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The term gladiator, particularly in pop culture, is closely associated with actor Russell Crowe's impassioned portrayal of a gladiator in the popular film released in 2000. However, for over 600 "weekend warriors" (or recreational tennis players) in the Chicago area, including Oak Park, Gladiator Tennis is real.
Wait, Gladiator Tennis? But isn't tennis a country club sport played on grass courts while spectators enjoy strawberries and cream?
"I chose to call the league 'Gladiator' as a little tongue-in-cheek," explains Founder and League Director Steve Hess. "When you think of a tennis player, the imagery of a gladiator doesn't necessarily come to mind, so there's a touch of humor to it. There is also an element of seriousness to the name with the idea of two people dueling on a court. A lot of people get caught up with work, family and perhaps lose touch a bit with an active lifestyle. Gladiator Tennis is an opportunity to exercise and satisfy that desire to compete yet in a fun atmosphere."
The competitive camaraderie among Gladiator Tennis players certainly has fueled the league's growth. Since the league's inception with 38 players in the Aurora/Naperville area in 2006, Gladiator has blossomed into the largest "flex" tennis league (players schedule their own matches) in the area with 605 current players competing at various skill levels throughout Chicago and the suburbs.
From Day One, Gladiator has attracted considerable interest from players in the area.
"I heard about Gladiator from my neighbor Greg LaMontagna who also plays in the league," says Don Shewmake, an Oak Park resident. "It's been great. The process of placement has been perfect to what I wanted, which was to play against people as good or slightly better. My favorite thing about the league is that there are no pretentious or judgmental people. The flexibility of play time and the cost of the league [$35 per season] are also excellent reasons to join this great network of players. I've had so much fun and improved in tennis because of the league."
Rich Shinsako, 40, often plays his matches in town. Each player in the league essentially can pick his/her home court.
"I started playing tennis in high school, just volleying with friends interested in making the [OPRF] team," Shinsako says. "I've recommended Gladiator to everyone with even the slightest interest in tennis. The people are wonderfully supportive and genuinely nice. I can't see how anyone wouldn't enjoy themselves.
"The league is a great avenue to meet players of comparable skill levels and exposes players to competition. One of the better surprises of the league was the sportsmanship award. I think the sheer existence of this award is a testament to the kinds of players the league attracts."
The reasons for the league's success are as varied as Roger Federer's ground strokes. First of all, it's affordable with a $35 fee per season. Each player (18 and up) is guaranteed at least seven matches per season, taking on players of a comparable skill level who live nearby (all matches are within a 15-20 minute drive). With six skill levels and three seasons (spring, summer, fall), the league also offers amenities like playoffs, prizes, awards and additional tournaments often to raise funds for local charities. In total, Gladiator Tennis ostensibly offers something for every player whether a beginner, recreational player or former high school/college tennis athlete.
"The core reasons are for the league are to get people out playing tennis, meeting new people and having fun," Hess says. "We offer a good way to get back into the game. The feedback I have gotten from the players is generally positive. I'm really proud of the league."
With a long term goal of signing up 10,000 players, Gladiator is clearly a labor of love for Hess, who plays in the league as well.
"I started the league partly for selfish reasons because I wasn't playing enough tennis myself," Hess says with a laugh. "A friend of mine in Atlanta told me they had a tennis league [there] and asked me, 'why don't you try that'? I sent some e-mails out to friends to get the league started. Everything has clicked and I'm very excited about the future of Gladiator Tennis."
Regarding a love for the league and sport, Ngozi Ezike epitomizes what Gladiator tennis is all about. Despite the commitments of being a physician, wife and mother of four young children, Ezike not only plays at the 3.0 Gladiator level but has encouraged 12 of her friends to join the multi-skill level league.
"I wanted to take my tennis passion to the next stage with competitive play," says Ezike, who lived in Oak Park before moving to LaGrange. "I love the competition, making friends, exercise, cost/format and flexibility of the league. The best part is the incredible dedication and responsiveness of Steve [Hess].
"I was so inspired and pumped about my new sport that I went to my first two professional tennis tournaments Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last summer."
While the likelihood of finding the next Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams in the league is remote, one thing's for sure: every single player is a Gladiator.