Mention the “Gardens” to most St Lucians a few years ago and immediately it conjured up images of dilapidated structures, the dregs of humanity, and a cesspool of crime. Fast-forward and we now have the Kenneth ‘Wriggler’ King Multipurpose Centre, which is currently playing host to the Voyager Open presented by BLU Electronics.
This tennis tournament is being made possible by the members of Tiger Tennis St Lucia, a club dedicated to improving the lives of young St Lucians through the sport. At the helm is Sirsean Arlain, one of the most successful players in the island’s history. Arlain first took up the sport at the age of 10, at the urging of his mother, who wanted him to find an alternative to his beloved football. Under the guidance of coaches at what was then Cunard LaToc, he soon caught the tennis bug and blossomed into one of the island’s top athletes. He attributes his success to the nurturing atmosphere.
Over the next few years Arlain competed in well over 80 tournaments, rising to the top of St Lucia’s rankings. This paved the way for scholarship opportunities leading him to attend Southern University and Averett University in the United States. Upon completing an ambitious trifecta of biomedicine, sociology, and psychology, Arlain returned to his homeland intent on landing a position at a local hospital. However, fate intervened when a friend suggested he apply for a coaching job at Sandals. It was not the career path he had envisioned but it was one he had unwittingly been prepared for.
He was hired and soon started working with both adults and kids. The experience was valuable, but there were limitations to what he could accomplish. He was also alarmed by the sharp decline in St Lucian dominance on the regional scene.
“We sort of fell off because all our really good coaches left and we really felt the effects of it 5 or 6 years later. We were amongst the Caribbean’s elite and now we’re just not,” Arlain lamented.
Sensing his disenchantment with the state of the game, close friends soon started planting the seed that would eventually grow into Tiger Tennis. Together with longtime friends Robert Huggins, Ron Blanchard, and Danny Augustin, who are all certified coaches, Arlain has worked tirelessly to popularize the sport at the grassroots level. Their persistence has paid off with sponsors such as E-zone, Subway, LIME, and Lance Snacks throwing their support behind the initiative. Their schools program, which offers physical education classes to Castries based institutions, has grown from just about 25 kids to now approximately 200 strong. Wednesday nights are dedicated to the ladies and many ranging from age 17-60 have taken advantage. The group employs the International Tennis Federation’s Play and Stay format, which uses customized balls, rackets, and courts depending on your skill level.
However the pièce de résistance of their operation is the aforementioned multipurpose complex. Its acquisition was a product of Arlain’s persistent nature. On a wing and a prayer, he sent in a proposal to Parliamentary Representative Richard Frederick and was floored when he received a meeting request. Frederick was very responsive but had one request—that the project be executed professionally.
“He wanted something good in there. He didn’t just want it to be asphalt and some white lines,” said Arlain.
Using all the knowledge gleaned from years on the tennis circuit, Arlain made it happen.
But once again. Why the Gardens? Arlain’s philosophy was simple.
He explained, “If it can work in the bad areas of the US that we can’t compare to, it can work here. If you’re going to do something like this and you really want it to have an impact on the society and on the kid’s life, those are definitely the areas that you look into because it is almost like a cultural change.”
The club is not resting on its laurels. They currently have five national players under their tutelage and hope to expand the schools program to five times the participants by September. Arlain wants the sport to grow to the point where it will become necessary to have sectional tournaments just to get to the national championships. Plans are underway to launch an Inter Primary Schools Competition. They are also hoping to get 12-16 of their students on International Tennis Federation Tour this summer.
They do face challenges. Arlain concedes that tennis is an expensive sport. While they do try to absorb as much of the cost to make it more accessible, once a player reaches a certain level it is impossible to avoid. And of course despite the vast improvements, there are some who remain reluctant to play at the Gardens.
Still, Arlain lauded the community for their unwavering support, noting that they often help out when needed and cheer on the neighbourhood players. In turn, the club provides free lessons to young residents of the area.