South Australia, 6 July 2020 | Vivienne Christie

While many qualities are required to lead a major organisation, hard work and resilience have arguably factored the most for Tennis SA CEO Debbie Sterrey throughout 2020.

Just several months into Sterrey’s role at the helm of the state tennis body, both bushfires and restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic would have a major impact on tennis participation in South Australia.

But with winter pennant tennis now underway and many participants enjoying other forms of both competitive and social play, Sterrey can reasonably look back on a successful time for tennis in South Australia.

“We’ve been very fortunate. We really didn’t shut down completely, so it was great to see people out on courts,” she explains of the impact of coronavirus lockdowns, with tennis quickly recognised as one of the safest forms of activity.

“What was interesting – and a lot of comments that came back to me – was that people who had never played tennis before were out playing tennis because there was nothing else from a sports perspective that they were able to do.”

As adaptable clubs and coaches led both the return and take-up of the game in South Australia, they were helped by a range of supportive initiatives from the state body. Alongside virtual education sessions on government guidelines, for example, packs were provided to help clubs transition to the new normal.

They contained items such as hand sanitiser, information booklets and cable ties to ensure that posters – also provided – were easily placed at venues. “The little things that you don’t think about,” says Sterrey. “We’ve really tried to hold their hand.”

Members of the South Australian tennis community responded with overwhelming positivity, Sterrey pointing to practices that arose through physical distancing requirements but are likely to become permanent.

“We’ve trialled video conferencing with clubs and associations. We had 80 plus clubs actually join a meeting a couple of weeks ago. You’d never get that if you had a meeting normally – especially the regional ones who can find it hard to get in.”

“What we’ve talked about as a team is that the new normal is ‘well let’s continue that’ as a way of working. We’re getting really positive feedback.

“I think the relationships with clubs and coaches will really strengthen out of this, because we’re going through it together.”

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Resourceful coaches can take equal pride in the positives to arise from the COVID-19 crisis. Theodora (Dora) Kiparoglou of TK Tennis Coaching was among that group, creating an online teaching option that she’s now adapting for use during inclement weather or at other times when students can’t physically attend lessons.

“I got my thinking cap on and thought how I could engage with my students,” says Kiparoglou of the Home Court Advantage program that included a delivery of packs containing three red tennis balls, a challenge log, along with balloons and chalk for use in activities.

Sending a new video lesson each week via a YouTube link, Kiparoglou also conducted 30-minute Zoom lessons each Sunday. Encouraging students to film their at-home tennis activities, the Adelaide coach also created a WhatsApp group so that videos could be shared with each other.

“I actually thought that worked really well. Something that I didn’t think would come to life and it did, which was really exciting,” she enthuses.

While increased activity was the primary benefit for participants in the Home Court Advantage Program, it soon became clear to Kiparoglou that the opportunity for children to maintain essential connections is equally valuable.

“They enjoy playing tennis, but they also really love the relationship that you can build with the coach and the other kids,” she explains. “I think it just showed that we can all stay connected during this time and the kids can have a really good time while they’re doing it.”

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Such connections resonate strongly throughout every level of the tennis community, with the most profound South Australian example recently found at clubs that were devastated by bushfires on Kangaroo Island in January.

“We’re still trying to help to get those clubs up and running,” says Sterrey, who recognises the broader significance that tennis holds in regional communities.

“Clubs are often the hub of everything that they do. We did a video on the bushfires at Kangaroo Island, really just showing the support because the club is their community. It has an important social side of things.”

COVID-19 also forced the Tennis SA team to put a creative spin on the annual Awards Night in order to celebrate the achievements of the tennis community over the past twelve months. Hosted by Tom Rehn and Shane Leathem, the event was live streamed from the Tennis SA boardroom last Friday.

While admitting there have been unprecedented challenges to manage within a short timeframe, Sterrey and the Tennis SA team more happily note the collective qualities that have helped tennis thrive in that period.

“It’s been a tough few months with the bushfires and then COVID, but everyone has been really positive to be quite honest,” says Sterrey. “A few clubs have said to me ‘well we’ve got to work together if we want to get back up running’.”