When it comes to the growth of tennis in Canada, nothing is as important as laying a proper foundation. For me, that foundation came at a young age when I began training as a teenager at the Niagara Academy of Sports in Vineland, Ontario.
Lately, I have been feeling reflective on my own tennis career. Last week, I decided to go back to where it all began and spent an entire day at the Niagara Academy. Admittedly, it had been a while since I had been there, but most of the same staff are still there. I especially enjoyed spending time with Doug Carter, my former tennis coach while I was a junior and university student.
For those unfamiliar with the Niagara region, it’s a 90-minute drive from Toronto. In addition to the number of excellent wineries, the Niagara region has been a hotbed for Canadian tennis talent over the past number of years. The Academy itself was founded in 1997 by Lezlie Murch.
Bruno Agostinelli Jr. and Frank Dancevic are two important names that come to mind when thinking about Niagara Academy – especially given their own achievement in representing Canada at Davis Cup. Both Agostinelli and Dancevic were among the first elite players to be a part of the program. The academy itself has had many other great players that went on to achieve success, especially at the collegiate level.
Among its current roster of talent is Stefan Simeunovic, who recently finished fourth at the U12 national championships in Calgary and is certain to be a name to remember for the future of Canadian tennis.
More than 50 per cent of the graduates come from international destinations such as Mexico, Germany, and South Africa. From my experience, what makes the Niagara Academy great is it prides itself on the balance between educational excellence and on-court work. Furthermore, with students attending from around the world – it can only help them become more aware of different cultures and backgrounds, something that is incredibly important as they grow into adults.
My day began quite early with my former coach, Doug Carter. He also happens to be the current coach of Canadian top-ranked quad wheelchair tennis player Gary Luker and the director of tennis for the Niagara Academy. Gary has trained there for a number of years now. Both Gary and I had a great practice and I was able to play a number of game-situations with him as he prepares to represent Canada at the 2016 World Team Cup in Japan next month.
After my hitting session, Doug and I quickly raced down the street to Twenty Valley Public School to give a tennis presentation. For the past several years, the Niagara Academy has offered tennis programming to nearby schools in the region in an effort to give younger kids the opportunity to try tennis in their own school. The kids really enjoyed the opportunity to play with us (and were incredibly excited to try my tennis wheelchair).
I truly believe programs that introduce tennis within schools are an important part of increasing participation across Canada. Through the use of Kids Tennis nets, it has become increasingly easier to do this in gyms across Canada. The Niagara Academy also offers an after-school program where parents can drop their kids off for a few hours to get them moving and introduce them to the fundamentals of the game.
I returned to the club for a lunch presentation where I was able to speak with many of the students about my time competing for Canada in wheelchair tennis. Many had specific questions about the difficulty of playing in a wheelchair, while others wanted to know what it was like competing at the Paralympics.
I also had the opportunity to talk to several of the students individually, each at different levels within the game. At only 11 years old, Stefan is already a seasoned junior. He’s now at the point where focusing on the mental side of the game is so important. My advice was for him to stick to his routines and not get overly frustrated from point to point. Also, I encouraged him to have fun during his tournaments, especially when he has the chance to travel and get many neat opportunities representing the Canadian Under-12 team.
I also spoke to other students just beginning their tennis journey, who are brand-new to the sport. It was fantastic to meet with everyone.
My day at the Niagara Academy of Sports was a busy, but impactful day – and makes me want to visit more clubs in my new role as Tennis Canada Ambassador! I had the opportunity to interact with both children picking up tennis racquets for the very first time and top-tier juniors. It was great to reconnect with former coaches, especially Doug Carter, who made a tremendous impact on my own junior tennis career. The Niagara Academy is doing its part to grow tennis in Canada and I look forward to seeing the impact over the coming years!