AMHERST – There was a time when tennis was played in almost every community in Nova Scotia.
Marijke Nel is working hard to grow a sport that was very popular 30 years ago before falling on harder times at the turn of the millennium.
“The 80s and early 90s were sort of a boom period for tennis in Nova Scotia, Canada and the world and everyone knew who the top players were, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker. I’m not quite sure, but there was quite a drop-off in the late 90s and early 2000s when a lot of communities that had booming tennis clubs just disappeared,” said Nel, Tennis Nova Scotia’s technical director said. “The facilities were maintained and there was grass growing on the courts. This was happening literally all over the province.”
To borrow from a song by the popular classic rock group The Monkees, that was then; this is now.
Nel said tennis is undergoing a huge revival in Nova Scotia and across the country with more people picking up the sport as a fun, family physical fitness activities that’s seeing more people head out to the tennis courts and purchase equipment such as racquets, while municipalities – like Amherst – have been quick to refurbish older courts or build new ones.
“The sport has really become popular again in Nova Scotia and Canada,” said Nel, a South African-born Canadian tennis player and coach and former international rugby player. “Tennis Canada developed a strategic plan that focuses on building the grassroots and getting more people playing tennis. After that was done it began focusing on the top of the pyramid in producing some high-performance players.”
Just like minor baseball saw a spurt in registration following the success playoff runs of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 and 2016, tennis has benefitted from the national and international showing of Canadian tennis stars like Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Eugenie Bouchard. To have Raonic and Bouchard both make the final at perhaps the world’s most famous tennis championship at Wimbledon, has helped the sport grow as younger people start to turn to the sport.
“The future of tennis is very bright in Canada,” she said. “Canada is one of the fastest growing countries in the world when it comes to the growth of tennis. It is a growing sport and there are not a lot of countries where that’s true.”
Tennis is popular because anyone can play it, she said. While tennis did suffer from some elitism, Nel stressed it’s a great way to be physically active, it’s something families can play together, it’s a great social sport and it’s a sport anyone, at any age, can play.
Nel was in Amherst this week at the invite of Amherst to introduce the sport to students at both West Highlands Elementary and Spring Street Academy. While some of the students to pick up a tennis racquet were doing it for the first time, she was impressed by their talent.
“The response was tremendous. Today, at the end of every session, the teacher (Daren White) asked the students ‘who had fun today?’ There wasn’t one kid who didn’t raise their hand,” she said. “He asked ‘who learned a new skill today?’ and everyone raised their hand. You could tell they actually enjoyed it. It was only a 45-minute introductory session but at the end they were playing the game of tennis and enjoying themselves.”
Tennis Nova Scotia was here last summer when Amherst and the Amherst Lions Club partnered to open a new tennis court at the Lions Park.
She will be back in Amherst on June 2 as Tennis Nova Scotia and the town host a series of events at the Lions Park to celebrate the sport and challenge some of its newest players.
From 9 to 11 a.m. that day, 48 invited students from Grades 4 to 6 will participate in the Rogers Rally Rookie Tour hosted by Tennis Nova Scotia, while there will be Try Tennis sessions for children at 11 and adults at noon.
There will also be a community tennis training workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. for anyone interested in learning the basics of teaching tennis.
Registration is required at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Amherst’s active living coordinator Tamara Porter said growing tennis is a priority for the town’s recreation department. It will be introducing tennis as part of its summer programs and offering free tennis lessons through July and August.
Nel said that is impressive and something she’s not aware of elsewhere in the province.
“That’s huge, to offer free tennis to kids throughout the summer,” Nel said. “That’s going to give so many children an opportunity to not only play the game, but learn how to play it well. It’s something Amherst should be congratulated for doing.”