By Ian Pattison
‘Anyone for tennis’ is a sappy phrase in entertainment uttered by everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Daffy Duck to Eric Clapton. But it is not just the tennis connotation that is up for consideration here today. Instead, it is “anyone” for whom the game is intended and by whom it is played.
Tennis is not the posh game for the rich it was before the advent of public courts in the late 20th century. It is a game that anyone with a racquet and a pair of sneakers can play. Tennis is growing in popularity as the stars of the game dazzle fans in tournaments throughout the world.
Here in Canada, we were tennis laggards, that is until Tennis Canada decided to take things seriously. It set up the National Tennis Centre in Montreal with a program designed to find and train the best young athletes in the country.
From this program has emerged a stellar cast of stars who are taking the tennis world by storm. The latest lot saw Eugenie Bouchard win the hearts of fans worldwide, and a spot in the 2014 finals at Wimbledon, the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam final.
Along with “Genie” has been Milos Raonic (world No. 3 in 2016), Bianca Andreescu (U.S Open champion in 2019), Leylah Fernandez, Felix Auger-Allieseme, Dennis Shapovalov, Vasek Pospisil, Aleksandra Wozniak, and Daniel Nestor, one of the foremost doubles players in tennis history. The list is longer, and it is growing.
Each of these players is capable of winning on any given day and every one of them credits year-round training and encouragement at their local clubs as the basis for their success. Which brings us to the much-debated plan for an indoor tennis facility in Thunder Bay.
It seems that no matter what spending proposal comes before city council, there is a contingent of citizens who will oppose it because we have lousy roads.
Of course, the city’s roads are as bad as most people can remember. Rainy Thursday of this week might have been the worst day ever. But that can be traced back to earlier, tight-fisted councils that strove to keep the annual tax rate increase as close to zero as possible. That and road building jobs that see surfaces deteriorate prematurely and apparently without a warranty to force repairs up to standard. The overall result is an infrastructure deficit that will take years to overcome but is being tackled with increased spending.
A city is more, however, than its roads and lighting, its sewer and water works. A city worth living in is a city that offers a suite of lifestyle pursuits that help entice people to move here and those who live here to get out and enjoy the parks and trails, the rinks and pools, and the tennis courts which are few and far between.
The City and school boards have the odd set of outdoor courts but the core of tennis locally is at the Thunder Bay Tennis Centre, a non-profit operation that trains players and has a membership around 400, about a third of the estimated number of players in town. Given tennis’ popularity on television there is certainly much wider interest than that.
The centre operates nine public courts at Chapples Park but only in summer, except for the years when just two courts were available in the former Confederation College “bubble.” That’s gone now and with it the opportunity to play tennis year-round.
Without indoor courts, Thunder Bay will never develop promising players with a chance to graduate to the big time, let alone entice more public participation in this global sport with such easy entry for all ages.
The local tennis community has shown its commitment by raising $300,000 for indoor courts. The City and senior government have chipped in $1.5 million apiece and Tennis Canada and Rogers Communications were on hand Monday with another $200,000 at a ceremony to start the process of building six new courts under a dome next to the existing courts.
Rogers, which sponsors Canada’s Grand Slam tournament in August, has committed $5.6 million toward building 160 new year-round courts at up to 30 facilities across Canada by 2029. Only 10 per cent of Canada’s tennis courts are covered for year-round play.
Thunder Bay was one of four cities receiving Tennis Canada and Rogers funds this week, the others being Toronto, Stratford and Edmonton. The first four announced in 2022 in Markham and Hamilton, Calgary and Waterloo Que., have since seen increased membership and indoor court bookings over the winter.
The local tennis centre has a team of certified coaches that work with the club’s junior players.
“Currently, our juniors are not competitive at a provincial or national level, primarily due to the fact we have not had a proper indoor tennis facility to offer the training time necessary to get them to a competitive level,” Mark Piovesana, junior development co-ordinator at the centre told me.
“Our agreement with Tennis Canada/Rogers specifies we offer significant training time for the youngest tennis enthusiasts,” he said. From there the club will host tournaments and see those who excel travel to provincial tournaments for experience and evaluation by Ontario and national coaches “Depending on the perceived potential of these players, they could be invited to participate in programming offered by the regional and national training centres,” he said.
Thunder Bay has a remarkable record of sports achievement. Without its indoor arenas it would not have produced the highest number of NHL players per-capita in Canada. Without the Canada Games Complex as well as Churchill and Volunteer pools, our diving and swimming teams would not be competitive provincially and nationally.
The local soccer community continues to try and get an indoor turf sports centre built and those with the city’s best interests at heart sincerely hope that the soccer organizations, the City and the private sector can finally settle on a plan to get it done. (Why tennis was left out of this plan is beyond me.)
The tennis centre expansion is a good-news story. Let’s all anticipate seeing the first local player competing in major tournaments. Let’s also support the City’s expanded infrastructure renewal program to get more roads repaired at the same time.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.