Checking in on the East River Park Tennis Courts

East River Park. Photos by Sarah Sluis.

Tucked next to the Williamsburg Bridge, the East River Park tennis courts attract quite a few local players throughout the April-November tennis season. During the U.S. Open (ending Sunday), more people catch the tennis bug and head out to the courts. If you plan on playing this week, be prepared to wait alongside other would-be Serena Williams and Andy Roddick-types.

There’s no one better to monitor the ebb and flow of the courts than Heriberto Torres, who has been working for the NYC Parks Department for twenty-one years, sixteen of them at the East River courts. He’s a familiar sight at the check-in table, known for his strict timekeeping and good sense of humor. The hours are marked with whistles, and if you’re playing at the end of the day, Torres herds out the players so he can lock up at 8pm sharp.

Torres walks the short distance to work from his apartment on Madison Street.  He’s a seasonal employee with the Parks Department.  It’s a pretty good gig, Torres says.

With twelve courts, the East River facility (officially known as the Brian Watkins Tennis Center) is the largest in downtown Manhattan, drawing people from both the neighborhood and beyond. The bike rack is almost always full, since one of the best ways to circumvent the fifteen-minute trek from the subway is to hop on two wheels. Dalton Hernandez, who took up the sport last October, compares the vibe to Manhattan’s better-known courts. “Central Park courts are all clay and well-maintained,” he says, while many of the hard courts here have cracks or slight sloping. The environment makes up for any flaws. “Here it’s cool, breezy, and right underneath the bridge. A lot of people don’t know about it.”

If the Central Park courts are known for their intense players and the difficulty of securing a reservation, the East River Courts are more accessible. There are advanced players with awe-inspiring serves, and the next court over can have a parent teaching their kids. At Central Park, people drop by to reserve a court time two or three hours after they sign up. At the East River Courts, sign up begins an hour before, and arriving fifteen or thirty minutes ahead of time generally secures you a court.

Two years ago, the parks department doubled the prices for tennis permits ($200 from $100) and single-play tickets ($15 from $7, and both players need one). The result, as documented by the Wall Street Journal, is that fewer people are shelling out for a permit. In fact, this year the city actually got half as much money from permits as it did in 2010, since sales went down 75%. Torres notices that there are more people using single-play tickets than permits. They require a smaller upfront investment. If they’re injured or out of town, they’re not losing money.

The most popular times to play are weekday evenings and weekends. “All day, no one’s here, then everybody comes at the end,” Torres laments. He recommends showing up well in advance during the U.S. Open, when crowds spike.

The tennis season continues through the end of November. Although shorter days make it harder to play in the evenings, the courts are cool and the foliage beautiful. For more information about buying tickets and permits, click here.