Richard Bulbring’s arrival was a long time coming, but the longtime tennis pro and his students at the Sudbury Indoor Tennis Centre seem to agree it was worth the wait.
Bulbring took up his post as SITC’s first true head professional in more than 15 years, arriving from South Africa with his wife and four children earlier this spring after a series of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to an enthusiastic response from players and staff at iconic Igloo on Cypress Street.
“It has actually been amazing,” Bulbring said with a smile, during a brief break in a recent training session. “The start has actually been incredible. The Sudbury tennis club members are so kind, so helpful and everyone has made our landing very easy.”
Bulbring’s hiring is a significant one not only because of his impressive resume, which includes 40 years of experience in tennis, a playing career that saw him represent his home province on numerous occasions and more than two decades as a full-time teaching pro, but also because it addresses a long-standing need for SITC. Cliff Richardson, president of the club’s board of directors, said SITC has not had a true head tennis pro to oversee its adult and junior programming since the early 2000s, when his father, the late Greater Sudbury Sports Hall-of-Famer Jim Richardson, was still active in the organization.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Richardson, while watching Bulbring work with some of the club’s youngest members. “It took two and a half years of hard work, waiting, delays due to COVID and the immigration process isn’t easy, lots of steps to follow and applications to make, so to have him here and to be successful in that after waiting so long, it’s just incredible.
“We have had a number of instructors over the years, but there’s a number of levels of instruction, moving into coaching, so to have someone of his calibre here for the first time in a long time is just going to be incredible for the kids. It’s going to mean phenomenal development and progression that we’ve never been able to have before. Our programs are full and are blowing up here, so to be able to take this new crop of young kids through all levels of development is going to mean great things for the club, for the kids, for healthy, active living.
“We have only heard positive things for parents and kids alike, just saying he’s that next-level coach we haven’t had for so long that we have needed. In a lot of cases, the feedback is he’s the best coach some of these kids have ever had, or their parents have ever seen.”
It was Fransua Rachmann, head pro at the neighbouring North Bay Granite Club for the past 10 years, who first recommended his friend and fellow South African as a fit for a similar role in Sudbury.
“Cliff made an incredible effort to get me here,” Bulbring recalled. “The visa was first denied and the work permits, but he said no, we’re going keep pursuing it and go for it and he did. He made it happen.”
Bulbring and his wife, Tamryn, received a warm reception in the Nickel City. Three of their children attend Algonquin Public School, while another goes to Lo-Ellen Park Secondary.
“Their transition has been super smooth,” he said. “They’re all happy and my wife is happy — and if my wife is happy, I’m happy.
“I’m extremely thankful to be in a beautiful country like Canada. My kids are sleeping beautifully every night and the crime is not a factor anymore.”
His adjustment to coaching Northern Ontario athletes has also been rather seamless — with a couple of notable, though not unwelcome differences.
“Just from a personality point of view, I find that the kids in South Africa are more hungry, but to a point where it’s actually a negative,” Bulbring suggested. “They’re vey competitive. I find the nature of the kids here in Canada is much nicer and easier to work with. I find they listen very well here.
“I have actually been extremely impressed by the Canadian culture and the kids have been awesome. They have been so welcoming to me and they have accepting me as their new coach, they’re listening and it has been a treat.”
South Africa experienced a surge in signups for youth tennis with the initial easing of public health restrictions, as social distancing wasn’t the same barrier to participation as it was in many sports. Sudbury has seen a similar increase, according to SITC director Noah Albers, and there have been no signs of a slowdown in recent weeks.
Bulbring’s addition to the staff will not only mean more representation for Sudbury at the provincial and even national levels, Albers said, but will greatly enhance the club’s ability to connect with the community.
“The last three months, we have seen month-to-month record revenues, which is really good to see,” Albers said. “The club is growing and at this point, now that we have Richard, we can start to expand our programming further and do some outreach in the city. One of the initiatives we’re trying to take hold of is getting some impoverished youth or new immigrants, who might not be able to afford formal tennis lessons, and go out to those communities and offer tennis lessons with Richard for free, day clinics on outdoor courts. We’re a not for profit and we want to be able to give back to the community. We have been successful in the past year, so it’s good for us to be able to offer something like that.”
Capitalizing on the upswing in interest in tennis and other racquet sports, the club has also partnered with the local pickleball aficionados and added several courts to the indoor facility. Ideally, Albers said, the club will be in a position in five to 10 years to expand even further, whether at Queen’s Athletic Field or another site.
Bulbring is thrilled to see so many newcomers to the sport and to play a role in their development, whether their involvement remains recreational or whether they seek to follow the likes of Denis Shapovalov, Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger Aliassime in competing at the highest level.
“It’s so exciting to be a part of this, but I think it’s just the start,” Bulbring said. “I’m already seeing a difference in the attitude of the juniors here. They’ve got somebody who’s actually interested in them and interested in their tennis careers and who’s going to help them. My goal is to see some good tennis players coming out of this club and getting some scholarships to go play tennis in the U.S., is a good goal for them. The start is now, so let’s see where they can take it.”
Having partnered with the City of Greater Sudbury to use several outdoor courts this summer, the club plans to run a series of camps in the coming months. For more information on those or other programs at SITC, call 705-688-1414, email [email protected] or visit www.sudburytennis.ca.