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Ray Savignac: Groomed on the Courts
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Fifty-one years and counting - that is how long Ray Savignac has taught tennis.

For a good part of those years, the 68 year-old father of four extended his teaching hours far beyond just his time on the court, guiding hundreds of young elementary students initially with the Sudbury District School Board, now the Rainbow District School Board.

Truth is, Savignac comes by his passion for mentoring young minds quite honestly, still cherishing, years later, the memories of those who most shaped the person that he became, widely recognized locally for his impressive contribution the sport of tennis.

"I started when I was 15 years old," said Savignac, who qualified regularly for both OFSAA tennis and badminton during his time at Sheridan Tech. "My neighbour was an Italian and his mother was an opera singer; she was phenomenal."

"He took me to the tennis courts one day (on Alder Street). I found a broken racquet in the trash can because I couldn't afford a racquet and played the first year with it."

Growing up in the downtown core, one of five children from a family of very modest means, Savignac would find sporting pleasure in the simplest of forms - albeit one that lay a foundation for much of his success with racquet sports.

"Because we had no money, my sport growing up was peewee," he said. "You would get an old used wooden stick about a foot and a half long - mother's old mop handle worked really well - and then you would make a smaller stick about six inches with sharpened tips."

"You would flip the smaller stick in the air and whack it - we called that peewee." The key was that you had to make contact. Just as in baseball, three whiffs and you're out.

"All of my hand-eye coordination came from there."

If thoughts of the Sudbury Tennis Club brings an immediate smile to the face of Savignac, it's largely thanks to the club elders who effectively created the all-inclusive environment that was so appreciated by newcomers, especially those of the younger variety.

"The Alder Street courts were owned by the City, but the membership formed a club to administer the rules and such," recalled Savignac. "For instance, you never sat down more than one set."

"The oldtimers would make sure that nobody sat for a long time - you would all be included in a foursome, regardless of the level."

Though he progressed quickly, Savignac never forgot his earliest lessons in sportsmanship.

You would play with better people and learn, and learn in a hurry, paying the price for your mistakes, but you would also share your knowledge with the beginners. That's just the way the club operated."

Before long, Savignac was part of the circuit group, the Sudbury tennis clan that would travel across the north. It was a home away from home for the baby of the brood, and then some.

"We were such a close tennis family," he explained. "I was too young to go on my own, so I would get chaperoned. Mom was more than willing to let me go, knowing that an adult would take care of me."

"We would camp beside the tennis courts and it would cost you five dollars to enter an event," Savignac continued. "In order to eat cheaply, we would barbeque together. I reached a certain level of acceptance within the group, because of my tennis skill level."

He wasn't alone.

In an era where the men from Sudbury were the envy of much of the province, Savignac, Jim Richardson, Leonard Beauchesne and Terry Hill dominated - with the latter ruling the roost.

"He (Terry Hill) was the top guy in the club, the guy everybody wanted to beat," said Savignac. "Toronto would send class A players north and they couldn't beat Terry."

While the pool of talented local opponents was plentiful, coaching mentors were not.

“I took a one hour lesson and never did it again,” said Savignac with a laugh. “I did a lot of mirror imaging, mimicking the good players at the club.”

It was enough to get the young man who would eventually study Physical Education at Laurentian University some interest from the University of New Mexico. “I was missing one shot,” he said. “I had five serves. I had a great forehand. I could play the net well. But I couldn’t hit a top-spin backhand.”

Still, his array of skills was enough to find him partnered with Lois Irwin at one point, placing fifth at a national tournament in Calgary. He would team with Richardson, whom he dubbed “Le Cannon”, back from playing as a pro in Ottawa and becoming the heir apparent to Hill.

The tandem were also partners in coaching with the local club, with Richardson instrumental in the eventual construction of the current indoor facility. “One of the benefits of coaching at the club was that the instructors could bring their kids for free,” said Savignac. “It was thanks to Jim and his managerial wizardry.”

“All of our kids grew up playing tennis together.”

In fact, tennis also accounts for Savignac’s still special relationship with Jane Reid, his wife of so many years. Peanuts, as Savignac was affectionately known to most of those who frequented the club, had worked with the bulk of Reid’s siblings, eventually meeting and marrying his partner for life.

“She’s the only one I cannot coach,” he stated with a smile.

That’s fine. There are plenty of folks who will happily attest to both the tennis acumen and the coaching abilities of Ray Savignac, a young man groomed on the courts.

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