Road Tennis Is the Coolest Sport You’ve Never Heard Of
In Barbados, road tennis is to the grass-court game what stickball is to baseball. Meet the reigning champion of the sport, Mark “Venom” Griffith.
Photographs by Thomas Prior
Illustrations by Lisa Lok
The gray-blue Hyundai was miles from anywhere in my guidebook, winding past tiny churches and lolling banana plants and a man selling salt fish outside a welding shop. I trailed it down a narrow potholed street, then into a narrower lane where abruptly a shirtless man stepped before it with a tired palm out. A mellow flurry of activity ensued. A dude with dreads climbed wearily off a nearby porch and dragged aside an old wooden door propped in the road as a barrier, while two other dudes, slick with sweat, began shuffling off the road themselves, over to where the sidewalk would be if this were a sidewalk kind of neighborhood, which it wasn’t.
But the Hyundai wasn’t passing through — the activity in the road was the destination. Only when the driver cut his engine did folks recognize the VIP now in their midst. At that point they would’ve handed over their firstborn.
Mark “Venom” Griffith emerged from his car, all muscular and languid, a jaguar in sportswear. I’d spent a good amount of time with him by this point, but he was still striking. Those lover-boy eyelashes don’t hurt, but like all celebrities he commands attention simply by existing. He also commands it by being the best road-tennis player in the world. That fact is particularly meaningful if you’ve heard of road tennis, a matter we’ll discuss in a bit.
For now, Venom, 34, had a 21-by-10-foot patch of his country to dominate. We were in Chelston Gardens, a working-class neighborhood in southwest Barbados. Guys over here were snipping weed into baggies; a chicken over there pecked around in the dirt. The rectangle had been painted on the asphalt god knows how many years ago and was bisected by an eight-inch-high length of scrap wood, supported by hunks of cinderblock at the ends. This was the net, and on either side, every day, opponents wielding crude plywood paddles would gather to whack a defuzzed tennis ball back and forth ferociously. The action has been happening here, fast and ankle-high, just about every day since before most of these guys were born. Picture regular tennis, picture Ping-Pong, merge these two in your mind. You have now conjured Venom’s reason for being.
What was once a janky neighborhood pastime on the island became, at some point over the past half-dozen decades, the janky unofficial national sport. Cricket might be the dignified (and televised) game of the Caribbean, the big stadium may be a palace built for cricket, it may be a cricket player’s statue that stands out front, you might find a whole goddamn store called Cricket Legends of Barbados at Grantley Adams International Airport — but around the neighborhoods and villages of Barbados, in the hearts of former and current children, road tennis is hallowed. Which is why the last few years have gotten particularly interesting.
In a lonely bit of good fortune, Venom has become the world’s only professional road-tennis player; the purse, such as it is, is a purse for one. He’s won sponsorship deals and, in his biggest victory so far — that Hyundai. It’s also left him with a giant target on his chest, at least to any islander with a decent forehand. One of them, a younger man with long braids and a skull tattoo on his neck, was just now pulling up here in Chelston Gardens. I parked my rental behind Venom’s car and stepped out into the tropical heat.
This was not an official tournament — that would come. For now, and in other matches around the island, Davien “Force Ripe” Taylor had come for an unofficial go at the champ, who’d begun stretching his quads beside his parked car. I’m not going to tell you this mellow block was suddenly tense at the sight of the impending rivalry — I mean, I was literally watching the game with a reggae musician named Princi Lite holding what I can only assume was a hand-rolled cigarette, roughly the size of a Lincoln Log — but within five minutes Venom was serving, and it was hard not to notice everyone leaning in a little more.
It’s like stumbling upon two stooping giants warring over a tiny village: faster than tennis, wilder than Ping-Pong, more comprehensible than cricket.
A few specifics for those unfamiliar with the sport: A set comprises the best of three games, which are played to 21, and you must win by two points, so what might be a 15-minute game could stretch to hours with well-matched opponents. More aggressive hitters are known as attackers — Force Ripe is one — while defenders like Venom more or less aim to be wall-like. All the while, this is happening eight inches off the ground. If you’ve ever stumbled upon two stooping giants warring over a tiny village, you can appreciate the strange allure of the spectacle: faster than tennis, wilder than Ping-Pong, shorter than soccer, more comprehensible than cricket.
For the first ten minutes, Force Ripe seemed tentative, as though he’d already accepted his place on the road-tennis hierarchy. But really the dude just wasn’t warmed up. In game two, Lite and I watched an engine switch on. Force Ripe stands a few inches taller than Venom and has to lunge to get low enough to get the ball. He funnels that lunging energy into his swing. The result is nuclear. Frankly, it’s hard to even see some of his shots. At one point, battered by a series of these blasts, Venom got caught on his heels. Force Ripe stepped up to slam it clear over him — but then just gave it a love tap. Eighteen all.
Venom did not come for this. For that matter, he did not get kicked out of grade school, possibly face a life in jail, then turn his life around, cut his hair, dial back the partying, and become a role model — he didn’t do that stuff to lose. He put his hands on his thighs, caught his breath. His face was a faucet. It looked, to a budding road-tennis connoisseur, like he was playing for his life, and he was.
