Tennis Technology

As the indoor tennis season draws near, take a few minutes to look around your indoor court building. What you see, or maybe more importantly, what you don't see, could mean the difference between a successful facility and one players may pass up for a better built complex. No longer are the standard four walls, white painted ceiling and overhead warehouse lights enough. Today's state-of-the-art facilities are highly sophisticated, intensively designed environments meant to cater to discerning players and cost-conscious managers. In today's competitive market, facility owners and managers, whether renovating or starting new, need to know what key components contribute to a well planned indoor tennis court building. Since a great deal has already been written about planning pro shops, locker rooms and player lounges, this article will focus specifically on where the action is - the court buildings themselves.

What's Important in Tennis Buildings

The design of court buildings should address two major concerns: the cost effectiveness of the building and its attractiveness to players. Cost effectiveness means making the court building financially viable over both the short and long term. Considerations such as initial construction (or renovation) costs as well as annual energy consumption and maintenance expenses should be factored into the planning of a building. This is particularly important from an operational standpoint, as the initial cost of construction of a tennis building typically amounts to approximately 33% of the building's total life cost over a 20 year period. Spending more wisely initially in terms of the thermal efficiency of the building or getting the most light out of the least number of fixtures, for instance, can have a tremendous impact on a facility's profitability. The notion of making an indoor court building attractive to players, meanwhile, involves more than cosmetic appearance. It means creating the best possible environment for playing tennis. An attractive, well designed court building makes a positive and lasting first impression on potential new players, thereby increasing the marketability of the facility. What really draws players to a facility and continues to hold their interest, though, is a court building which offers consistent and comfortable playing conditions on all of its courts.

Creating the Ideal Indoor Court

The ideal indoor court environment is one which offers a full 120' court length with at least 18' between courts, divider curtains, finished ceiling heights of 18' at the eaves with 38' at the ridge, an uncluttered overhead area to minimize ball obstructions, uniform, glare-free lighting, with 70 to 100 footcandles (maintained) for recreational play, excellent MI visibility, a building temperature ranging between 55 to 62 degrees during winter and 10 to 15 degrees below the outdoor temperature during summer, 55% to 60% humidity, an HVAC system capable of changing the air within the building 6 to 8 times per hour at mini- mal noise levels and without creating a draft on players, and a playing surface that is comfortable, durable and will satisfy player needs and expectations. Buildings which meet these 'ideals" will have a significant market advantage over those facilities which do not. Moreover, buildings which meet these ideals on only some of their courts will be at a disadvantage since players will continually be vying for particular court assignments. Those players who are relegated to unwanted courts will feel frustrated or disappointed. Dissatisfaction among players ultimately results in lost revenue for building operators.

Understanding the Components of a Court Building

There are five primary components within a tennis building which are important to understand:

1. Building structure
2. CeilingLighting system
3. HVAC system and
4. Court surface

By appreciating how each of these components work together as a cohesive system with each component complementing the other, owners and managers can empower themselves to make better, more informed decisions about the short and long term outlook of their facilities.

1.  Building Structures

Pre-engineered steel frame buildings have traditionally been the most popular building type for indoor tennis. Unfortunately this type of building was not designed with tennis in mind. This building system relied on what is called a "wide-span" structural system. With this system, the building usually measures 120' in length from outside wall to outside wall. Columns placed inside the wall on 20' to 30'spacing extend from 18" to 36" from the wall into the interior of the building. With the installation of backdrops and player access alleys the effective space for a tennis court is only 114' +/-, some 6' less than most players are accustomed to. The resulting undersized courts have lead to numerous law suits with players claiming injuries for running into columns or walls. To avoid the problems of undersized courts, owners have had to rely on custom engineered buildings which are significantly more expensive and time consuming to erect and fabricate.

Recently, the advent of new pre-engineered building technology called "long-bay" has revolutionized the way in which tennis buildings can be built. Wide-bay buildings utilize columns located 50' to 60' on center integrated into the outer walls and columns at the ridge line. By locating the center columns between net posts, the court building can be a full 120' in length with no structural members protruding into the court space. The additional advantages of the "long-bay" systems are that they require significantly less steel for construction than do 'wide-span' systems. As a result, indoor court buildings can be constructed for approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per court less than the traditional systems which were already undersized by design. Less steel in the building framing system also means less time required for assembly, which brings further economies to the construction of tennis buildings.

2.  Ceilings

It is important to understand that a ceiling is more than just a finishing touch to an indoor tennis building. Ceiling systems can provide significant insulation value to a building, control condensation, provide a vapor barrier which keeps courts dry, improve the lighting of the court area, as well as to enhance the overall indoor appearance. The most effective ceiling systems are ones that combine fiberglass insulation with a highly reflective reinforced white fabric which is resistant to ball puncture. The most efficient way to install an insulated ceiling is to suspend it on the interior of the building framing. In this way the court area is entirely thermally isolated from the structural steel of the building. Structural steel that is exposed to warm, moist air of the building during winter will generate condensation that will not only discolor ceiling and court surface areas, but also lead to deterioration of the building structure itself. During the summer, outside temperatures can heat the building roof and structural members to temperatures as high as 160 degrees. Providing a ventilated air space between the structure and a suspended insulation system will minimize thermal gains, resulting in a significantly reduced expenditure for cooling. A suspended ceiling is also the most attractive and most efficient from a lighting stand point. It creates a flat, uniform surface which will reflect the maximum amount of light back down to the court, without shadows or glare.

