Tennis Canada is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year as stewards of the game in this country. Over the next several weeks, we will be honouring Canada’s vast history in tennis and remembering many of the people and moments that have played a role in creating the fabric of Canadian tennis. This is part one of a five-part series.
It was a late March day nearly 40 years ago when Klaus Bindhart and Francois Godbout, the president and vice-president of Tennis Canada at the time, climbed through two feet of snow and over a fence at Jarry Park. Standing before them was the empty former home of the Montreal Expos and the two Canadian tennis officials were scouting it for the site of the new Montreal tournament.
“The place was absolutely empty, there was no guard,” Godbout remembers. “Klaus was not satisfied to look at the place from the outside, so we climbed the fence just to be inside the perimeter. We looked pretty boy scout to do this, thank goodness there was nobody who saw us or we could have been arrested!”
Their efforts paid off and the site would of course soon become home of the Canadian Open in Montreal. Starting from humble beginnings, the tournament is now among the best in the world and a must-visit event in the city every single year.
Godbout and Bindhart are just two of many individuals who have made significant impacts on tennis in Canada over the past 125 years, shaping it to become the growing sport it is today. Here is a look at several of those people and their off-court contributions.
Tennis Canada was founded as the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association in 1890 and two individuals probably had the most influence on the sport in this country back then – Isidore Hellmuth and Charles Hyman. Hellmuth was one of the first members of the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club and organized the first-ever Canadian International Championships (forerunner to today’s Rogers Cup) there in 1881. A talented player himself, he was in fact crowned its first champion. Hyman – who was actually Hullmuth’s brother-in-law – was the first president of the CLTA.
Fun Fact – Hellmuth and Hyman teamed up to claim the 1886 men’s doubles title at the Canadian International Championships.
For close to 100 years, the main focus of Tennis Canada was on operating and growing the Canadian Open. It was this tournament that gave the nation a place in the tennis world and that allows the organization today to funnel money into development.
At the dawn of the Open Era, it was because of the leadership of several key individuals that the Canadian Open didn’t fold and instead grew to become one of the most important tournaments every year. Among those were Ken Sinclair, Don Fontana, and Bindhart, who helped secure a regular site for the tournament – swapping each year between the Toronto Lawn and Toronto Cricket – and a sponsor in Rothmans. The prize money that first year was $2,000. It was again those three plus Lawrie Strong who spearheaded the move to York University when it was clear the tournament was outgrowing its current home. They oversaw the negotiations and construction for the new stadium and the first tournament at York was in 1976.
Fun Fact – Fontana, who was tournament director from 1971 to 1978, was a true tennis fan who would print out the draws for each week’s tournament from around the world and fill them out day by day.
Imperial Tobacco, led by Paul Pare, came on as title sponsor in 1979. Pare was passionate about tennis, and it showed. Not just a sponsor, Imperial was invested in the sport of tennis in Canada and wanted to be a real partner in growing it. It was because of Imperial’s influence – its home base was Montreal – that the Canadian Open split into separate Montreal and Toronto events, switching between the men and women every year. Hence, the need for Bindhart and Godbout to hop the fence at Jarry Park! The first Montreal tournament was held in 1981, exactly 100 years after the first-ever event.
Pare’s involvement also saw the Canadian Open bring in IMG, and thusly John Beddington, who became tournament director for 15 years from 1979 to 1994. A tireless promoter of the event with a strong relationship to the players, during his time the tournament budgets increased from less than half a million dollars to over 15 million as revenues also increased.
Following Pare’s retirement, it was Wilmat Tennyson who took on the reins for Imperial Tobacco and ensured the company’s ongoing support of tennis in Canada and of the tournament.
As we move closer to the 21st century, the tournaments needed to grow even more. The key factor was the stadiums. Harold Milavsky, who first joined the Board of Directors in 1991, and Derek Strang, who retired as Chief Operating Officer last year after 30 years with Tennis Canada, led the building of what is referred to today as Aviva Centre. The new world-class stadium opened in 2004.
In Montreal, Richard Legendre and Jacqueline Boutet were influential in developing and renovating the Jarry Park stadium into today’s STADE IGA. Boutet, who in 1995 became the first female chair of Tennis Canada, was instrumental in securing funds for the renovations which transformed the venue.
Tennis Canada’s biggest partners are the provincial tennis associations and it was Lawrie Strong – president from 1975-1979 – who was one of the first individuals who recognized their importance and brought them on board.
Today, Tennis Canada employs over 80 full-time staff members between Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver in a myriad of different departments, such as high performance, sales and corporate partnerships, and fundraising, just to name a few. But a mere 35 years ago, it was a very different story.
In 1979, the organization still operated mainly on the work of volunteers. Don Steele, working under then-president Bindhart, became executive director in 1980 and significantly changed the mindset. Under his leadership, Tennis Canada grew to more than 35 staff in 1985. He made the first real concerted efforts on development by increasing spending and starting a national team and regional training centre program. In 1985, the organization also moved into the stadium, giving it a new home.
Robert Wright, who became president in 1987, was the last volunteer president of Tennis Canada and much of the current corporate structure of the organization began with him. His successor, Bob Moffatt, started in 1989 and was its first full-time, paid leader. He was in control for 15 years. Both men are credited with helping shape Tennis Canada to become the professional organization it is today.
Fun Fact – Robert Wright was known for his sense of humour, which probably helped with his outstanding ability to bring the different divisions of tennis across Canada together.
Also noteworthy is the influence Canadians have had on the international tennis world. Now the head of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, Michael Downey led Tennis Canada from 2005 to 2013 and made significant successful impacts to the organization. Stacey Allaster moved from Tennis Canada to the WTA, where she led as chair and CEO for six years. Former Tennis Canada chair Jack Graham was the first Canadian elected to the ITF Board, a position he still holds today.
Every Tennis Canada president and chair of the board has made unique impacts on the sport of tennis in Canada. To see the complete list of former chairs and presidents, please view our media guide.
Tennis Canada as a developer of players on the world stage is a more recent idea in its history – in the last 40 years. Steele started the idea back in the early 1980s. It was then evolved into System 92, under the leadership of Bob Moffatt and with strong tennis development staff including Robert Bettauer, Pierre Lamarche, Louis Cayer and Wendy Pattenden. This became the first four-year plan for developing tennis in Canada, a model the organization still uses today with Tennis Canada just entering into a new four years now.
More recently, former president and CEO Michael Downey and his Board of Directors made it a priority and reshaped Tennis Canada’s entire system. They brought in Louis Borfiga, a renowned coach from France who had worked with players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Borfiga became the head of high performance for Tennis Canada and instituted the full-time National Training Centre, which opened in 2007 and since then has spawned three national junior training programs in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Many of these individuals are members of the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame. Click here to find out more about their accomplishments and who else has made significant impacts on Canadian tennis over the years.
Part two of the Tennis Canada 125 series will be a celebration of our two flagship tournaments, Rogers Cup presented by National Bank in Toronto and Montreal, the third-oldest event in all of tennis.
To view more Canadian tennis moments, visit our 125th anniversary microsite and celebrate with us!