BY Thomas Allitt & Peter Vryonis
The sound of squeaks from the friction of the various sneakers in contact with the soft clay courts. The unmistakable and iconic stringy thud of fuzzy yellow balls being hit by rackets creating an unrehearsed melody. The grunts of effort, disappointment, and power echoing around the stadium. These sounds are familiar to Alec Brideau, a long time tennis player and a passionate fan of the sport.
“I think I was 12 years old,” says Brideau, remembering when he first played tennis. “I started pretty late because I actually started by playing hockey, that was the first sport I played, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t really for me.”
Brideau was then hooked by the sport, playing consistently for the next decade.
“I didn’t really have any background of the sport or players or anything like that. I just, you know, for me it was just about having a racket and hitting the ball,” he says. “I think it took me about a year before actually putting my passion into also watching what tennis is outside of the court.”
Brideau quickly found his idol after watching tennis on TV. Left-handed like him, he watched and learned how to move on the court, imitating the gestures of the iconic Spanish player Rafael Nadal — twice gold medalist at the Olympics in 2008 and 2016.
After partaking in group lessons and competing in some regional tournaments in his youth, Brideau decided to change his focus for tennis, and preferred developing his game and learning with his childhood friend –– Youri Lacasse –– where both players would learn from each other rather than paying for lessons, even creating their own tennis league.
“We just came up one day with the idea,” says Brideau. “If us two wanted to, you know, have fun playing tennis without being too serious about it and at the same time be better every day — I guess we’re not alone in that situation.”
Brideau and Lacasse created the Ligue Rive Nord (LRN) in 2019. Brideau explains that the first year was a small group, where most of the participants were friends they had messaged on social media to see if any were interested in playing tennis competitively in their local area.
“They all enjoyed it and then they just kind of shared that idea with their friends and then it became more serious,” he says. “It just kept on growing, the second year we were like 50 I think, so it really became something more serious but still we just wanted to have fun.”
This year 20 people have already paid to be back competing in the LRN, with the season officially starting on the 1st of April.
But Brideau and Lacasse are not the only ones looking to make tennis more accessible for players in Montreal.
According to Tennis Canada, there was a 36 per cent increase in frequent players in Montreal between 2017 and 2019. Now organizations around the city are trying to adapt to these changes and offer better tennis services.
“The main change in Canada to open tennis to a more mainstream audience, and sports fans in general, is the successes we’ve been having over the last decade or so,” says Hugues Léger, CEO of Tennis Montreal, listing the names of Eugenie Bouchard and Bianca Andreescu, Canadian tennis champions and finalists.
“This opened the eyes of a lot of casual fans of tennis, and some sports fans in general, that led to a rise in participation,” he says.
Léger also mentions the 14 outdoor courts in the city which are maintained by the Tennis Montreal which are open to the public.
For the winter, Léger talks about the IGA stadium located in Villeray, and its mandate to keep its indoor courts open year-round for the residents of Montreal without the need to pay a membership fee.
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come in the past 20 years,” says Léger. “I would say tennis in Canada has become one of our most successful sports (…) we’re competing at the highest level around the world, both on the men’s side and on the women’s side.”
For Léger, the current generation of Canadian tennis players is a golden generation and the main driving factor in inspiring younger tennis players.
“There’s a fairly interesting competition that’s coming to Montreal — it’s called ‘Les Jeux de Montréal’,” says Léger. “We have 300 juniors from our program at Tennis Montreal which will be allowed to register for that tournament, and 300 for nine to 12 years old at the level 1.5 to 2.0 is a record for us.”
To put in context, tennis players rank themselves from 1.0 to 7.0 — 1.0 being the beginner level going up to the world class tennis player level of 7.0.
“That’s a good indicator,” says Léger on the youth participation of tennis. “There’s newcomers in tennis, it’s not just an old people’s sport. There was still that perception of an elitist, premium, inaccessible sport, but more and more you see the newcomers.”
Another challenge to make tennis more popular in Montreal is the competition with the big influential hockey culture the city has developed over its history.
“We have improved in a way that you can see tennis a lot more now covered in the news,” says Valérie Tétreault, former professional Canadian tennis player and Director of the Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal. “That was kind of the vision that we had about 15 years ago when we decided to really invest into high performance, because for us that way we would be investing into inspiration.”
But for Tétreault the battle for media space is not over.
“I think the impact should’ve been bigger,” says Tétreault when talking about the 2022 Davis Cup victory won by Canadian players after 109 years of competing in the tournament. “In terms of coverage that we got, for such a big achievement, I think it was too small, and I think part of the reason is that the Davis Cup tradition is not yet very big in Canada.”
For the future, Tennis Canada is working to make tennis accessible all-year-round, partnering up with Rogers to cover up existing courts with bubbles or other framework during the winter season to protect it from the snow, ice, and the harsh environment.
But the snow and winter does not stop Brideau and other tennis fanatics from practicing and playing the sport.
Indoor tennis courts like the IGA stadium or the Academie Momentum, located in Repentigny, is where players like Brideau play tennis during the winter, renting courts for an hour or two.
In response to the rise in popularity of tennis, Brideau feels not much has changed from his routine. He schedules his time on the court as usual, but has experienced some difficulties in renting courts at the IGA stadium, as Montreal residents get priority. Thankfully, he has friends to help him out.