Love for The Game: Passion for The People
This summer, as the curtain falls on Canada’s premier tennis tournament, Karl Hale will be marking a different sort of achievement, off the court.
By Ciarán Bree
On July 31, one of the world’s top tennis players will be crowned Rogers Cup champion in Toronto. The 2016 edition marks 10 years in the hot seat for the tournament director, but he has no intention of calling a time-out anytime soon.
“I really enjoy the role, I didn’t expect to do it for 10 years to be honest,” says Hale. “Time has flown by, I’ve had a lot of great experiences and I hope to have many more.”
Barring an upset, the tournament victor will head to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro full of confidence after winning the last ATP Tour event before the show opens in Brazil. You might then expect Karl Hale to kick off the Converse he’s famed for wearing during Rogers Cup week and enjoy a well-earned breather. Not necessary for the man who has been Head Racquets Professional at the Donalda Tennis Club in Toronto since 2003.
“I tell people I’m busy but I’m not stressed. It’s actually relaxing for me,” says the 48-year-old.
Due to the Rio Games, both the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Coupe Rogers, held in Montreal, have been moved forward a month from their usual August slot. The men and women’s tours alternate between the two cities and this year, Hale has the men in his care at Aviva Centre, located at York University. He is looking forward to his hands-on role.
“I’m a people person so I enjoy meeting all the people in the sport that I’m passionate about,” says Hale, who came to Canada from Jamaica with his mother and two siblings when he was nine. “From the top players, our Canadians, our volunteers, our staff and the fans, I enjoy the interaction and problem solving for everybody during the event.”
Three months out from the opening match on Centre Court, Hale has just returned from tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami and will spend the next couple of months working relationships and finalizing arrangements with the cohort of players coming to Toronto in July. He loves visiting Wimbledon for its pomp and ceremony.
Asked what it is about his personality that has made him so successful in his role, the sneaker wearing tournament director says, “I listen to what people have to say intently and I like to make sure we deliver on all of our objectives. I enjoy seeing people happy and taking care of their needs.”
Hale, whose older brother Robert was also a tennis pro, reveals that some of the doubles matches will be featured on Centre Court this year to account for more top players playing pairs in preparation for the Olympics. “Fans will be able to get an extra dose of their favourite stars,” says the man with the personal touch.
There are no bigger stars in recent years than local Toronto and Montreal favourites Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard.
“Canadians are very patriotic so we love to see our own have success. Milos and Genie are huge draws for Coupe Rogers and Rogers Cup,” says Hale, who believes their achievements have had an impact on all levels.
“Participation is up tremendously because tennis is on television a lot more because of them,” he says. “Sponsors are much more engaged in tennis now because they want to be a part of success.”
Hale has seen Raonic’s rise to the top end of the men’s game change the landscape of possibility for younger prospects coming through the ranks.
“Players like Felix (Auger-Aliassime) and Denis (Shapovalov) actually believe now that they can be a top player. Because Milos is a top player, it doesn’t seem so far away from them.”
In addition to the Canadian stars, visitors to the Rogers Cup will be able to watch iconic figures of the sport including Roger Federer, men’s number one Novak Djokovic and defending champion Andy Murray. Tickets for Centre Court matches start as low as $15.
“It’s great all-day experience, outside in the middle of the summer, with some of the top athletes in the world,” says Hale, who wears his passion for the game on his sleeve. “We encourage everyone to come out, check it out and have a great time at our event.”
Hale picked up a tennis racket in anger for the first time when he was 13 years old. His favourite player growing up was John McEnroe. With the progression of the game in the modern era, that is almost certainly too late for someone hoping to make it to the top. As someone so close to the heart of the game, the Jamaican has some pretty simple advice for any young kid who wants to make it as a tennis pro.
“First you have to have passion for it – it has to be part of who you are,” says Hale. “You have to put a tremendous amount of hard work in because it’s so competitive now and you have to believe in yourself because a lot of people will tell you what you can’t do.”
But Hale also encourages all of us to get outside this summer and spend some time on the court.
“Athletically it’s a great sport to get in shape,” says Hale. “Intellectually, you really have to use your brain when you’re playing the sport against the other person, which is somewhat like chess.”
One person who took up Hale’s challenge recently is Jamaican Sean Paul. The dancehall and reggae musician partnered with Hale’s Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation, which raises funds to build schools on the Caribbean island.
“Giving back is a big part of what I do and what my family does,” says Hale. As civic citizens we try to help others so that’s really important to me. But it comes down to the people, the kids we meet in the school builds, and the likeminded people we get involved in our charity.”
Joining Sean Paul on a school construction build in February this year were tennis superstar Serena Williams, former boxer Lennox Lewis and Grammy Award winner Shaggy.
Hale says Paul has, “A great forehand, a decent backhand but he should stick to singing.” (Chuckles)
As he reflects further on the charitable side of his work, it is understandable that while Hale will be sure to wear a suit for the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, he is not obsessed with the material things.
“When you leave this earth you’re not going to be talking about the things you bought or the houses you lived in, it’s about the people you met along the way.”
Karl Hale has spent a decade charming the tennis circuit and when the Rogers Cup closes out for the tenth year under his watch, a few more people are sure to have been pleased to have met him along the way.
Photos Courtesy of Tennis Canad