I would come to love Venom. The guy pours his beer into cups when impressionable young people are around, drives his ailing mom’s taxi in his off hours to make ends meet. Ditto Force Ripe, who, when he’s not attacking Venom, cuts hair in a small outbuilding behind his mother’s bar; AVOID ABUSIVE LANGUAGE is written on the wall. But to understand the roots of road tennis itself, I think you have to go back more than a century.
That’s when lawn tennis, the precursor of regular tennis, started exploding around the world. By the 1920s and ’30s, the Brits were playing it, the Americans were playing it, the French were playing it, the Aussies were playing it, and the lush British colony of Barbados wanted to play it, too. They just couldn’t.
As the biggest sugar exporter in all the colonies, the island’s prosperity had been divided equitably among the slaves and the — kidding, of course. The wealth was siphoned off by the Crown, and poverty lingered for generations. The idea of paying for a tennis racquet in 1930s Barbados, much less having a court built anywhere near your dirt-road village, was laughable.
But just as tennis mania was sweeping the globe, a political rights movement among descendants of slaves happened to be sweeping Barbados. Insurgency and racquet sports both being in the air, Barbadians did the only logical thing: They invented an anti-elite, egalitarian alternative to tennis that the island could call its own. Driftwood and even hardcover books became racquets, bicycle tubes grips. Metal from people’s roofs was used to reinforce the racquets’ edges. Kids learned to skin the fuzz off tennis balls — they play faster that way — and the narrow roads wending through Barbados’s shantytowns became spots for courts.
So it went into the 21st century, not unlike stickball or four square or any other neighborhood sport — but more so. Road tennis evolved into a community affair, a game that could be played by anyone, where old and young could come together to loudly berate someone’s topspin.
By a certain measure, it was a total waste. With the formation of the Professional Road Tennis Association in the early 2000s, the sport took on a new cast — that of a missed opportunity. Barbados was hiding its light under a bushel, failing to publicize and monetize the easy-to-learn and weirdly addictive game it had invented. “Road tennis will be the number one racquet sport in the world in the next five years,” the PRTA has declared, and that was three years ago. Naturally, I made arrangements to meet up with the organization when I arrived.
The organization consists of: Dale Clarke. As the organization’s chief executive and sole full-time employee, Clarke is singlehandedly trying to engineer his country’s next export. He’s an affable man with a bulldog physique: barrel chest, proud walk. In his slacks and button-up shirt, he looked mayoral, which isn’t far from the persona he affected when I met him by the courts at Belfield, one of his regular haunts.
“The courts at Belfield” — it sounds like what you’d call a country club. In fact they were just two asphalt rectangles along a small dead-end street near a housing project. Belfield is a poor section of St. Michael’s Parish, about ten minutes north of downtown Bridgetown. Houses are small, and life happens largely outside; I saw a lovely hibiscus wrapped casually around an exercise bike in someone’s yard. Life also happens at the so-called rum shops attached to homes around the island, a Barbados institution that’s one part salon and one part dive. Locals go for beer, for dominoes, for conversation, for a plate of ham cutters, or jug jug, or pudding and souse.
When I found Clarke, he was sitting under a massive shade tree at the edge of the courts. So were a dozen other guys, lounging on benches made from old pallets, watching and shouting at the players and getting ready to play themselves.
They’re here all day, Clarke told me. I observed no set schedule. A game would finish, a couple other guys would amble over to play, and so on. If a mellower athletic situation exists somewhere, I’d like to see it. The soft bap bap bap of ball on concrete was hypnotic, the steady trash talk funny verging on poetic — “Na in da sky but clouds!” someone hollered at a player. When a man in a nearby shack wandered out buck naked to do some gardening, nobody blinked.
The hope is that the sport will take hold and become the island’s next Rihanna.
I took a seat on a crate beside a tall, erect fellow named David Hines. He’s 57, with gray dreads stuffed into a brown cap. Last spring, Hines’s house burned down, leaving him with just the clothes on his back; he lives with his sister now. He comes here to wash cars, but business is scarce, so mostly he watches the matches. He had his own thoughts on Clarke’s vision: For the sport to go international, he said, they need special lights that flash when a ball’s out of bounds — some kind of concession to the modern world, in other words. The guy next to him added that games should be shortened, on account of today’s attention span. Someone else said there should probably be less yelling. Then Hines stood. With his long, grasshopperish frame, he strode over to the court and began to hit. He was a laid-back and elegant player, the road tennis equivalent of a soul surfer. His long arms and legs swept gracefully around the baseline. “Dere you go, boy!” someone called, but he was too laid-back to smile.
Somewhere in there, Venom and Force Ripe arrived. Here and at other matches at other courts, I watched them unofficially jockey for status. Sweet and quiet normally, Venom transformed into a peacock after the first serve. (Mind games, he explained to me later.) “That’s why dey have insurance,” he called out after Force Ripe missed a point. “Accidents is happen!” When someone shouted that one of his shots was wide, he inquired as to whether the fellow suffered from cataracts.
