There is no doubt that Canada is on the world stage today when it comes to tennis. But if it had not been for the enthusiasm of a handful of families over 100 years ago, it might never have taken root here. The rapid spread of tennis across the country from its early beginnings in the late nineteenth century to its present day structure is a fascinating story, and one which in many ways mirrors the societal changes of the times.
Now, a comprehensive exhibition covering all aspects of tennis history and featuring 100’s of items of tennis memorabilia is being held in the original home of one of those families, the Hillary’s, in Aurora, Ontario.
The exhibition, called Tennis in Canada: From Early Beginnings to Global Success has been made possible through a Pan Am grant. It will feature the restoration of the original grass tennis court at the home and during July and August, to co-incide with the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, exhibition matches on the court will feature members of the Tennis Hall of Fame and players in period dress.
Tennis has been a Pan Am Sport since 1951 and Canada’s only singles medalist, Bob Bedard, who won silver in 1959, will be one of those gracing the court for an exhibition match. Others include Lawrence Strong, Lorne Maine, Harry Fauquier and Brendan Macken.
Many racquets and other tennis memorabilia are original items from over 100 years ago.
Built in 1862, Hillary House is a designated National Historic Site, being one of the most complete examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Canada. The Hillary family moved there in 1867 and a family member lived there until just 20 years ago. As a result, many of the rooms are authentic period pieces, complete with some family belongings from 100 years ago. All over the house there are artefacts and reminders that this was a family home. During the world wars, the house was used to nurse convalescing soldiers.
When the Aurora Historical Society took possession of the house in the 1980’s, it found a considerable amount of original tennis equipment still at the house, and it was this that prompted the idea for the exhibition. “We kept tripping over sporting goods and tennis racquets stored in the back hall,” explains Bill Albino, Vice President of AHS. “We have one racquet that is over 100 years old. It has never left this place.”
The fact that many items, some of them in perfect condition, have never moved from the house is a significant draw for history buffs. The original lawn roller and line painting machine for the court, as well as croquet sets and tennis paraphernalia are all there. But many other items have been carefully sourced from around the country and the breadth and scope of the exhibition make it the most extensive collection of tennis memorabilia available for public viewing in Canada.
“We have really tried to encompass everything that you could think of that has to do with tennis,” says Erika Mazanik, curator of the exhibition. “We want to take people through and help them understand the game as a whole.”
A sports crazy family, the Hillary’s were among those who adopted tennis early on. And as friends joined in and shared the court, a club soon formed. The Aurora Tennis Club, now a thriving community club, started on their court in 1911.
That progression from garden social to community club was pretty typical, says Bill. “We have mapped the spread of community tennis right across the country and our research has shown that tennis popped up in Newfoundland in the 1880’s and was played in Alberta from the 1900’s. We have photographs of it being played in rural Manitoba in 1905.”
The exhibition features many such photographs; slices of history with people playing in rustic surroundings and in seemingly improbable clothes. But it also draws out some of the cultural reasons why tennis became so popular.
One of the catalysts was the Eaton’s catalogue, which made tennis equipment easily available throughout the country. Once people could obtain the means to play, the sport took off.
“In the Eaton’s catalogue of 1906 they carry a line of Spalding racquets and we have three of those on display,” says Bill. “You could get a racquet for $2 and it was possible to buy one ball.”
The Aurora Tennis Club in 1911 was started by several enthusiastic families.
But perhaps the main reason why tennis became so popular was because it was the first activity that was for the whole family and not just for men. “Apart from croquet, women really didn’t do much before. It was difficult to move because of the clothes they wore,” explains Erika, adding that children also played.
“We have a child’s tennis racquet from 1900 and an outfit that a child would have worn as well as images of families playing,” says Erika. “This was something that was unique to this sport.”
And as tennis became more popular amongst women, the fashion also became important.
“There was a lot of controversy as women tried to make their dresses a couple of inches shorter, to try and be able to play better without tripping over them, and this falls in with how fashion started to change at that time,” explains Erika.
Tennis soon came to be seen as a glamorous activity, and in the early twentieth started to be featured in advertisements for luxury items and cigarettes. Tennis had arrived. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The strength of Canadian tennis today, from its strong club structure to the international success our sports men and women enjoy can all be traced back to those few families who took it upon themselves to make a court, order equipment and “have a go.”
The exhibition Tennis in Canada: From Early Beginnings to Global Success encapsulates all of that growth and celebrates both the private and public history of tennis over the last 100 years.
With over 250,000 visitors expected to the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, Bill Albino hopes the exhibition will be appeal to anyone who wants to learn a little bit more about Canadian heritage and Canadian sport.
“Hopefully people will come and see a little bit of tennis history, but also learn a bit about the culture of Canada in the early 20th century as well.”
Cathy Hillard was born and raised in the UK, training as a journalist and working in both radio and newspapers before adventure called and she left the UK for Africa. Living in South Africa, she started working in television production, a career that spanned two decades and three continents as she moved back to the UK, then Ireland, and finally to Canada in 2006. She is an avid tennis player, gardener and traveller, and is always looking for the next adventure. Cathy works freelance in film and television production as well as working as a freelance writer. She lives in Richmond Hill with her husband and teenage children.