Carrie DeLange prepares to return serve in a Gladiator Tennis match. (Courtesy Steve Hess)

Whether it’s a tennis historian, recreational tennis player or even just casual sports fan, the Wimbledon finals between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (1980) and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (2008) are generally regarded as the greatest matches ever played.

Rob Niec begs to differ. The Franklin Park resident fondly recalls his greatest match ever personally (against Samit Ghandi) as members of Gladiator Tennis, a Chicagoland recreational tennis league with flex scheduling.

“I played one opponent at a local high school around 5 p.m. on a late fall weekend,” Niec recalled. “He was a very good player and very quiet when he played. All business. We split the first two sets, 7-5 each.

“The court was supposed to be lit, but the lights never came on. We drove around for 20 minutes until we found another court with lights. We played the third set to a tiebreaker when the lights went out. Then, we waited 40 minutes until they came back on. We finally finished the match around 10 p.m. when I hit a crosscourt winner. Although it was cold out and almost nobody was around, it just felt like an epic match with each of us fighting for every point.”

Niec, a 3.5 rated player, has played in Gladiator Tennis for five years. His story is but one of over 1,200 players in the league who likely have similar personal anecdotes courtesy of the popular league.

Founded in 2007 by Steve Hess, Gladiator Tennis began in Chicagoland with only 50 players. The numbers of players has steadily grown, with approximately the aforementioned 1,200 participants and an average of 750 participants per season (GT offers three seasons- spring, summer and fall, plus an indoor season).

For players looking to get into the swings of this spring, there’s still time to join Gladiator Tennis. The registration deadline for the upcoming Chicagoland spring singles league is April 14 (league runs April 21-June 14).

“Steve is really the greatest,” said North Riverside resident Jeff Barnett, who joined the league since its inception. “He’s given an opportunity to so many in the Chicagoland area to get out there and enjoy the game of tennis again. I can’t personally thank the man enough. I look for to many years of great tennis to come.”

This year, Gladiator Tennis is expanding with a league in St. Louis. Hess expects at least 200 players during the league’s inaugural run in St. Louis.

“Gladiator Tennis is all about getting back in the game,” Hess said. “It’s primarily targeted for people who at some point in their lives played tennis but perhaps put the racquet up for a while for any number of reasons. Gladiator offers an easy opportunity for people to get back out on the tennis court. It’s easy because the league is so affordable and very flexible. Players arrange a time that’s best for them and play their matches at a home court they choose and also road matches with relatively close driving distances.

“It’s definitely open for people who never played tennis as well. We have a beginners level. Sometimes people join Gladiator who played other sports and want to try something new. I think it’s important to mention we’re not against other tennis leagues, clubs or facilities. Often, Gladiator Tennis is a steppingstone for players to join a tennis clubwhich is fine. Gladiator Tennis is about promoting the grat game of tennis and allowing people an opportunity to get some great exercise outdoors, meet new people who often become good friends, improve their game and simply having fun in a very friendly, affordable and flexible league.”

Jaleel Dennis, who plays his home matches at Taylor Park in Oak Park, hadn’t played much competitive tennis prior to joining Gladiator. Now, he’s seemingly as committed to the game as his favorite player, ATP World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

“I love Gladiator Tennis,” said Dennis, who won the 3.0-level singles championship in 2013. “Some of the things I enjoy are the flexible scheduling, how well the league is organized, the cool new people you meet, and the competition.

“I would recommend other players join Gladiator Tennis because I believe if you love playing tennis, you’ll love the league. You will be able to play a lot of different players in competitive matches while also developing some good friendships. It’s a great way to get out on a tennis court and have fun.”

Like Dennis, Ngozi Ezike epitomizes what Gladiator tennis is all about. Despite the commitments of being a physician, wife and mother of  young children, she not only plays in Gladiator but has encouraged several of her friends to join the multi-skill level league.

“I wanted to take my tennis passion to the next stage with competitive play,” said Ezike, who lives in 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].”

Gladiator Tennis offers assorted levels of singles play ranging from the 2.5 to 5.0 level. Each player typically plays seven matches over eight weeks within his/her division per season. Players can access a league website which provides division results, standings and wildcard points, plus contact information for each player, and league rules, policies and procedures.

Other offerings include a doubles league, seniors league, playoffs for every level of play, and a variety of tournaments designed for singles, mixed doubles, families and even charity events.

League growing in Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside, Brookfield

While the league has been very well received throughout Chicagoland, near western suburbs like Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside, Brookfield, LaGrange, Lyons and Forest Park have experienced some of the most dramatic growth.

“There’s a strong tennis community in Oak Park and River Forest.” Hess noted. “We have had a lot of interest from those communities and the numbers are growing. Typically, we have at least 100 or more players from those towns each season.”

He also mentioned Riverside and Brookfield as top spots to find local Gladiators.

“Seven years ago, my wife asked me to stop at a new sub sandwich place, called Potbelly in Lombard,” said Jim McCarthy, a lifelong Brookfield resident and Gladiator. “They had a community events board there with a Gladiator Tennis ad. I’m happy to say the subs were great but Gladiator Tennis has been even better.”

Oak Park resident Bruce Caughran added: “I enjoy Gladiator very much. I have a bunch of guys that I hit with now and we often play matches, but it’s just not the same feeling playing casually, as compared to playing Gladiators.

“It just different when your opponent is a stranger and when the standings really matter. Gladiator matches are friendly but competitive.”

Fittingly, that’s why Hess chose the creative league name.

“I chose to call the league ‘Gladiator’ as a little tongue-in-cheek,” Hess explained. “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.”

Rob Niec and the rest of his fellow weekend Gladiators would agree.

For more information, visit gladiatortennis.com or call Hess (630) 639-2866.

Scouting Report on Gladiator Tennis

  • More than 1,200 players with dozens of players near you, at your skill level
  • Flexible match scheduling
  • 2.5 to 5.0+ (competition at 6 skill levels)
  • No club memberships or court fees
  • Playoffs, awards and prizes
  • Fun, competitive matches offering opportunities to meet new friends
  • $40 per season (which includes 7 matches over 8 weeks)

The registration deadline for the upcoming Chicagoland spring singles league is April 14 (league runs April 21-June 14).

For more information, visit www.gladiatortennis.com or call Steve Hess (630) 639-2866.