To grow up in Barbados is to have precious few chances for altering your fortunes, I heard frequently. You can be really good at hustling tourists at the beach, you can win the lottery, you can hope to be the next Rihanna (“Nice girl, always singing,” the Guyanese woman from her old block told me). Venom grew up not far from that court, poor and a little wild. That he played a good game of road tennis was neither here nor there — he was surely destined for jail, he told me. But about eight years ago, Clarke heard about Venom’s skills and opened his eyes to a more serious version of the neighborhood sport. One night Venom saw a game being played under lights at Bush Hall Yard Gap, and it staggered him. Lights! The idea of road tennis being worthy of electricity was a revelation all its own.
That year, at Clarke’s prodding, Venom entered his first tournament and won. He entered again the following year, this time making it to the semifinals. Something big was happening: People were recognizing him on the street, kids were starting to look up to him. He decided to dial back the nightlife and accept his new status as a role model. Having been expelled from school as a boy, he went back so he could learn to speak better during interviews. “Road tennis has taught me to be a better individual,” he told me more than once.
After the Belfield match we headed to the Prescod Bottom neighborhood, where Venom trounced Force Ripe at the Sauna — that’s what everyone calls the court built inside a mechanic’s garage, right there beside a car up on blocks. (The metal roof allows games to happen in the rain, but it’s sweltering in there.) Later still I watched Force Ripe mount a comeback on a court a few miles away as neighbors played Hearts off to the side under a canopy. He was fully on fire by then, but it wasn’t enough. Venom beat him by more than four points in every game.
There are still moments, Venom told me at a rum shop near Pile Bay — best salt fish and sweet potato I’ve ever had — when he finds this life hard to believe. When in 2016 Clarke told him that the next tournament would be in America, Venom just smiled and nodded. When he said the winner would go home with a car, Venom just smiled and nodded. When Venom won that tournament and heard the Hyundai was his, he just smiled and nodded. It was only when he was handed the keys that he started to believe it — and even then, just barely. The next morning he was sure it was a dream, until he ran out to his driveway and looked.
We were sitting around over beers one night when Clarke made an announcement. Within five years, he said, the prize would be $1 million. An actual hush fell over the table. Regarding the plausibility of this figure I am devoutly agnostic, but the evening felt markedly different after that.
One afternoon, near a court in the Barbarees Gardens part of Bridgetown, I met a shirtless man drinking beer and dancing in the street with a small, fat dog. As he held it by its hind legs, we discussed racquet-making, which he apparently had mastered. I nodded and scribbled things in my notebook, all the while hoping the conversation would go in a certain direction. And then it did. “Want to hit?” he asked. A light rain had cleared the court behind me. He stepped away from the dog and handed me a plywood paddle, and for the first time, I took a swing at a road-tennis ball.
I am a poor regular tennis player and assumed my incompetence would transfer nicely. It was a shock, then, to discover that I didn’t suck. Much as the novice can fall into a decent first game of Ping-Pong, I found myself returning this guy’s shots rather easily, even putting a little mustard on my own. I’d expected the ball to have more of a leaden feel, as when playing paddle ball on the beach. On the contrary, a minor smack sent it flying. Chasing after the thing made for a surprisingly vigorous workout, and reaching Venom’s level would require a full body transplant. Still, when I earned a few indulgently appreciative noises from the guys on the sidelines, it only cemented a feeling that was already welling up: I want to do this much, much more.
That feeling is what guys like Dale Clarke and Venom and Force Ripe are banking on — that their sport will take hold and become the island’s next Rihanna. The idea isn’t altogether insane. Pickleball was a child’s game played in the backyards of Bainbridge Island not all that long ago; supposedly it’s the fastest-growing sport in America now. But in the case of road tennis, it’s hard to miss the irony in that dream. The heart of the sport was its thumb in the eye of the outside world, of the moneyed world. Now, Clarke says, he hopes “the elites” in other countries will play it one day. The contradiction isn’t lost on him. When he speaks of renaming “shotgun” matches because outsiders might find the word too ghetto, he appears to do so with a heavy heart.
Nobody wants to lose the essence of the game. But such notions are also a luxury, and anyway, there are other essences at play. If road tennis catches on, Barbados itself catches on in some tiny way. The rum shops, the white-sand beaches, the ham fritters, the ineffable loveliness that lets people sit beside a court for hours shouting at their friends — having the world love your home the way you love your home is no small thing. For the players I spoke with, serious and not, the idea is no less appealing than any material rewards that could come.
Back on the court, the light rain soon exploded into a monsoon, and my dog-dancing friend and I called it a day. On our last volley I thought of something Clarke had said: that he’d recently ordered 10,000 balls from China. No more skinned Wilsons — these were specially made, more or less a slightly larger racquetball. When he told me he mentioned that he’d bought them in four different colors. I assumed this was just for variety’s sake, but he corrected me — it was to test for TV-friendliness. Yellow won. They’re sitting in a U-Haul, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up and need them.
About the author: Chris Colin’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, and Best American Science and Nature Writing. He’s a contributing writer for California Sunday Magazine and Afar.