By John Wins-Purdy
All photos by Soo Hum
It’s not every day a seven-time Grand Slam winner offers to be an instructor at a tennis club in Ottawa. So imagine my surprise when I received an email in the depths of winter through the St. James Tennis Club website. Swedish-born Mats Wilander, one of the greatest players of all time, was coming to the capital for one day. He asked if our club would like to bring him in to run high-intensity clinics and play an exhibition match.
My initial reaction was disbelief. I could never have dreamed that a former world number one tennis player would be interested in coming to our club. After verifying that it was not a spam message, I responded immediately – absolutely, we were interested! Talking it over with the St. James executive, we decided to hire Mats Wilander’s company, Wilander on Wheels (WOW), to run four consecutive clinics followed by a doubles and singles exhibition match. The date was set for August 6.
Mats Wilander – born in Sweden in 1964 – amassed 33 singles titles and seven doubles titles and was the driving force behind the great 1980s Swedish Davis Cup team, which made seven straight finals. In 1988, he won the Australian Open, the French Open and the U.S. Open to claim the world number one ranking from his fiercest rival, Ivan Lendl. He competed against many notable names of the ‘80s and ‘90s – Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe, Becker, and countryman Stephan Edberg. Needless to say, many people in the Ottawa tennis community who grew up watching and idolizing him were bowled over by the thought of seeing him coach and play at a local club.
An event of this magnitude at St. James was unprecedented and the question became: how on earth were we going to pull this off? A team of enthusiastic volunteer members of the club came together in June, eager to help plan the event. We met every week, hashing out details of everything from seating, food and drinks to prizes, photographers and doctors. The Glebe Community Centre generously lent us every chair and stage in the building.
One major cloud of worry still lingered over our planning. The risk in holding an outdoor event was huge because, with Wilander in town only one day, we couldn’t afford to be rained out. At one point we even considered shipping in two 100-foot-long silk sails from the Halifax shipyards to provide rain cover over centre court. We had the option of using the Carleton tennis bubble in case of rain, but logistically, it would have been a nightmare. In the end, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
As it turned out, we had nothing to fear. When the 40-foot Wilander on Wheels motorhome rolled in just after 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 6, the sun was beaming down and there was not a cloud to be seen for miles. The event began with high-tempo clinics run by Wilander and former U.S. college star Cameron Lickle, Wilander’s business partner. Francisco Alvarez, a long-time coach at St. James, and Arthur Cuenco, a certified tennis coach and physiotherapist, ran creative warm-up drills and exercises for all the participants. Wilander then ran the players through dynamic drills that pushed them to the max, leaving them breathless, dripping buckets and grinning with excitement. The feedback was very positive, with most participants declaring, “That was too short!”
As the clinics wrapped up and while countless fans were getting shirts, hats, and posters signed (and trying to squeeze in a photo or two), the rest of the crowd was gearing up for the main event – the doubles exhibition match featuring Wilander and Lickle versus Zhenya Kondratovski, the head pro at the Rideau Tennis Club, and myself. On a perfect warm, calm summer evening, more than 350 people packed into temporary stands and filled the porch that borders the court at St. James.
The match started with a 20-shot rally that left all of us gasping for air. At that point, we knew it was going to be a battle. True to form, Wilander’s world-class shot making was on display throughout the match. My team got a little help from chair umpire – and former head pro at St. James – Matthew Scoppa, who at one point issued a “lack of best effort” violation to Wilander when he failed to retrieve a drop shot, and awarded us the point (all in good fun, of course). In the end, Wilander and Lickle beat Zhenya and me convincingly, 8– 4. Given the circumstances, we were more than satisfied with the result. In the words of Herb Davis, a seasoned tennis enthusiast who has been around the game for over 50 years, “The WOW event was an unforgettable and truly inspiring evening of the skill, the passion, the joy, and the athletics that are at the core of the fun, the family, and the friendship that is tennis!”
