As a sport, I wouldn't necessarily classify tennis as "for the rich" depending, of course, of the availablity of free courts in your area. Here in Richmond, we are extremely fortunate in that regard. All the public high schools (and there are 10 schools with 8 courts each in our county alone) make their courts available during non-school hours or events. Free lights are available on about half of those. Then there are our county parks-run courts, including 6 decently maintained clay courts.
So other than the price of a racket and balls, the cost to play is minimal.
But what I think you're really asking is: Is it expensive to get good? A lot goes into a decent response. What's your natural talent? It sounds like you're a gifted athlete but keep in mind different sports require different skill sets. How much are you willing to teach yourself? Like dunlop
said, he's done it all on his own and is quite proud of it. Do you have access to teaching video (be it youTube, DVDs or other instructional material) and can/will you be able to "learn" from them?
Clubs have their place, I believe. And depending on your finances, they can be a viable option for quickly improving yours skills and
opportunities to play. I sometimes think the hardest thing for "independents" (those not affiliated with a club) to do...is find folks to play. That's where clubs hold a distinct advantage. But don't overlook opportunities by/with your local/regional/national tennis associations. You need not be a club member to play in USTA-sanctioned events, merely the $35US annual membership.
A lot of clubs like to foster an idea of exclusivity and rarely "publish" their prices...so I'll spill the beans on ours. After being an independent for 10+ years, we finally joined a local swim & racket club. We grew a family (I have two small girls) and wanted access to the pool and gym/fitness facilities too. It runs us about $100US/month and that includes unlimited court time for me (except in the deepest part of winter and indoor time is somewhat rationed). Considering we also spend the same amount on cable TV & internet (as entertainment), we think it a reasonable expense. Granted, I'm an established adult with income commensurate with my experience (in life
Lessons are a different story. Our club pros charge $40/hour for private lessons and similar fees (divided appropriately) for small group lessons. I think that expensive although compared to what our "professionals" get...maybe not (my doc and lawyer charges $225US/hr, my tax acct "only" $150US/hr). But from a cost-benefit perspective, I'm not taking any lessons. I'm a comfortable 3.5 NRTP player...and that's where I think I'll stay. Don't get me wrong, there are many aspects of my game I'd like to improve, but what I've got is good enough for me now.
I will say, though, that our club offers a $10US/hr "Disco" tennis session every week that's fun, fitness building and works on your game.
My best teacher/coach/mentor...is someone I met during a tournament. Turns out we worked for the same employer (different department), had the same collegiate degree (engineering) and both played mainly on public courts. He's still my favorite mixed doubles partner and he still teaches me something every time I walk on court with him.
It took me years to find someone like that (and I wasn't even really looking) but it's been a wonderful relationship. I've often wondered what he got out of it. I finally asked him last year. He laughed first then replied: how else do I get to play with a "pretty" (those were his words, mind you) blond...who everyone seems to underestimate. He said it was worth at least a game or two each match. But then he stopped laughing and got serious. He LOVES the game...and wants another generation to LOVE it too (I'm 10+ years younger than him). Plus, like all classic teachers, he says he learns as much from our adventures as he teaches. Either he has to learn how to break something down (to teach it to me) or analyze something in a different way (call it the Mars/Venus effect).
And I hope, I'll feel like him and can take the initiative and time to teach someone younger than me...when that time comes.
So...there you have it. Maybe more than you wanted but that's how I'll answer it today.