16 June 2020 | Vivienne Christie

Few states can boast such a powerful symbol of tennis prosperity as Queensland.

World No.1 Ash Barty is of course a proud Queenslander and while the 24-year-old happily returns to her Brisbane base whenever possible, many top Australian players also boast strong connections to the state.

Sam Stosur, John Millman, Ajla Tomljanovic, James Duckworth, Lizette Cabrera and Priscilla Hon are among the professionals who have honed their games in Queensland, with many still calling it home.

A positive outlook within the wider tennis community inevitably follows, even in the most challenging times. As professionals support each other both on and on off the court, coaches and clubs are also uniting to ensure players of all standards can experience the sport.

“Queensland has always punched above its weight when it comes to producing top level players but that comes from somewhere,” relates Tennis Queensland CEO Mark Handley. “We have an incredibly passionate tennis community in this state who always go above and beyond to promote the sport and ensure it continues to flourish.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown we saw extraordinary efforts by coaches and clubs to motivate their members and inspire new ways to stay tennis-sharp at home.”

For coach Tim Low, who operates Bayside Tennis Coaching at the Redlands Bay Tennis Club, a positive outlook and forward-thinking approach is especially strong.

The long-time player and coach found that when resolve was initially tested in the earliest stages of the recent lockdowns, a strong sense of community support helped.

“The best way I can describe it is that it’s like a community club in the city,” Low notes of the eight-court facility in suburban Brisbane. “There’s lots of families, lots of community engagement and that was pretty strong once we closed down. I even had personal requests of people offering for me to go and work for family businesses.”

But while grateful for those offers, Low recognised other opportunities while tennis was on hold.

A graduate of Tennis Australia coach development’s Masterclub Professional Course in 2019, he was equipped with the skills to not only manage the difficult times, but eventually thrive from them.

“It took a couple of days to settle in and then I took a step outside the business and looked at it from a different perspective,” he explained.  “I probably never really looked at it like that before.”

Collaborating with the Redlands Bay Tennis Club committee and his team of coaches, Low created the Back to Tennis project with the goal “to get as many people playing tennis as possible, whether that be here at the club, at home, or even at school.”

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Keeping in regular contact with players, Low and the team encouraged participation in Home Court Tennis. Attention is now focused on ensuring athletes have every opportunity to return to the actual court, including with a generous relaunch offer of two weeks free tennis.

“In week nine and ten, all of our group lessons are no cost. Free Hot Shots, Free Cardio Tennis, Free adult group coaching,” says Low, who recognises the chance to show appreciation for a supportive community and to help others experience it too.

“It’s a way to give back and also to get new people in to try it out.”

There are already many positive signs, with players not only returning in encouraging numbers but many new players also taking to the court. Relating the “positives within a negative”, Low notes that term three retention numbers are currently sitting at around 95 per cent across the entire coaching program.

“Plus we’ve had new enrolments,” he adds. “Our adult competitions have had numerous ex-players that might have played in our competition six, 12 or 18 months ago and they’ve shown an interest and want to sign up.”

The pleasing numbers underline some unique positives of tennis, a sport that can be restarted at any time. “I think there’s a lot of families where that’s the benefit,” says Low. “We don’t have to field full teams. You can just come and start tennis at any time. That’s definitely been quite noticeable.”

As Queensland clubs gradually return to normal –State Government-approved COVID-19 Outdoor Sports Guidelines currently allow 10 people per court, or 20 people per venue – there’s a strong spirit of mutual support.

While Low points to the tremendous guidance provided by Tennis Queensland in helping clubs and coaches navigate the complex circumstances, Handley notes the key role that those stakeholders play in growing the sport.

“We were all facing unprecedented challenges, but our priority was to ensure the survival of the grassroots of our sport, which is of course delivered through clubs and coaches. It was essential that our workforce got on the phones to the club operators to understand all of their unique circumstances and find a way to help them,” he points out.

“We had great communication with the clubs throughout the process and so even when the sands shifted a few times in terms of restrictions, the clubs knew we would be working in their best interest and for the good of the wider community.”

Calling on all the qualities developed in tennis, members of the Queensland community arguably value resilience the most. “It’s definitely a skill learned through the sport,” says Low.

Meanwhile, a culture of accessible role models in Queensland is helping keep the sport strong. Prominent junior Lara Walker, who received a wildcard into the Australian Open 2019 girls’ event, often hits with other juniors at Redlands Bay.

Low is equally pleased to relate that the spike in young female players after Barty’s 2019 French Open breakthrough has remained. “It makes our job pretty easy,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Handley as he helps guide the state through one of the most difficult times in the sport.

“Queensland is so fortunate to have role models that we can all be proud of, not only for their on-court achievements but also for their off-court demeanour,” says Handley.

“When you have the world No.1, Ash Barty training alongside the other National Academy players in Brisbane, there is a real sense that anything is possible. “