Gladiator Tennis players, left to right, Ngozi Ezike, Beth Gay and Catherine O'Rourke share a laugh during one of the many tournaments the league holds each summer. (Courtesy Steve Hess)

With the French Open finals this weekend and Wimbledon just a handful of weeks away, professional tennis is in full bloom this summer. For local players or newcomers to tennis however, who are miles away from Grand Slam competition literally and figuratively, Gladiator Tennis offers an affordable, competitive and fun alternative to truly get into the game.

Founded in 2007 by Hess, Gladiator Tennis began in Chicagoland with only 50 players. The numbers of players has steadily grown, with approximately 1,200 participants and an average of 750 participants per season (GT offers three seasons- spring, summer and fall, plus an indoor season). In addition to its steady growth throughout Chicagoland, particularly in Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside and Brookfield, Gladiator Tennis debuts this summer in Denver, Indianapolis and Madison.

Hess, a former college player who started Gladiator Tennis to simply keep playing the game while developing a network of tennis friends, expects at least 200 players during the league’s inaugural run in St. Louis.

“Steve is really the greatest,” said North Riverside resident Jeff Barnett, who has played in 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.”

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.

The registration deadline for the upcoming summer singles league is Tuesday, June 9. The summer singles season is June 17-August 9. At $40 per season, which includes 7 matches over 8 weeks, Gladiator Tennis is a cost-effective option (compared to rates of other leagues/clubs) for players. To register for the upcoming singles summer league or more information, visit gladiatortennis.com or call Steve Hess (630) 639-2866.

Gladiator Tennis’ strongest attribute might be its variety of offerings for any level of player. Singles competition (outdoor/indoor), doubles leagues, seniors leagues, playoffs for every level of play, and a variety of tournaments designed for singles, mixed doubles, families and even charity events ensure a full calendar of tennis opportunities for league members.

“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 beginner’s 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 club which is fine.”

Dara Keidan, a River Forest resident and former high school player, discovered a new-found appreciation and love for the game through Gladiator Tennis.

“I played tennis in high school, but was never very passionate about it. I took a long break from tennis,” Keidan said. “About six years ago, as my kids got older and I started to have some free time, I rediscovered the game. Just as I started to really fall in love with it, a torn Achilles sidelined me for nearly two years. I have now been back injury-free for about 2 ½ half years, and I can’t get enough. I love singles, and learning to trust myself has made me a better doubles partner.

“I play in a number of leagues, but Gladiator is my favorite – I love the no-time limit, “all-in” format, and have met many of my favorite tennis friends through Gladiator. In fact, I have joined other teams and leagues with many women I met as opponents in Gladiators… I tell everyone who will listen about Gladiator Tennis, and I look forward to many more seasons!”

Zach Miller, a 5.0 level champion, added: “I really love the Gladiator league for two reasons: Flexibility of scheduling and the constant growing and changing competition. There is a place for players of all skill levels.”

While the league has been very well received throughout Chicagoland, near western suburbs like Oak Park and River Forest 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, Brookfield, LaGrange and Lyons 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’s 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.”

Let the games begin!

Gladiator Tennis benefits

  • 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)
  •  Meet new people and make new friends while getting great exercise outdoors!

The registration deadline for the upcoming Chicagoland spring singles league is Tuesday, June 9. The summer singles season is June 17-August 9 (7 matches in 8 weeks). To register for the league or more information, visit gladiatortennis.com or call Steve Hess (630) 639-2866.