The Welland Outdoor Tennis Club
The Welland Tennis Club
Ah, a place where dreams are both created and fulfilled, where great champions meet their match, and where the sport of tennis steps down from its ivory tower to make fools out of both competitor and audience... for half my life now, the Welland Tennis Club has been my home away from home. This lens is dedicated to that home, and to the memories it created.
How it all began
The tennis club itself is nearly 100 years old now, and has some very rich history to its name. I discovered it at the end of one era, and the beginning of another. It all began 15 years ago, back in 1998. I was in grade six at the time, and Mario tennis had just come out for the Nintendo 64; it was all my friends were talking about. One went so far as to tell me he was signing up for tennis lessons in real life, and that I should sign up with him. I wasn't huge on sports at the time, but the thought of playing a sport that nobody else really plays was exciting to me. Besides, I wouldn't be completely alone, I had my buddy to talk to!
I arrived at the tennis club the following week with a feeling of elation. I couldn't wait to get out on that court and start pounding tennis balls the way the pros do! I walked through the gate to the courtside picnic area and sat down, waiting for my lesson to start. Before long, other kids and their parents filtered in for the group lesson, as well. Everyone except my buddy, that is. As I soon learned, he quit before he even began; instantaneously, all of the joy and excitement I was feeling vanished... I was now alone out here, in a field of strangers. Then Dave walked out and called all of the kids on to the court. I was only young, but I could tell even back then... this guy cared about kids. Not just about getting money from their parents, but about their development, both on the court and as individuals, and about their enjoyment of the sport. Somehow, the way he talked to us, I didn't feel so afraid anymore. I felt like someone believed in me, and wanted to make me better.
If something is worth doing...
Coach Dave instilled in me a love for the sport that, to this day, burns deeply inside of me. Shortly after I began taking lessons, my younger brother signed up alongside me. I was upset at the time, preferring to stand out from the crowd (and especially him), but in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. All of a sudden, I had a partner with whom I could practice, compete, and improve. I quickly learned that it took more than two lessons a week to play like the pros. In fact, it took more than that just to play at all. We were out on the courts eight hours a day, every day, all summer long... we were even at the club when it rained. As other kids in my lesson group came and went, I saw myself slowly rising to the top... making shots I never used to be able to make, hitting just a bit harder, moving just a bit faster. Near the end of the summer, I was inside the clubhouse, looking at the youth news board, when I saw a tournament sign-up sheet pinned up. "Junior Rookie Tournament," read the title... by invitation only. It was then that coach Dave walked into the club house, and noticed me reading the bulletin. "I think you're ready for your first real tournament, Jason," said Dave, "... go sign yourself up." The rush of excitement and self-confidence I felt from that simple sentence sent chills up and down my spine, and can't be put into words. I was ready to compete in a tournament.
I trained hard for the week leading up to the tournament, sometimes staying on court for 10 hours a day. But on game day, I was nervous. I had no idea what was involved in competing in a tournament... but I was about to find out. My first opponent was from another lesson group; I had never met him before. We shook hands, and took sides of the court. It wasn't long before I realized that something was off, something didn't feel right... my shots weren't working like they did in practice! Shot after shot misfired into the net and out of bounds, and before I even had a chance to consider what went wrong, the match was over. I had lost. I shook hands with the boy and left the court immediately... I couldn't figure out what happened! It was extremely upsetting. That loss, however, was extremely important; it set me on the road to learning one of sport's most important lessons: You can't win 'em all.
...It's worth doing well.
Not just well, but to the best of your ability. And that's exactly what I did out there. I gave it 100%, everything I had, and it wasn't enough... and I learned the critical lesson of humility. I wasn't discouraged for long, though. I became intensely motivated, motivated to beat the boy who beat me... not only that, but anyone else who stood between myself and victory. I worked through the winter season, training hard with my brother to improve my game. When next summer came, I planned on being ready, and this time, I wasn't going to lose first round.
With the arrival of May came the opening of the outdoor tennis club once again. I caught wind of an early-bird junior tournament running in late May, and quickly signed my name on the list. Going into this tournament, I was less nervous. I knew what to expect. I had done it before. This time, I was more focused, and more prepared. My first match was against a boy from my lesson group; one I was familiar with... one I had beaten in practice before. This time, I wasn't spraying shots all over the place. They landed deep into the corners, and my opponent began to make errors. I struck each ball with confidence and conviction, and before too long... I heard applause from the tiny crowd who was watching our match. It was over. I won my first tournament match ever.
I played match after match with the same level of confidence and conviction, until I found myself in the finals... against the boy who had beaten me in the first round last summer. I felt the nerves starting to take control of me again, but I fought hard to maintain my composure. I WOULD NOT lose like that to the same boy twice! We had some great rallies. Ball for ball, we were equals, and the match could have gone either way. but serving for the match, deep in the third set at 5-3, I struck my best ball yet, directly into my opponent's body. He fumbled to move to the side, but clumsily tipped the ball into the net. With that, my racquet flew into the air, and my hands along with it. I shook the boy's hand, and ran over to my parents who gave me a huge hug and a pat on the back. My first trophy!!!
Each summer saw me facing new opponents, who improved as rapidly as I did... win or lose, tournament competition became the reason I played tennis. In my mind, practice was nice, but it was only part of a bigger picture. It was nothing but preparation for the true test: stepping on to the court under pressure and expectations, and testing my abilities against those of my opponents.
Ask not what your tennis club can do for you...
I made many friends along the way, young and old. I was well-known at the club, particularly for the emotion I dispayed on the court; whether I was winning or losing, you knew. But when the match was finished, no matter who won, I was gracious about it. I never made excuses as to why I lost, and never bragged when I won. I remembered how I felt after that first match of my first summer... it taught me so much. Many of the lessons I have learned in life, I learned while out on the tennis court: humility, perseverance, and fair play, among others. As I mentioned earlier, the club became my home away from home. It was the place I would go when I was upset but still wanted to get out of the house, and the place I would go when I was ecstatic beyond all comparison.
Before long, it seemed only natural to me to give something back to the club that gave me so much, so I spoke to coach Dave, offering to help out around the club when possible. He was more than happy to have the extra help, and before long, I was put to work: helping him create tournament draws, assisting in running socials, and performing minor maintenance on the courts, among other things.
Writing this, I was 22 years old. I had been volunteering at the tennis club for nine years, since the age of 13. I acted as an assistant tournament director, helping to make sure each tournament held runs as smoothly as possible. I also helped run socials and leagues, and have also been lucky enough to teach other young juniors at another club the same things Dave taught me when I was younger. It's truly a joy to me to see the fire in these kids' eyes when they step out on to the court, and that's the reward in itself. Passing on one of my passions to other juniors, and helping them see the sport, and the club, the same way I do, is a truly rewarding experience.
Anybody who sets foot on the premises during social night gets an immediate taste of the ever-present atmosphere... it's electric. You can't help but feel energized and ready to play when you look around and see members joking around with each other on court, shouting playful taunts, while other members relax on the court-side patio, having a few drinks (sometimes it gets pretty roudy, and in a good way!) and engaging in their own match commentary... usually loud enough for the players to hear. Or when you see a child playing with a senior... It's all part of the care-free, we're-equals atmosphere that, in all my 12 years playing there, has never left its members. In my personal opinion, that atmosphere is one of the defining characteristics of our club. That energy is our club.
EDIT: After being away for quite some time, it seems that all of the reasons I love it so much have been magnified. What I believed all along has now been proven true: there is no other tennis club anywhere in Ontario with the energy and spirit of the club I will forever call home. Long live the Welland Tennis Club, and the members who make it what it is.
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