Twist of Fate

By Pam Olley

Summer 2018

It’s hard to imagine what tennis in Canada would have been like today if a twist of fate had not brought Lawrie and Vivienne Strong to Toronto in 1962.

Not only was it extremely fortunate that such a talented, knowledgeable and committed pair landed here at such a critical time for tennis, it was also important that Lawrie was willing to take the reins of tennis organization in Ontario and Canada as tennis moved into the ‘Open Era’.

A Change of Plan

Like many young people in the sixties, Lawrie and Vivienne wanted to take a couple of years to see the world and pursue their interests before returning to England to settle down. In their case, the plan had been to go to the USA, to find some kind of work to support themselves and to play some serious tennis on the American circuits before heading to Australia. Vivienne was a top British player and Lawrie had a successful record in junior, county and University tennis. Everything was set. They had obtained ‘green cards’, which would allow them to get work legally, they would sail to New York and then go on to San Francisco to stay with friends of Lawrie’s parents as a base. All seemed fine until, at the last minute, they found out that Lawrie would be eligible to be conscripted into the US forces. They decided to change their arrangements. First they changed their transatlantic passage, which gave them only a few days to get their immigration papers from Canada House and set sail for Montreal - on the evening of their wedding day.

Starting Out in Canada

When the Strongs landed in Canada, Lawrie met with an official in immigration about work. Lawrie explained he was looking for a job but was only staying in Canada for six months. The official told him he couldn’t help him if that was his attitude. When Lawrie went back later, prepared to make a longer commitment, he was told that there was a job available in market research at Lever Brothers and, as Lawrie had a degree in Mathematics, he might be suitable. Lawrie didn’t know the first thing about market research, but he rushed out to buy a book to bone up on the subject in preparation for his interview. The first interview with the Personnel Department went well since the interviewer was an Anglophile who had spent five years in England with the Royal Air Force and who knew nothing about market research. At the second interview the Market Research manager explained that he was looking for a statistician; as he didn’t seem to know the difference between Mathematics and Statistics, Lawrie was hired and finished up staying with the company for 38 years, finally retiring in 2000 after 12 years as President of Unilever Canada.

As Lawrie was leaving after his second interview, he was greeted by Joyce Henry (King). She recognized Lawrie. They had played on adjacent tennis courts in the finals of a 1957 tournament at Crouch End Playing Fields in North London. Joyce promptly invited Lawrie and Vivienne to come to the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club and the newly landed couple soon had a foothold in the Toronto tennis scene. Lawrie and Vivienne decided to join the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club for tennis and were soon part of an active group of tennis friends, many of whom have contributed greatly to tennis over the years. People like Frank and Alma Dimmock, Robin and Sharon Arnold and John and Brigitte Bonus. They also joined the Queen’s Club for indoor tennis and it was there that they met Pete Reid who encouraged Lawrie to get involved at the CLTA level.

In those days the Canadian Tennis Community was extremely small and the organizations were totally volunteer in nature. As Lawrie explained, players were meeting and saying that "something needed to be done," but in general these groups were long on talk and short on action. When he met with these groups, Lawrie was always stuck with the task of taking notes. However, from these thoughts captured on paper, Lawrie was able to develop a vision of what might be achieved and plans of how things could be done. Through his subsequent parallel involvement with the CLTA and the OTA, Lawrie became the catalyst for putting life into these plans and the leader who galvanized the various volunteers and later staff into producing results.

Specific Results

When Lawrie was first on the OTA executive, there was very little infrastructure and virtually no money. Fortunately it was a time when the Ontario government was beginning to invest in sport. The fact that tennis was low on the list of sports in Ontario did not deter Lawrie. With the help of Vivienne’s typing skills and a rented typewriter, Lawrie’s hand written strategic plans, budgets and other documents were given an air of professionalism that made the OTA stand out from its peer sport associations. Lawrie also had the credibility of being Davis Cup captain. As a result, tennis was one of the first sports to get provincial funding, giving tennis in Ontario a vital boost at a time when the popularity of the sport was growing world wide.

One of the secrets of Lawrie’s success was to enrol volunteers in his vision for the OTA and to involve them in areas in which they could make a difference. For instance, Brian Flood was responsible for development and Peter Dimmer became the linchpin for organizing teaching professionals. Although many of his friends became committed volunteers, he also brought new people into the organization. Lawrie first met Don Steele when he was a student at the University of Toronto. Don was writing a very negative paper on tennis administration. Realizing that someone who cared enough to complain probably cared enough to be part of the solution, he asked Don to get involved. Don stepped up to the plate and became a volunteer and later the first full time paid Executive Director of the OTA. Lawrie also encouraged the involvement of people who would continue to build the association, such as Klaus Bindhardt, who had been Chair of the Canadian Open at the Toronto Lawn, and who succeeded Lawrie as President of both the OTA and the CLTA.

