The South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club keeps busy even in the absence of the club’s biggest annual tournament, the Vancouver Island Grass Court Championships, which usually takes place this week. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club pushes on despite cancelled tourneys

Biggest event of the summer would be on this week

The third week of July is usually the busiest one of the year for the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club.

The Vancouver Island Grass Court Championships — known fondly as “The International” — is the biggest tournament on the slate each year, and a showcase of the facility — the oldest grass tennis club in Canada.

Unfortunately, the tournament is off this year thanks to COVID-19, marking possibly the first time in the club’s 133-year history that it won’t be held.

“We’re disappointed,” tournament committee member Charles Ayers said. “We thought we could keep it going, but it didn’t work out because of the health concerns.”

The club’s history dates back to 1887, so this year’s Grass Court Championships were numbered the 133rd annual. No one knows for sure that the tournament does date that far back, but it definitely goes back to the 1950s.

“The myth of the club, which is taken as gospel, is that it has been running for 133 years,” Ayers explained.

Regardless of its vintage, the International does have a colourful past, attracting players from Japan and Europe, and many from the U.S.

“It is a real linchpin in the club’s history,” Ayers said. “It will be back next year, unless this goes bad again.”

When the COVID shutdown first happened, the club initially gave up any hope of holding tournaments this summer. Tennis BC cancelled all of its sanctioned tournaments, so the SCLTC’s Grass Court Classic in late June and the Biondo Junior Tournament in August were non-starters.

It then appeared that the Grass Court Championships could be held with appropriate social distancing, as Island Health limited the club to just 50 people on the grounds at one time.

“It could have been spaced out,” Ayers said. “We had a handle on that.”

As they proceeded with those plans, they were told that the tournament would have to be limited to 50 competitors. The tournament has had as many as 200 entrants in the past, and hosted more than 130 last year, so 50 players — divided up over men’s, women’s and mixed, singles and doubles, and multiple age groups — would have been too few, and the tournament had to be cancelled.

That leaves one tournament, the Kay Wilson Memorial Triple Knockout in mid-August, that the club still plans to hold. The mixed doubles tournament usually maxes out at 32 teams, but will be limited to 24 this year to stay under the 50-participant threshold.

Outside of tournaments, the club is doing well socially, Ayers said, “But not quite as social as we used to be.”

The club enacted strict COVID measures when the grass courts opened in mid May, with physical distancing, no scorecards, no benches, no chairs, and no post-match handshakes, among other guidelines. The regulations have been more relaxed recently, Ayers said, with approval from Island Health.

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