15-Love: Tales From the Towel Room

I grew up watching tennis because of my parents as a really young kid, but I didn’t really follow it. I remember the grass courts of Wimbledon, the reddish-orange clay of Roland Garros, the overwhelming noise of the US Open. But I never remembered watching the Canadian Open on TV.

Things changed substantially when my aunt Pauline invited me to work at the Canadian Open (itself at the time part of the next tier of tournaments called the Masters Series). My aunt Pauline had worked in tennis for years and was in charge of the Grounds Department for the national tournament. I thought, “Cool, I’ll earn some money in the summer.” So of course I said sure, I’d love to and planned to be away from home for two weeks to work for Tennis Canada in July 1988.

I was 13 years old, and this was the summer before going into High School Grade 9. Little did I know what I was in store for.

To be clear, I was just going to be a minor little helper around the National Tennis Centre during the tournament. I was going to look after the towel room, and was supposed to help keep the Player’s Lounge tidy. Nothing particularly taxing. I wasn’t really sure about the scope of where I would be in the grand scheme of things overall, but I was excited nonetheless.

It was all planned for me to stay at my aunt Pauline’s with my uncle and cousins, and they were going to be long days I soon learned. We were up at the crack of dawn, drove to the same spot in the morning to pick up fantastic bagels and cream cheese on our way to the grounds. Often we wouldn’t get home until 10pm or later. The grounds crew had a lot to get done before and after the crowds, but in week one during qualifying it was a matter of just getting essential tasks done across the entire tournament site to get it ready for the spectators when the tournament properly started in the second week of my stay.

Week one I was doing ad hoc jobs outside of when qualifying play was happening. When play was on, I was in the towel room. When play was not on I was helping with passes, answering phones, making coffee, whatever they asked me to do.

Let me tell you about the towel room and a little thing called ‘accreditation’. Everyone had to have a lanyard with a pass given to them from the accreditation team, which provided various levels of access to areas based on your pass. So all the players and their teams, as well as employees on site had to have one, even little old me. It was all about the colour coded dots allocated to your photograph I.D. laminated pass for the security guards that were situated at every little junction you could think of, both inside and outside of the building. You needed the right dots to get past them. The towel room was in the basement level and I soon learned I had some serious dots with my name on them.

You might think this was a terrible thing. Summertime, warm weather… who wants to be stuck in a basement? I soon discovered that I did.

Lo and behold, the basement level (one long hall) was one of the most restricted areas of the building during tournament time. First off, my aunt’s tournament office was down there. Next to her office was the men’s changing room, beyond that the stringer’s room, the medical office, the physiotherapy and massage room, the women’s changing room. Oh, and the towel room.

Not many people except competitors, their entourage and those of us working in those rooms were allowed down there. My towel room had a little pop up roll-door that gave me a counter and it was directly across from the physio and the stringer.

To top it off, the Player’s Lounge on the main floor overlooking the practice courts would be equally if not more restricted. And I had access to both!

I’d spend hours folding towels in my little room when they got back from the laundry, bagging the used ones. I also had the tournament supply of tennis balls. New and used. And the player dry-cleaning and laundry. Padlocks for lockers. That sort of stuff. I had a phone on the wall with a directory and that was about it. Early in week one wasn’t terrifically exciting because I didn’t recognise any of the players. I had the ball kids who would come to pick up towels and balls and deliver back the used supplies to talk to. But that was about it.

Things started to get interesting when the world’s best started to arrive. On breaks I was able to watch them on the practice courts, mingle with them in the lounge. I was just in their vicinity but never approached any and stayed out of their way. When they practiced or played they also had to sign out towels for the locker room. Which basically gave me a laundry list of the ATP Tour in signature form. I still have them somewhere in a shoebox.

And then Stefan Edberg arrived. I could feel myself go bright red the first time I saw him in the player’s lounge because I had never had that ‘kapow’ moment of seeing someone famous in person before, but this was it. It was one of those moments I will never forget, because from that moment on I had Edberg fever. I was smitten!

My 13 year old tennis crush Stefan Edberg

He had just won Wimbledon so was swarmed by media, but being a typical Swede was not a man of many words. I had another person who would look after the towel room when I needed a break, so I made sure I knew when he was practising, when his matches were, and I would work my breaks around it. I would then leg it back to the towel room to be the one who was there to give him his towel after his matches. Anything to interact with my new tennis crush. A few times he had laundry to pick up and I wouldn’t move from the room until he had collected it. Oh the power of teenage love pangs.

The pace of what became my ‘normal’ for the towel room changed swiftly as the tournament ramped up to begin.

I befriended the stringer, who players or coaches were always bringing racquets to by the dozen. I knew all the physios, the doctor. I was a kid amongst adults, but I had always been very mature for my age. I could talk with anyone on a level they probably weren’t expecting.

I read the one book I had on my counter which was a 1988 ATP Player’s Guide and learned the faces of players in the main draw whose names I had never heard of. Like a personal assistant prepping a CEO for a party to know who was who, I was prepared to know who I would be seeing in my towel room domain. I wanted to be in the know and say hello to them by name. It was all very exciting.

