In the 18 years Lionel Eli has been the tennis director at Tam Heather Curling & Tennis club, 23 young people – 15 of them of Caribbean heritage – have secured scholarships to attend American universities.
With last October’s completion of a new state-of-the-art, four-court year-round covered tennis structure, Eli hopes that the club will attract more players from the diverse Scarborough neighbourhood.
The new courts, covered by a fabric dome that eliminates wind and sun distraction, was built at a cost of $1 million. The City of Toronto and Racquet Sport and Development Fund provided the financial resources for the new facility.
“This brand new indoor facility allows us to run year-round programs in ideal conditions without having to worry about weather conditions,” said Eli who represented Barbados in the Davis Cup team tournament before migrating to Canada 25 years ago. “It also gives us the opportunity to reach out to more youths in this multicultural neighbourhood and allow them to take part in a sport in a team setting.”
American universities have been recruiting some of Tam Heather’s best and brightest young players since 1992 when Sasha Exeter became the first scholarship recipient. She pursued Law at Howard University.
Other scholarship recipients include Janelle Small who attends Hampton University, Tanya Hazel and Jibade Thomas who studied Engineering and Computer Engineering Systems respectively at Howard University and brother and sister, Quinton and Nerissa Peterson-Paul, whose parents are Trinidadians.
Quinton, who was the #2 ranked Under-18 player in the province two years ago, pursued Graphic Arts Design studies at Johnson County College in Kansas City and his sister graduated magna cum laude in Biology from the University of the District of Columbia in Washington where she was the team captain.
“All of these students excelled at tennis and in their academic studies,” said Eli. “The only problem is that they would have liked to return to the Caribbean and help develop the sport there and represent the various territories in Davis and Federation Cup tournaments. The Caribbean federations however have adopted a closed-door policy to the athletes’ request.
“What happens is when the players graduate from university, they return here and play the sport recreationally while pursuing their professional careers. It’s frustrating because I know that these players can help boost tennis in the Caribbean and they are not being given that chance. None of the federations have ever even contacted me to find out about the status of these players and their interest in coming back to the region to play tennis.”
The consummate teacher and tennis professional, Eli divides his time between Tam Heather, where he’s at from September to April, and Banbury Tennis Club where he has been the director of tennis and operations for the past 23 years.
Next Monday, he will take a group of 15 tennis players from the two clubs to Barbados for a 10-day tennis camp.
“The clubs have close to 2,000 members, so there is fierce competition to secure the few spots for our trip to the Caribbean each year,” he said. “They will play against local players and also get the chance to sightsee and enjoy the sun, sand and beach. Over the years, many of the participants have returned to Barbados annually with their families.
“I have been doing this for the past 10 years and I am now looking to expand it to other Caribbean countries.”
A standout junior track and field athlete, Eli began playing tennis after suffering a torn ligament in his shoulder.
“I was preparing to represent Barbados at the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games when the injury occurred,” he said. “A friend of mine, who played tennis, invited me to be his ball boy saying that would help me to keep fit while I healed. I took up the racquet and fell in love with the sport.
“Tennis is a wonderful game that has opened many doors for me and given me many opportunities. I have been able to travel the world and meet some very interesting people.”
Eli is hoping more of his students could be exposed to some of the benefits he enjoyed.