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Building from Clay

  • Luca Santini, President of the Circolo Tennis Cagli, leans against the net of his clay court.
  • Luca converses with one of the club's coaches.
  • Coach Eduardo volleys balls to students.
  • Tennis balls skid and collect dust from the red clay surface of the court.
  • Spectators observe matches from courtside benches.
  • Tennis balls are collected in a shopping cart.
  • The club's entrance overlooks Old Cagli across the river.

Story and photos by Luke Batty

For decades, Cagli’s tennis community boomed. And then it busted. Between 1990 and 2012, the local club, Circolo Tennis Cagli, dwindled from 130 members to 20.

Luca Santini is working to change that. Three years ago, Luca succeeded his father as the club president, and he began to rebuild. He modernized the facilities, organized teams, and incorporated technology.

Luca has been a part of the tennis club for decades. As a teenager, Luca helped his father around the club. When the club began to struggle, he took the reins and updated the Circolo Tennis Cagli so that it could build clientele. Now the group has a social media presence, and players find matches and partners online. He added a crimson hitting wall on the club’s east side so that players could hit solo. Around the club, Luca still joins the players at the clubhouse bar. He cheers from the bleachers and sweeps the clay court between matches.

Luca says the clay court is the most popular surface for his members. Red bricks are crushed into a fine powder that coats the court. Outside the covered court complex, three pallets are stacked with dozens of 55-pound bags of the red silt. Kicking up dust, players slide across the loose particles, and balls bounce wildly during rallies. Luca or one of the players will drag a wide rake over the court to even the clay that is swirled about after hours of play. He wipes away the skids from shots that caress the white lines, barely landing “in” to push opponents out wide.

In the late spring and early summer, tennis fans watch clay tournaments in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Paris before playing their afternoon matches. The clay and hard synthetic courts are reserved for matches after midday pausa, an afternoon rest time. In the morning, coaches hit balls from the net where a line of players takes turns making deep groundstrokes. Off the court, they break at the clubhouse and bar.

Luca prides himself on the new clubhouse. The building matches the red clay of the indoor court. In the bar, old racquets hang on the walls beside posters of upcoming tournaments. Players gather on the plaid couch by the beer cooler or outdoor picnic table. White and beige tiles cover the walls of the new bathrooms above wooden benches and spotless showers.

Luca and members of the club did the renovations themselves. An electrician and plumber in the group provided their skills; Luca built and painted the facility. “It took a consortium, a team,” he says.

Luca rebuilt more than the physical buildings of the Circolo Tennis Cagli. Within the club, he made sure lessons and competitions were readily available. A doubles and mixed-doubles tournament is less then a month away. Teams practice coordinated plays. Switching sides, attacking the net, and “poaching” are rehearsed for advantage on the court. Players sprint across the court for singles matches but doubles requires communication and teamwork.

In addition to club tournaments, Luca organized a men’s team to play at le Marche regional level. The women’s team will join them next year, he says. The teams and new facilities support the mature and competitive members. For the younger, growing players, Luca hired a certified coach and promotes tennis lessons. Not only did Luca rebuild the club, he invested in its future leaders.

Luca Santini strives to accommodate the Cagli tennis players. The covered clay court is available all year. The new clubhouse provides a comfortable courtside lounge. New teams welcome all ages and talents. As Luca walks around the Circolo Tennis Cagli, he grins. His smile demonstrates his excitement to share. Success is not the number of memberships, but the strength and joy of the community.