After the match, Wilander and Lickle remarked that in all their time travelling around North America with WOW, this was one of the best events. They made it clear that they were thankful for the amazing team of volunteers who had worked so hard to make it an “over-the-moon” event. It was a real triumph for St. James, for our community, and for the Ottawa tennis scene. Many people have asked, “Who are you going to get next year? Raonic? Federer??” I guess we’ll have to wait and see…
ST. JAMES TRANSFORMED
Over the past 12 years as a staff member at St. James, I have seen our club transform from a low-key operation to a bustling centre in our community. Over that span, club programming has expanded well beyond what we could have imagined. We have been especially encouraged by the steady increase in participation in our after-school tennis lessons and summer camps over the last decade. We specialize in providing high-quality Progressive Tennis instruction. This is a system that uses scaled-down equipment (smaller, lighter racquets, slower-bouncing balls and smaller courts) in order to allow children as young as five to learn basic skills and begin to play tennis at an early age.
Play is the operative word. Tennis instruction for children (and adults) has traditionally been focused on learning technical skills in a group setting that entails standing in long lines and each player getting a chance to hit a few balls every five minutes while spending the rest of the time picking up balls. If you’re a kid, you may end up goofing off with your friends because you’re bored! The Progressive Tennis system, on the other hand, enables children to develop skills in a rally or game-based setting. This encourages them to play spontaneously. They also experiment freely with their own techniques and tactics while competing. This creates a situation in which they have to make decisions and take risks in real time.
We do our best to create an environment where children can escape from overly structured lives and learn to move, play and create on the tennis court. According to the United States Tennis Association, research shows that “kids develop personal motivation and a love of the game when they are given ample opportunity to participate in unstructured free play. Taking charge of their playing environment and recognizing for themselves what effort is needed to excel is the basis for personal drive and motivation.” In our three years running Progressive Tennis, spring programs have grown enough to accommodate three or four school classes with students coming from Mutchmor, First Avenue, Corpus Christi, Montessori, and Glebe Collegiate. After school every day a further 60 children participate at St. James. In the summer, our camps have grown to include, on average, over 50 children every week, mostly under the age of 10.
When Francisco Alvarez and I started working at St. James in our high school days, St. James had a total of five staff and a small executive board. Now, we have more than 18 staff members, 20 youth volunteers, and more than 20 adult volunteers. Clearly, the club’s growth has allowed us to provide many jobs for local youth. Francisco and I have coached the Glebe Collegiate tennis team and have remarked on its increasing depth. Today, tryouts are inundated with keen young juniors who have been through the programs at St. James and are now coming of age.
TENNIS ON THE RISE
Why the resurgence of interest in tennis? Research shows it is one of the best and most enjoyable ways to become healthy and fit. The very nature of the game, with its serving, returning and rallying, makes tennis an active sport with plenty of movement, starts, stops and direction changes, not to mention the mental exercise one experiences throughout a match! It can be played by children as young as four as well as seniors well into their nineties. It truly is a sport for life. And it is also one of the safest sports, registering a very low rate of injury compared with other youth sports.
Contrary to popular belief, startup costs for tennis are low because all a child really needs is a racquet and balls. It can be played on a tennis court, on the street, in a driveway, playground or gymnasium, and even on grass with the low-compression or foam progressive tennis balls. In Ottawa, we have a ratio of one court for every 4,000 people, two and a half times the national standard for municipalities. Tennis is an accessible sport for children and adults, and in Ottawa, the news is about to get even better.
The City of Ottawa, the National Capital Tennis Association (NCTA), the Ontario Tennis Association (OTA) and Tennis Canada have partnered to bring “Little Aces” to Ottawa. This is a strategy designed to increase the opportunities for children under 12 to play tennis all year around. The idea is to link community recreation centres, community and private tennis clubs, and schools in different neighbourhoods across the city to help expand progressive tennis programs.
Tennis is also a team game, and most children have great experiences being a part of a team. Simply put, kids like to be with their friends, and being on a team allows them to learn and play with their friends. The goal is to create clusters of programs that have enough players to facilitate local team-based leagues (akin to the GNAG community soccer program but for tennis).
I have the honour of being regional co-ordinator for the Little Aces initiative in the Ottawa region, a position that started at the beginning of September. I will draw from my experience at St. James and the expertise of Tennis Canada and the OTA and, with the help of the City of Ottawa, will co-ordinate the delivery of fun and exciting tennis programs for children right across the city. It is exciting for me personally, and for the future of children’s tennis in Ottawa.
John Wins-Purdy is tennis director and manager of the St James Tennis Club.