Carol and Gary Nikokary have been playing tennis together for 36 years. Gary’s tennis loving-mother got him started when he was 8. Carol has played since they got married. For three decades, they lived in Atlanta, and played by the same rules as others have played — mostly — since the modern version of the sport came into existence in the 1870s.
But the mixed doubles partners found some things different when they moved the St. Simons.
It begins with numbers. In Atlanta, the Nikokarys were two of the more than 103,000 members of the Atlanta Lawn and Tennis Association, or ALTA — the world’s largest sports association. There, they competed against other teams and individuals of the same high skill level as theirs. They played on a high level in competitions that started on the team level all the way to the city championships. They played matches against familiar players in the early rounds and then would have to travel across town to play people they didn’t know.
“Sometimes, you’d drive more than an hour to a match,” well outside Atlanta to Bartow County or Cartersville, Gary says.
Sometimes, a team from Stone Mountain could be playing one of those from Cartersville, he says.
“I miss friends,” he says, “but I don’t miss the traffic.”
Typically, the Nikokarys would meet many of those friends only on the tennis courts, but on St. Simons they see them in restaurants and in the grocery store — and the drive is short.
They play the same people on the same courts over and over and there may be 100 competing players when Jekyll Island is included.
“Here, it’s different,” Carol says. “You know everybody.”
Atlantans bring ways to the coast that aren’t always welcome, but in tennis, the competitors are warming to an ALTA custom.
“The host team always provided a big spread of food and drink after the matches,” Gary says. Indeed, the social component was about as important as the tennis, he adds.
The Nikokarys have suggested the tradition be adopted on St. Simons and the teams are receptive to the idea. When the last set is played, the food and drink comes out, Carol Nikokary says.
Another good thing is that the Nikokarys don’t have to spend as much time in a car together should they lose a match. She says the best part of playing mixed doubles with her husband is that her partner has always been her best friend.
When marriage partners are mixed doubles partners, it can sometimes makes for uncomfortable moments with two people as competitive as they are.
“It’s a great day when you win, but it’s not fun coming home if you lose,” she says. “Playing with a friend, you wouldn’t say things you would with a spouse.”
As in Atlanta, they joined a club that comes with court time, but every Sunday afternoon, they play on Glynn County’s free public courts at Epworth by the Sea.
These, as are all tennis courts, are 78 feet long and 36 feet wide for doubles, and nine feet narrower for singles play.
In tennis, you score when the other person fails to return a shot.
At a recent game, Carol played her steady baseline game while Gary played aggressively, charging the net. When he was playing back, an arcing lob came toward her side of the court.
“I’ve got it,” she calls.
“Then, go,” he answers back still running toward it. She hit a winner then gave him a love tap with her racket and a smile.
Tennis scoring can be confusing. Each game is played in points, games, and sets. It takes four points to win a game and six games to win a set, both by a margin of two. The confusing part comes in how the points are called. Zero points is “love,” the first point is “15,” the second “30,” the third “40” and the winning fourth is “game.”
Leading by one is 15-love and scores can be tied at 15-all or 30-all, but tied at 40 a side it’s “deuce,” meaning the next one to get two points ahead wins the game.
Sets can be won 6-0, 6-1, and so on but never 6-5. Play continues until someone wins by two games or there’s a tie-breaker.
Matches are usually played best of three for women and best of five for men.
The scoring system hasn’t changed, but other parts of the game have. The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club hosts Wimbledon, the most famous the major championships. The version played on grass is still called “real tennis” by some, but customs have changed since most tennis was played on the same greensward as croquet. The dress was also similar as ladies played in white flannel skirts and men in white trousers.
That changed over the years as shorts and polo shirts came into vogue, some in the brand names of famous players such as Fred Perry and Rene LaCoste. Now, nearly every big sports apparel company including Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Under Armour, and others are in the business from headbands to shoes.
But the hitters don’t always put on the brand names and show up in
unlabeled sweat pants and T-shirts.
And the game has youngsters to carry it forward, perhaps adopting other changes. As the Nikokarys played their match at Epworth on a late afternoon, a group of young girls, some not much taller than their rackets, were being coached through some drills on the adjacent court.
They were all in cute outfits and laughing. They weren’t keeping score.