CANMORE – As construction nearly wraps on the new tennis courts at Lions Park in Canmore, local tennis players are eager to make some racquet and celebrate a century old tradition of serving up fast balls.
The grand reveal of the four tennis courts, which are likely to open this month, inadvertently coincides with the Canmore Tennis Association’s (CTA) commemoration of 100 years of organized tennis in town.
Some things that have made the sport last so long in town are its elements of being outside, the joy of exercising and its accessibility, said CTA president Ron Remple.
“It’s a lifelong sport,” he said. “You can start it when you’re young and play it when you’re old.”
In a new feature, The Canmore Tennis Association: A centennial of tennis by Bow Valley historian and author Rob Alexander, the sport’s history in Canmore traces back to one of the town’s most prominent family names.
Besides being a beloved businessman in town, Cardo Marra, who founded a former main street staple in Marra’s Grocery in 1945 with his wife Jeanne, was well known for his skill and passion for the game of tennis.
In 1923, Marra and his tennis partner, Nancy Young, won the inaugural Canmore Tennis Club’s Mixed Doubles Challenge Cup. The victory by the young aces is the earliest known date of organized tennis in town, which is etched on a newer shiny plaque on a wood frame below the century-old silver trophy.
While tennis has been played locally for more than 100 years, the CTA – the successor of the Canmore Tennis Club – is using Marra and Young’s 1923 triumph to officially celebrate the centennial of tennis in Canmore.
“This is the date that that we know for sure there was a tennis championship in Canmore, and especially with the Marra name on there, obviously that just lends a lot of credibility to the sport and to the tennis club in Canmore,” said Remple.
“We had our tournament last year and when we had the mixed doubles trophy out, and it was actually Sandy Nemeth (instructor, CTA co-founder) who noticed that and said, ‘hey, did you notice the dates on the mixed doubles trophy? The first date was 1923.'”
Long lost trophy reveals inaugural championship
A mystery surrounding the old doubles trophy from 1923 was highlighted in an Outlook article in the early 2000s, also written by Rob Alexander.
The trophy was 79 years old when it was uncovered in a box of tennis stuff by former Canmore Tennis Club co-presidents, Kevin Stock and LeeAnn Johnson. The storage box came from Stuart Curran, a club member, who had placed it in the back of his office since the ‘80s.
Inside the trophy’s cup, there was a note written by Rick Balharry, a Canmore doctor at the time, who gave the box full of tennis memorabilia to Curran. The note said the trophy had first been won in 1923, and then defended in 1924-25 by Cardo Marra and Nancy Riva – a misspelt name that was later corrected as Nancy Young.
Although, at the time of discovery, there was a lot of head-scratching about the identity of who Marra’s doubles partner actually was. Ron Marra, Cardo’s son, didn’t recall a Nancy Riva as his dad’s partner, and Mae Riva said the Nancy in question couldn’t have been a Riva.
Like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, Ron, Mae, and members at the Canmore Public Library started digging for answers in an attempt to solve the case. It was Mae who unravelled the mystery. After some research, she discovered that Marra’s partner was Nancy Young, whose family was active in the tennis club in the 1920s.
The trophy was updated with new plaques to recognize the accomplishments from the past, and presented to the Canmore Tennis Club in September 2002.
Ebbs and flows
When Ron and Paula Remple moved to town three decades ago, tennis was their way to connect to the community.
“I got involved early on and there was the ladies’ tennis and the old guard were so inclusive, so it created a way for me to create friendships really early on and I think they trained us that, for me, I was a young mom at the time, to do the same thing with anybody who’s a newcomer now,” said Paula. “So probably like Cardo Marra, they created a legacy of inclusiveness and community that is very charming.”
In recent years, all-star Canuck tennis players, such as Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime, have provided a jolt of energy on the national scene and given Canadians some local faces to cheer for on the international stage.
Although popularity is booming now, over the past century, tennis’ prevalence in Canmore has had its moments as the prettiest girl at the dance to missing in action.
The first court built in Canmore was by Kate and John Jackson, possibly in the early 1900s, according to The Canmore Tennis Association: A centennial of tennis. Put together behind their log home, the clay-surfaced court was constructed where the artsPlace parking lot is today.
After picking up steam in the 1920s following two new courts being built in 1925 at the base of Hospital Hill (Three Sisters Drive), tennis saw a sharp decline in town in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In the mid ‘70s, the club had a revival of sorts, but again, by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, interest in the tennis club faded and the courts were falling apart by the '90s. Many Canmore players during that time began travelling to Banff to use its array of courts.
The Canmore Tennis Club held its last championship in 2003.
But then in 2006, a new group of tennis advocates rebuilt the club – turning it into the Canmore Tennis Association – and lobbied the Town to refurbish the courts. In 2008, after five years, the club championships were once again played.
In 2014, the CTA began advocating the Town of Canmore for a redevelopment at Lions Park to replace the three courts that were more than 40 years old.
Out with the old
Built in the early 1980s, the three old courts at Lions Park saw their final games in 2022.
The process of getting new courts installed at Lions Park has taken over a decade. The project has raised $630,000 from grants, community fundraising and a significant portion through the Town.
The CTA began a reservation system to track the number of users. Remple said that more than 4,000 tennis enthusiasts from the Bow Valley and beyond play on the Lions Park and Veteran’s Park courts each year.
Last year, construction broke ground on the new four-court regulation size play area, increasing in size by at least 33 per cent over the aging court setup. One court will be used for teaching the game, separated by a 1.5 metre high fence to help prevent runaway balls from rolling into other courts.
The goal is for the four courts to open this month, but it is weather dependent due to a final piece of plexipave surface being installed.
“I think that’s one of the things that will continue to attract people to playing in Canmore, specifically, and we know that there’s a lot of tourists that come by and they’re looking for the courts,” Remple said.
A fifth tennis court in Canmore is available at Veteran’s Park.
Remple said in the past five years, the CTA’s membership doubled to about 210. With the four new courts in place, and the offering of a kids program, Remple expects membership to continue to increase, possibly even doubling again in the next five to 10 years.
“In our tennis association, what we’re finding is tennis as a sport across Canada, and, really across the world, is growing,” said Remple.
“I think one of the things is that it’s very accessible and that it’s not an expensive sport to play. You know you buy your racket, you buy some balls, you got some shoes and you can go out and play.”