The bubble project would provide tennis players with more accessibility to lessons, leagues, and tournaments all year round
It was one of the most popular sports in Sault Ste. Marie.
Many local tennis players have fond memories of RYTAC, the former Rotary / YMCA Tennis and Aquatics club which featured eight courts and had over 600 active members.
The Sault Tennis Association was formed in 2014 just two years after RYTAC’s closure to help re-popularize the sport.
The association’s president Bill Watts has been working hard to re-popularize tennis in the community ever since.
“Lots of people were upset about the closure and it killed tennis during that period,” he says.
The former RYTAC site was donated to Sault College and eventually revitalized into the Waterfront Adventure Center in 2019.
“We had great hopes Sault College would establish it as a tennis center,” he says. We did programming, helped maintain their courts, started lessons, and helped fundraise for the building. We had great hopes that tennis would continue, and they’d improve the courts. “
Watts’ vision hasn’t yet come to fruition, and the relationship between the college and the tennis association ultimately fell through. The pandemic followed soon after, halting any future tennis plans the college may have been considering.
Sault College and Algoma University each have two outdoor courts, but Algoma has the only indoor tennis court in town, making it the only location where players can book ahead of time.
The city currently has nine parks with two courts each. Watts says serious tennis players find the courts are not very well maintained. Only one site has washrooms, and none of them do booking.
“You really need four courts in one place to attract tennis pro to do lessons, offer programming for youth, and create tennis leagues,” Watts says. “It’s hard to make a booking when there’s only one indoor court in the city.”
This sparked the idea of an indoor bubble facility, which would house several courts under one roof. The facility would provide the tennis association a chance to run leagues, tournaments, and junior developments, while bringing in players from out of town.
“We’re after a minimum of four courts together,” Watts says. “We’re seeing other communities build a bubble over those courts, and they’re having indoor tennis. Now you can play 12 months a year. ”
The bubble has been a success in Sudbury for years, and Thunder Bay is likely just a few months away from building a brand-new 6-court indoor facility.
Jamie Grieve, a Thunder Bay tennis pro for 21 years and the director of Ontario Tennis Northern Ontario, says he also has fond memories of playing at RYTAC, and is hopeful the Sault can turn the hopes of a bubble facility into a reality.
“I hope the Sault gets involved in tennis again,” Grieve says. “I think in smaller towns the city needs to step up and lead the way in making sure that a tennis facility is there. My understanding is there’s no junior programs in the Sault right now. It’s a shame. We’re in Canada and we have all this national pride going for our high-performance players. Considering the Sault’s size, I think it can be done. ”
Thunder Bay’s $ 4 million tennis facility project received over $ 3 million in funding from their city, FedNor, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, as well as fundraising campaigns and out-of-pocket contributions.
While similar amounts of funding would be expected for the Sault Tennis Association to create its own tennis bubble, Watts isn’t focused on finding the funds just yet.
“The first thing you need is a good plan and an agreement,” Watts says. “Worrying about the money is the last thing. I don’t think the money is the problem, I think it’s getting everybody on the same page. “
The Sault’s recreation department looks after the city’s tennis courts and they’ve been working with Watts to determine the benefits a new facility could bring. They’re examining what piece of property would be the right fit and what the costs could look like. The city is also keeping the communication lines open with places like Sudbury who have had success with their own bubble.
Virginia McLeod, the manager of recreation and culture for the city, says these discussions are in the early stages, and their current focus is on building grass of root interest for players to develop in the Sault.
“It’s all very preliminary,” McLeod says. “We still have to look at that costing, so we’ll be working with Bill Watts over the summer to try and engage more youth and run more tennis programs. It was a thriving sport at one point, and I think it’s going on the upswing based on trends in other municipalities. “
Watts encourages community members to sign their petition at https://www.change.org/GetSooIndoorTennisCenter to help support their efforts in building a four-court facility indoors. He’s confident it can be done.
“If Thunder Bay can get it, I believe we can get it.”