A tennis players’ paradise nestled at the end of a quiet street, just a couple of hundred yards from the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street in mid-town Toronto, the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club is a throwback to a different tennis era. As you gaze over the outdoor clay courts from the 2nd floor gallery, you can feel the history of tennis in Canada in your veins. The club, or “The Lawn” as it is widely known, is the cradle of tennis in this country.
Established in 1876; one of the oldest clubs in the country, the Lawn’s first home was on the grounds of the Palace Hotel, which was located at 140-148 Front Street in downtown Toronto. At first 2 grass courts were laid, followed by a 3rd a few years later. Two additional courts were created in 1886.Due in part to an increasing membership, the Lawn gave up its courts at the Palace Hotel and joined forces with the Toronto Athletic Club at 149 College Street in 1895. 10 courts were built at that time. Due to some unforeseen circumstances this only lasted for 5 years, after which the Lawn once again relocated, this time to 239 Bathurst Street, where it appears to have remained for 12 years. Finally, in 1911 a parcel of land was purchased by Lawn members at 44 Price Street, the Lawn’s current location. The club opened in 1912 with 16 clay (not grass) courts.
In 1960, The Toronto Lawn Tennis Club expanded its facilities to include squash and to become a year-round racquet club. The Club now includes a Pro Shop, 4 brand new indoor Plexi-Cushion Prestige hard tennis courts, 14 outdoor Har-tru Clay tennis courts, a doubles squash court, three international squash courts, outdoor pool, fine indoor and outdoor dining, licensed bar, café and banquet facilities. The Club also has a Group Exercise Studio, Fitness Facility with modern equipment and a Sports Injury & Wellness Centre. There is also an area in the Club dedicated to a children’s daycare and junior lounge.
Looking back to its original site at the Palace Hotel; in 1881, five years after its founding, the membership held its first Lawn Tennis Tournament, the “first tournament in the Dominion”, a men’s singles competition, (a ladies competition was added in 1892). The inaugural event was won by one of the Lawn’s early members, Mr. Isidore Hellmuth. The Canadian Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1890 and began to oversee the tournament, which would later become the Canadian National Championships, then the Canadian Open. Today it is known as the Rogers Cup. The tournament is the 3rd oldest continuing tournament in the world, after Wimbledon and the US Open. Mr. Hellmuth was credited with being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this relatively new sport in Canada.
Of course, the National Championships (Canadian Open) were held at the Lawn for several years during this period before moving to other parts of the country. In the late 60’s and early ‘70’s, at the beginning of the “Open Era”, the event returned to Toronto and was hosted in alternate years by the Lawn and the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club until its move to the first National Tennis Centre at York University in 1976. Some of the greatest names in the game – Newcombe, Roche, Laver, Ashe, Borg, Vilas, Navratilova, Connors and Evert – played on the Lawn’s courts during that period. Over the years, the Club has hosted hundreds of National events and dozens of International Championships, including the first-ever Davis Cup tie played in Canada, (unfortunately a 5-0 loss to Australia).
While not as old as the Lawn, the Ontario Tennis Association (formerly the Ontario Lawn Tennis Association, or OLTA) has shared a long and illustrious history with the club. In the early days of its existence, many of the OLTA board of directors and presidents were members of the Lawn. Over the years, the Lawn hosted the Ontario Open many times and was also home to the Ontario Mixed Doubles Championships. For years, the club hosted numerous smaller OLTA/OTA junior and adult tournaments, including the Toronto Clay Court Classic (now the Doug Philpott U12 Selections) and has been one of the organizations biggest supporters.
As well, the club has a long history of helping in the development of some of Canada’s best tennis players. Players who have benefitted from the generosity of the Lawn’s members and coaches included Ontarians Dale Power, Jane O’Hara, Glenn Michibata, Martin Wostenholme, Vanessa Webb, Rene Simpson, Sharon Fichman, Daniel Nestor, Milos Raonic and the OTA’s own Executive Director Jim Boyce, who was Canadian Junior National Champion in 1965, 67 – 69, and a Davis Cup and pro tour player. Jim even became the head pro at the Lawn after he retired from competitive play. “The Lawn has always welcomed young Canadian players looking to improve their games and seek out expert coaching and competition. In that way, they quietly helped develop some of Canada’s best players and never asked for anything in return. The Lawn has always championed Canadian tennis.”
In addition to helping elite players, the members of the Lawn have also long recognized the importance of giving back to the game at the grass roots level. Amongst the numerous not for profit organizations that they have raised funds for, perhaps the most notable one from recent years is the Doug Philpott Inner-City Children’s Tennis Fund. The Fund was formed in 1985 by Lawn members, in memory of Doug Philpott, who was an avid tennis player, philanthropist and supporter of tennis and, in particular, junior tennis in Canada and also a prominent Lawn member. Head pro Jim Boyce and Lawn member Ellen Wright, had begun the Toronto Ladies invitational tournament in 1983. The tournament was first held at the Lawn in support of the Save the Children charity and later became the Philpott Ladies’ Invitational Tournament and Gala. It has raised a tremendous amount of money for the Philpott Fund since its inception. The Lawn still hosts it some years and always enters numerous teams.
Current Tennis Director Simon Bartram has been the face of the club for the last 28 years, most of its second century so far. According to Bartram, the tennis membership remains proud of its heritage and still has a strong desire to give back to the game. “Regardless if it’s at the elite or the grass roots level, the Toronto Lawn membership has a great sense of pride and a desire to give back to the game they love. Whether it’s hosting players from across the province at the Wilson Ontario Senior Mixed Doubles Championship, granting elite competitors with playing and coaching privileges, or hosting charitable events like our Calcutta and Philpott Ladies Invitational that raise thousands annually for grass roots and high performance tennis, members here realize that the club has always supported tennis, and always will.”
There is not nearly enough space in this issue to recount the lengthy and illustrious history of one of the oldest, and most important tennis clubs in the country. Luckily, we don’t have to; the members of the Toronto Lawn published an excellent book on their history in 1981, 100 years after the club hosted its first tournament, (the book, titled, A Love of Tennis, A History of the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, is available at the Toronto Public Library). Even today, the membership, led by Gail Hazell and archivist Sara Griffiths, continue to uncover and catalogue the Club’s history, new and old. Let’s hope that this tennis gem has even more stories to tell on its 200th anniversary!