3.  Lighting Systems

It goes without saying that a well designed tennis lighting system is crucial to the success of an indoor tennis building. The lighting system should be designed so that it does not interfere with balls in play and should also provide uniform, glare-free illumination. The light fixtures proposed for the facility should be designed specifically for tennis, meaning that they should provide exceptionally high output, can withstand ball impacts, and have shields which prevent balls from becoming lodged inside the fixture housing. Equally important, light fixtures should be designed for easy maintenance without the need for costly equipment to access the fixtures. Too often building managers fail to realize that simply cleaning their fixtures and re-lamping them more often will dramatically improve the lighting on their courts. Lighting fixtures, therefore, should be chosen to facilitate this process.

A lighting system should also be designed to be as efficient as possible since it will account for a significant portion of the energy cost of the building operation. Pendant mounted, 1000 watt metal halide indirect lighting (where the fixture is aimed at the ceiling) is the best type of system to use if the building itself is properly designed as an indoor tennis system. This type of lighting provides excellent distribution, is glare free and provides a clean, open appearance. Its success, however hinges upon the proper design of the building structure and ceiling. Since an indirect system uses the ceiling to reflect the lighting back down to the court, the more uniform and reflective the ceiling is, the more efficient the system will be. If bulky roof beams and columns require the ceiling to undulate, the resultant shadows can reduce the lighting efficiency by as much as 60%. In order to compensate for this, additional fixtures will be required. If just two fixtures more per court are needed to compensate for a poor ceiling design, the annual cost of lighting each court could increase by as much as $1,500-$2,500 per court depending on your facility's geographic location. It is critical to understand, therefore, that the design of the lighting system must be specific to each building in which it is installed. Good lighting design should take into account the shape and reflectivity of the ceiling, the number of fixtures to be used, the type of lamps to be used in the fixtures, and the reflectivity of the other building surfaces such as the wall, backdrops and court surface. All of these elements together impact upon the overall efficacy of the lighting system.

4.  HVAC Systems

Aesthetic considerations are also important when choosing how to heat and cool your building. Indoor operators frequently question the need for installing a cooling system for a facility that is used primarily during the winter season. In today's market, however, growing numbers of indoor centers are operating year round. Planning a new or renovated building without air conditioning is designing in obsolescence from the start. With a relatively small initial investment, your facility can operate 12 months out of the year rather than 6 or 8 months.

In terms of design, heating and cooling systems in tennis buildings should be low profile in appearance with low noise levels. Gas fired infrared heating systems are the most efficient systems available for indoor tennis. They are compact and operate without noise. Located along the ends of courts, they can effectively heat the building without the need for blowers or fans. Standard duct-type heating and cooling systems are often loud and bulky. Duct work located between courts or over playing areas can severely obstruct light distribution, creating shadows which make ball visibility difficult. Duct work which extends over courts also gets dirty quickly, remaining unsightly for longer periods of time because it is difficult to clean. Duct work, if required, should be used only for cooling systems and is best when mounted behind and slightly above backdrop curtains. At this location, it does not interfere with the lighting system and can be more easily maintained.

5.  Court Surfaces

Choice of playing surface is probably the most important decision in defining the market the facility will serve. Too often decisions about the court surface system are left until the building is almost completely finished, rather than being carefully considered before the start of new construction or renovation. The tennis playing surface is one of the most important elements in the building. After all, people are coming to the facility to play tennis. Choosing an asphalt pavement with an inexpensive color system might make sense in terms of overall construction cost, but may not meet the needs of the growing numbers of players who are turning to facilities which feature more player friendly surfaces such as cushioned surface systems, fast-dry, synthetic clay or sand-filled turf. Missing your market in terms of player preference can be detrimental to a facility regardless of how well it is constructed and managed. Deciding on what surface you will have can also impact numerous other decisions about the facility. Repairs to cracked asphalt courts typically require access for heavy machinery. Installing a fast-dry court requires special considerations in the design of the building insulation, HVAC system and structural steel footing connections to avoid costly moisture and condensation damage in the future. Finally, accurately determining the projected light levels in the building requires knowledge of the type and color of the proposed surface. Surface color variations can effect light reflectivity by as much as 10%, significantly impacting the amount of available light for play.


In the final analysis, understanding the true key to success for creating a state-of- the-art indoor tennis facility requires the following:

With these keys in hand, you too can unlock the future of a winning tennis facility. 

By Andrew R. Lavallee, ASLA and Sheldon Westervelt, P.E.