I must add that I had a few eyebrow raising incidents. These were not intentional on the players parts, but I look back now and think *facepalm*. Jimmy Connors forgot to get a towel and stuck his head around the door in a jockstrap because he needed one after his shower and proceeded to leg it back to the locker. Then there was the physio room across from me, which often didn’t close the door and I spotted quite a lot of rugged (hot?) athletes with towels around their waist, and some with not so much. As in zip. After all it was the place to be for post play massage therapy. All of them were in there. I played it cool. I even had to go into the men’s locker room once (and only once) because one player couldn’t get the padlock off his locker. I made him check there was nothing for me to unexpectedly run into and hurried in, opened the padlock with his code that he had from it’s package and fled like lightning.

There was also the time I did a little babysitting for John McEnroe because there was also a child care room at the end of the hallway, with closed circuit tv’s in it to watch matches and all the usual playroom accoutrements.

I recall Pete Sampras, usually remembered as fairly benign sort of player personality-wise, smashing his racket against the wall right in front of me and a few ball kids after he lost his match, then asking if anyone wanted it. This was well before he rose to the top, but it’s these weird things I think about when I see some of these players now.

The band Rush came to the Tennis Centre main building reception to meet some players because guitarist Alex Lifeson is a huge tennis fan, and there was a lot of people quite hyped about that.

I handmade a birthday card for Vitas Gerulaitis when I noticed that it was his birthday in the guide, as there was also a Legends tournament happening alongside the main draw. It was kind of nuts because between the legends players and the current players, I was seeing the best of the best in tennis spanning many generations all at once. Borg, Laver, Lendl, Becker, Sampras, McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, Edberg, you name it, I saw them.

I got quite a few souvenirs and the odd gift. Michael Chang and his brother bought me an ice cream probably because they thought I didn’t get out of the basement much.

I got a match worn shirt from McEnroe that I gave to my Dad, I had shoes from players, all the autographs. I finally got the nerve to ask Stefan Edberg to give me a proper standalone autograph when he finally did pick up his laundry.

The tournament alternated men and women each year as the tours would swap between Toronto and Montreal. So having worked there for another three or four years I think I met everyone you could think of between men and women’s tennis. The Williams sisters before they won anything, Capriati as a teenager, Navratilova and her partner at the time with their multiple yappy pomeranians that were ever present. Evert, Sabatini, Sanchez-Vicario, Mandlikova. The only one I never got to meet was Steffi Graf.

I never did meet Stefan Edberg another time, I think he was injured the next year the men were in Toronto and I was devastated.

But he still looks great today. I should know, I look out for him at Wimbledon every year, and every year I spot him on TV, excitedly pointing it out to friends and family on Facebook. And you know… I only live a few miles from Wimbledon. I ride in Wimbledon Village every Sunday, and the All England Club is a stones throw from there so you never know, one day I may see him again. I’ve been to the Wimbledon tournament about five times now, and I do have an eagle eye for spotting people in public.

Stefan Edberg today, still fits the bill!

My time working with my aunt Pauline was a time I will never forget, I was so fortunate to be able to do that with her and see her in action. She was one tough boss to her grounds crew! It inspired me to take up tennis myself and I made the tennis team in high school. And of course became a lifelong fan of the sport that I eagerly watch now whenever I can. Long gone are the days when I had my dad check the newsagent on a daily basis on his way home from work around the time a new issue of Tennis magazine was due out. Pretty sure I drove him nuts doing that. I was poring over the latest pages hoping for a glimpse of current Edberg fodder. Now I can just go online whenever I please, so much easier!

It was quite an experience for me between the age of 13-16 to do that job, and to be able to watch the matches I wanted and meet all of those incredible athletes. Of course tennis has now gone into a ‘next level’ of legendary players in both the men’s and women’s game.

For two weeks it was worth the long days, because it never felt like work. I was hanging out and meeting people I never dreamed of. And I got to know most of my aunt’s main crew pretty well too, who were kind enough not to treat me like a little kid even though they were all in their 20’s. It was a bonus that I pocketed some serious cash which I was grateful for, that helped me pay for some university tuition.

I remember it all so very vividly and fondly.

And as for Edberg… well, I managed to get over the disappointment of not seeing him again because I met my very own Spanish ‘Game, Set and (most of all) Match’.

The old National Tennis Centre stadium at York University

6 thoughts on “15-Love: Tales From the Towel Room

  1. Totally loved this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Allison I loved your insights behind the scenes great read . U Dan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great read Al – fascinating! Loved it!
    How many years did I work with you and not know that!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful memories, lucky you. Felt like I was with you in that basement!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fun times Allison, you were great there, anything we threw at you, you could handle. Remember when we would shuttle with the players back and forth to the hotel and how funny it was that they all knew you! Seems like a lifetime ago!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It WAS pretty funny…then again I was a piece of the furniture down there. I couldn’t be avoided! 😹


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