When he was 10, Emmett Burns started hitting balls against the wall of his school with his dad’s old racquets. That summer two and a half years ago, his parents enrolled him in a weeklong camp at the tennis club near their downtown Toronto home.
He fell hard for the sport that his dad, Conor, used to play competitively in high school and that his family watched on TV. “Tennis makes me happy. Even when I’m mad because I’m on a losing streak, I’m still happy,” says Emmett.
He watched the pros for inspiration and playing tips and soon declared Serbian star Novak Djokovic and Canada’s rising talent Denis Shapovalov his favourites. “He’s young, he’s fun to watch, and, when he’s on, he’s just really good,” says Conor of “Shapo,” who hails from nearby Richmond Hill.
In 2019, Emmett did outdoor lessons and four weeks of tennis camp, and he and his dad played on free public courts all over the city. They went to the Rogers Cup in August and saw Bianca Andreescu play live — they’d been tracking her for months — and watched on TV when she won the tournament and the U.S. Open weeks later.
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This winter, Emmett will be taking small-group winter tennis lessons at two bubble-covered courts owned by private school Upper Canada College; his instructor has limited off-hours court times there. “I want to play three times a week, but that’s impossible right now,” Emmett says.
In Ontario, even 12-year-old kids are aware of the lack of winter tennis opportunities: there are few covered courts in the province, and many of them are operated by pricey private clubs.
In fact, it’s even difficult to get an outdoor membership in some places, particularly Toronto. Emmett is a member of the club near his house. The club, a non-profit that operates out of a city park, doesn’t cap memberships for kids, but the rest of the family is still on the wait-list, and Emmett’s parents are keen to play.
Thanks in part to Canada’s increasingly prominent tennis talent — including Milos Raonic, Eugenie Bouchard, and Felix Auger-Aliassime — more people want to watch and play. So municipalities, private recreation companies, and organizations such as the Ontario Tennis Association and Tennis Canada are highlighting the benefits of the sport and pushing for more indoor courts. And their efforts are starting to pay off.
“Tennis is gender neutral, race neutral, and age neutral,” says James Boyce, CEO of the OTA. It’s played all over the world, he notes: kids can start bashing balls at around age four, and older adults play doubles into their 70s and beyond. Team tennis, doubles, and tennis leagues and ladders — where you play different members of your club and move up and down the in-house rankings — make it a social sport.
But many view tennis as elitist. “The stigma attracted to tennis is incredible,” says Anita Comella, senior director of facility development for Tennis Canada. “But you need shoes, T-shirt, shorts, and a racquet,” she says, noting that many programs for kids provide racquets. “From a cost perspective, it’s not as expensive as providing an indoor arena or indoor pool,” says Darlene Joslin, director of recreation and culture for the City of Richmond Hill. Its tennis strategy, completed in early 2019, proposed creating two new outdoor clubs in city parks and trying to cover more courts.
While courts take up space, and winter facilities require a building or a bubble — bubbles go for about $1 million — operating costs are minimal. People pay for lessons and court fees and, as long as a facility stays busy, it can break even or even bring in money.
A 2018 Tennis Canada’s survey found that tennis is the nation’s fifth most popular sport, behind soccer but ahead of basketball — and that survey was conducted before Andreescu won a Grand Slam and the Raptors took the NBA championships.
And 18 per cent of those surveyed, or 6.5 million people, played tennis in the last year; 12 per cent — 4.5 million — consider themselves tennis players. Eight per cent, or 2.9 million people, play more than once a week during the season. All those numbers are on the rise: 2.1 million Canadians identified themselves as tennis players back in 2015.
The survey found that many wanted to play tennis more: 42 per cent said they’d play if there were an outdoor court near them, and 37 per cent said they’d grab their racquets if there were a nearby indoor court.
To prep for its Let’s Play Year-Round strategy, Tennis Canada did a national inventory and found a total of 7,500 outdoor publicly accessible courts and 750 year-round ones (it did not count courts in private clubs, deeming them not accessible). “That’s a huge deficit of courts for year-round play,” says Comella. Of municipally owned indoor recreational facilities in the country, tennis courts make up a mere 2 per cent.
Meanwhile, Boyce says we’re actually losing indoor courts as private sports clubs do the math and find they can make more money per square foot by converting them to fitness studios. With real-estate prices soaring in the GTA and beyond, he thinks that many private clubs will close: “If they get an offer for the land they own, they’ll sell it.”
According to Boyce, “The model going forward is to put indoor courts on public land.” That way, the courts won’t ever close down, and the fees will stay low, he says, adding that municipalities could build new facilities, bubble existing courts, or partner with private companies.
In fall 2018, the Milton Tennis Club wrapped up its season — the non-profit runs eight courts in a city-owned sports park and charges $135 for adult memberships — and turned over its courts and clubhouse to Tennis Clubs of Canada until spring. The company put up a bubble and began running its fifth GTA club — the Milton Winter Tennis Club. Memberships cost roughly $300, and court fees are $20 or so per hour (there are pay-as-you-go options, too); it also offers camps and lessons.
General manager Adam Seigel says that the new outfit is doing well: “We’re at capacity or close to capacity at all our clubs.” He’s personally seen the growth in indoor tennis: a decade ago, at the Blackmore Tennis Club in Richmond Hill — where Raonic once trained — they’d often shut the lights off in the middle of the day because they had no bookings. Now, he says, the club is full until as late as 11 p.m., seven days a week. The company is working on plans to expand its public-private partnership model to create more winter clubs across Ontario and Canada.
As of next year, the City of Markham will have a new winter tennis option: it’s going to team up with a private company to bubble one of its six-court tennis clubs.
New indoor facilities could also be on their way. The OTA has secured 1.3 hectares of land for a facility with 20 courts — 10 of them indoor — in midtown Toronto and is currently negotiating with the city about taxes. “We have to build it because we’re losing indoor courts,” he says, adding that he’s optimistic they’ll be able fill the courts with young people, elite trainers, and adults wanting to play for affordable rates.
Comella says that the City of Thunder Bay and its local tennis clubs are looking to build a large indoor centre: the tennis-loving town has few courts and a short outdoor season. “That community has a lot of needs, and this would be more of a tennis hub,” she says, noting that small cities should opt for facilities that can be used for other sports, such as pickleball and basketball, and easily converted into an event space that could host, say, trade shows.
While indoor tennis courts can break even and even pull in small profits, they need capital to get up and running. It can still be tricky to get that investment: tennis doesn’t have a longstanding history in Ontario, and its reputation as an upscale, individualistic sports still holds it back. But that may change as young pros distinguish themselves on the pro circuit and families on moderate budgets queue up for court times. Says Conor Burns, “We just love the sport.”