Lawrie and Vivienne were also able to have a significant impact on a personal level. When time and their young family allowed, they continued to compete and won the Canadian Open Mixed in 1968 and the Mixed Doubles Gold Medal at the first Canada Games in 1969. Staying close to and communicating with the top players of the day was a constant theme. Because of their British connections and experience as players, the Strongs were able to help aspiring players in many ways. For instance, Vivienne took Jane O’Hara on her first tour. This involved leaving her 3-month-old daughter, Danielle, with Jane’s mother while Jane’s sister moved in to look after Lawrie and two year old Nicole. Vivienne also served as Federation Cup captain three times in the mid-70's. Lawrie was Davis Cup captain in 1970/71. The team of Mike Belkin, John Sharpe and Peter Burwash came very close to reaching the semifinals of the world event (a different format in those days), losing a heartbreaker to Brazil 3/2. Later that year, when Peter Burwash needed financial help, Lawrie arranged for him to tour Northern Ontario towns playing exhibition matches and giving clinics, which drew large crowds and promoted the growth of tennis.

Lawrie always felt that open and direct communication was a key to garnering the support and involvement of the membership, and so in 1970 Ontario Tennis was born. With just one hour of training from George Gross, Editor Don Steele and the Strongs would create the newspaper on their dining room table. With no word processor or publishing software to help, they had to attend to all the details, such as counting the number of words in each article. They created cartoon men to fill awkward spaces on the page and there were, of course, some interesting mistakes along the way. Once a photo of Rod Laver was reversed, which resulted in the famous Aussie leftie being pictured as right-handed.

The Legacy

You may well ask what kept such an energetic and talented individual involved in tennis so intensely and over such a long period as a volunteer, particularly at a time when he was also building an extremely successful career with a dynamic multinational company. Passion for the sport and a desire to give back drove the Strongs’ commitment to tennis organization. However, it was the challenges of the times and the opportunities for building a great future for tennis that Lawrie found intellectually stimulating.

The most significant event by far was the arrival of Open Tennis in 1968. All the ground rules changed, leaving many issues to be resolved. There was a behind the scenes battle for control of the game between associations, promoters and agents, tournament owners and players. It was quite a challenge but the associations were able to maintain their relevance to the game. This in turn led to the associations being "responsible" for all players and being able to use major tennis events such as the Canadian Open to generate revenue that could be applied to develop the sport and players. Lawrie realized the important role the Canadian Open events could play in the future of Canadian tennis and he was one of the architects of Canada’s first national Tennis Centre and permanent home of the Canadian Open at York University.

Lawrie was instrumental, gaining acceptance of the alternating Montreal and Toronto venues for the two Canadian Opens. While the WTA tour accepted this readily, the men’s tour was harder to convince. Fortunately Lawrie and John Beddington were able to sway the Men’s Pro Council, thanks largely to the support of Jack Kramer and this precedent setting arrangement has worked ever since. As Chair of the Canadian Opens, Lawrie adopted a theme of ‘no surprises’ and made sure things were thought through ahead of time to facilitate the sound planning needed to make the running of the events look easy and painless. The results speak for themselves as under Lawrie’s leadership profits quadrupled.

There were also many smaller decisions to be made that Lawrie faced with diligence and integrity. For example when Rene Richards, the transsexual, entered a tournament at Cobblestone, Lawrie had to rule on ‘her’ eligibility to play. The ITF had declared her ineligibility but a New Jersey court had upheld her right to play in women’s events in the USA. Lawrie was as thorough as ever. He reviewed the law case and sought guidance from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In the meantime she qualified for a higher level event in the US and Lawrie never had to announce his decision in favour of her competing.


Lawrie was President of the OTA from 1970 to 1972. He was involved in many different responsibilities as a volunteer with Tennis Canada between 1967 and 1985, including President from 1976 to 1978, Chair of Player Development 1973-1981 and Chair of the Canadian Open Championships from 1982 to 1984. Looking back, Lawrie has few regrets about his legacy. He had hoped that the National Tennis Centre would become an important player development facility and to this end created a long forgotten, tripartite agreement between Tennis Canada, the OTA and York University to cement the relationships that he felt could make this happen. Let’s hope that the construction of the Centre of Excellence in the new National Tennis Centre will allow his dream to become reality in the near future.

When you consider Lawrie’s list of accomplishments, you realise he was involved in every aspect of tennis - officiating, coaching, playing, communicating, organizing. He was a doer, a referee, a coach, a player. He was the mastermind who created the strategic framework for tennis growth and excellence in Ontario with the OTA and the strategic framework for Player Development at a national level. Fortunately for us, he was the marketer, motivator and manager who brought together well qualified staff plus the teams of volunteers to build the foundation for the professional organization of tennis.