resort in Daniels, and that has hampered growth of the sport, he said.

“We only have one indoor tennis court, and the off-season comes, from October all the way til March, it’s hard to play tennis because it’s cold,” he said. “With indoor courts, you can play all-year round.”

Salon said the league is interested in finding investors who may be interested in building an indoor court.

Entry fee to join the league is $40 per season, which covers the cost of new tennis balls at every match. More information is available by joining the Facebook group Beckley-Raleigh County Tennis.

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