As celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Rideau Tennis Club get underway, the rejuvenated Rideau Tennis Club looks to be in great shape and has 820 members. Getting to this point has been a veritable rollercoaster ride of great occasions and events interspersed with numerous misfortunes which have often brought the capacity of the club to continue into question. The RTC. now under the ownership and the management of the Ottawa RA Centre is in good hands and continues to grow and prosper as one of the leading clubs in Canada.
The Rideau Lawn Tennis Club was incorporated on November 27th 1912 and Norman Wood Lyle, one of five directors, was elected President. Just over a month later on Jan 3rd 1913, the five directors resigned and control was transferred to a 10 man syndicate, who held the lease on the Wolff property on which the club would operate, and by 6 o’clock William Duthie and Montagu G. Powell had been elected President and Secretary respectively.
The first club house was a three story building that had been the home of the Wolff family, and modified for club use. On June 7th 1919, the clubhouse was completely destroyed by fire. Within one week, the club was back in business with a temporary clubhouse arranged by William Duthie and James Bate. The structure had been insured and so in October of the same year the directors authorised the construction of a new clubhouse from plans developed by C.P. Meredith, a member of the club.
The new clubhouse had a magnificent balcony which was used for socials and for viewing the play on the courts. Many of the old photos of the club show visiting dignitaries seated on the balcony, such as Charles Lindbergh, who visited the club just a few weeks after his historic non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Even when there was rationing of beer because of the war, the balcony was a centre of the social scene. Dance evenings and sing song evenings were so popular that the beer allocation was increased on social evenings from the regular five cases a day to ten cases for sing song nights and seventeen for dance nights.
Disaster hit the clubhouse again in 1980, and 1981, from flooding caused by continuous rain, ice jams at the bridge points and a rapid thaw of the adjacent Rideau River. The first of these floods saw the winter tennis office with three feet of water and the squash courts turned into pools. The second flood caused even more damage and the washrooms and showers collapsed in the aftermath. When the necessary renovations were undertaken two years later, it was decided that the balcony was so pivotal to the social fibre of the club, that the balcony was extended to accommodate the steadily increasing membership.
On Dec 12th 2001, fire struck the clubhouse again, destroying much of the balcony, the clubs lounges and most of the club’s treasured trophies and memorabilia. However this time the building insurance had lapsed and only a small amount of business continuance insurance was in place.
In 1913 the club had opened with 5 grass courts, but within a year the decision had been made to convert four of the courts to clay. In 1914 the club had the good fortune to hire Tom Spencer as groundskeeper. Tom earned a reputation as one of the best caretakers of clay courts in North America. He was with the club for more than 40 years and helped the club’s widely held reputation for having the best kept courts in Canada. This reputation combined with the tennis prowess and enthusiasm of the members made the Rideau Tennis Club a magnet for high profile events and visitors.
But even Tom’s expertise couldn’t help the courts when the weather and other circumstances didn’t cooperate. In 1926 spring floodwaters washed away the court surfaces and a hundred loads of clay and hardpan were needed to repair the courts. Then, in 1927 Rene Lacoste was scheduled to play an exhibition match with Canadian champion, Jack Wright, at the club. Two thousand advance tickets had been sold for the event. A cloudburst hit the courts and rendered them unplayable on the day. In a huge recovery effort a temporary indoor court was made at the Minto Skating Club and the match took place before a crowd rumoured to have been of 3,000 people.
In 1924, the club hosted a Davis Cup match, where Canada defeated Cuba 3-2. It was the first time a Davis Cup match had been held in Ottawa. The Eastern Canadian Championships were held regularly at the club in the late twenties and early thirties. But it wasn’t until 1932, after threats to form a Federal District Lawn Tennis Association, that the Rideau was awarded the Canadian Open Championships, an honour that was bestowed upon the club again in 1946. The Canadian Closed Championships were held at the club in 1977, when member Marjorie Blackwood won the women’s singles. In 1982 these closed championships returned to the Rideau for three years as the “Molson Nationals”, though they probably should have been referred to as the “Molson Canadians”.
For many years the Rideau was renowned as the home of the Canadian Junior Championships. In 1949, the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association formed a junior development committee. Eddie Condon, a member of the club and the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association inner circle, offered to organize a tournament in which juniors from all parts of Canada could compete. Although in prior years there had been junior events held as part of the Canadian championships, 1949 saw the Canadian Junior Championships as an official tournament for the first time. There were 9 events in the under 15 and under 18 age groups at first. Condon, helped by a team of devoted volunteers, ran the event at the Rideau from 1949 to 1967 and in 1969 and 1973. In 1953, closed and open divisions and an under 13 age group were introduced. The tournament attracted many U.S. and some international entries including a young Rod Laver in 1956.
In 1948 the Rideau hosted the Ontario Open Championships for the first time, Lorne Main, a young player who hit two handed on both sides, won the men’s singles that year. And now the tradition continues as the Rideau Tennis Club has again been the home of the Ontario Open Championships for the past decade, most recently sponsored by Tommy and Lefevbre and Tennis Ontario. Along with this tournament, the Ontario Junior Open is held and It is sponsored by long time Rideau members, Mike Cowpland and his wife, and named the Roman Cup, in memory of their son.
After the 2001 fire, the then Manager, Nancy Kirkwood, and Tennis Director, Solange Ceppi improvised as best they could to keep the club going. They were even able to run the Christmas round robin just a week after the fire. But these survival efforts were not enough to rebuild the clubhouse or to keep all the members. Some moved to the R. A. Centre nearby which had squash courts and fitness facilities.
Happily, after a period of uncertainty it was the Recreational Association of the Public Service of Canada (R.A) that came to the table and a purchase and sale agreement was ratified. The RA provides a full time Management Team to oversee the operations and works very closely with the Tennis Advisory Committee to run programs and special events. The RA has continued to invest in upgrading the club infrastructure by spending more than $250,000 in rebuilding 11 HarTru courts, the clubhouse was re-roofed, a new members’ lounge has been built and the outdoor pool basin has been resurfaced. The rejuvenated club has a full service fitness centre, a banquet hall and an aerobics studio as well as 19 tennis courts, for the summer and 8 bubbled for winter play.
On August 18th a 100th birthday party was held. A Classic Round Robin with wooden racquets and members dressed for every era was held in the morning. Lunch, attended by many dignitaries, past and present members was held on the balcony, now named the Upper Deck, including traditional tea and birthday cake. Junior Games were held in the afternoon. This was the first of several events planned to celebrate the Rideau Tennis Club’s 100 years of excellence in Ottawa.
As part of the centenary celebrations an Anniversary Garden is planned as a lasting addition to the facilities.