Jack Hérisset’s Bell Challenge Is Tennis At Its Best

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Photo: Mary White

Jacques Hérisset pictured above, organizes Pro-Tennis Tour in Quebec City

Jacques Hérisset has a passion for tennis, a passion he lives through his commitment to the annual Bell Challenge, through his work at Club Avantage and through his coaching.

Founder of the Bell Challenge and its current Director General, he has loved and lived tennis at all levels - as a player, coach and world tournament organizer - all his life. That is, ever since the tennis spark struck him when he was a student at St. Patrick's High School in the 1950s.

"St. Pat's was big on football and basketball," explains Hérisset, "but I had played pee wee baseball and when it was time for bantam, I just wasn't made for it physically. Then one day, my father, who liked tennis, signed me up as a ball boy for a tennis tournament here. The players let us try their rackets during breaks. And it just went click."

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That was when he knew he had found his sport, a sport that had its eyes focused on Quebec City this weekend with the city's largest annual international sports event. The Bell Challenge, marking its 17th year, is a Tier III tournament of international level as part of Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

A $400,000 installation of blue curtains, sleek courts and top-notch technology created the setting fit for a world-class tennis tournament with a $220,000 purse. The tournament receives funding from sponsors, government subsidies and ticket sales.

Women players from all over the world - Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Sweden, Italy, Argentina, Australia, the USA and Great Britain - included Russian favourite Nadia Petrova, ranked in first position for the Challenge. Petrova, however, had to pull out in the quarter-finals. Canada had five players, including crowd favorite Aleksandra Wozniak, of Montreal.

For the second straight year, Wozniak was eliminated by Melinda Czink of Hungary in the semi-finals. Czink , after ending the dream of a Canadian champion, went on to claim the singles grand champion title and the $37,000 prize that goes with it, by beating Lucie Safarova of Czechoslovokia.

The doubles championship had a combined purse of $11,000.

Hérisset, meanwhile, taught himself to play by studying Tennis de France magazines that gave play-by-play pictures of moves he could memorize then emulate. In the early 1960s, there were no professional tennis coaches to teach him. Turning professional as a player would have meant leaving Quebec City, moving south, which was too expensive a venture. Instead, he decided to be the best player he could, then to become a professional coach himself.

So he travelled to his family's former country, France, and participated in a study exchange at Paris' national tennis institute, getting his first coaching becoming a professional coach at 26.

He proudly lists the talented tennis stars he has since coached, including Richard Legendre, Réjean Genois, Hélène Pelletier and Nicole Marois.

"My students were like a big family to me," smiles Hérisset, "which is maybe why I married later."

His son Antony, now 18, is an athlete who spreads his talent across many sports, but prefers skiing.

Antony who coached skiing at Whistler, B.C., recently and gets by very well in English, mentions Jacques who grew up in a French-speaking home with a father who dreamed of bilingualism for his children.

"My father had three children, had lived through war and had memories that he did not want for his family so we left France in 1952," says Hérisset. From the age of eight, he attended English schools which is how he later became a St.Pat's alumni.

"Learning English was the right thing to do," says the man who for a few years followed in his father's jeweler footsteps at Les Créations Paul Hérisset on Rue Maguire in Sillery, then tried chemical engineering at Laval University, until he finally decided to focus wholeheartedly on his passion for tennis.

When the Club Montcalm opened in 1974, he jumped aboard with partner Jacques Bordeleau. Since 1980, they have been working at the larger, 12 court Club Avantage. He also has his own École de Tennis Jacques Hérisset.

In 1993, when the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) had a tournament available for claiming and Hérisset was on the Board of Directors for Tennis Canada, he and Richard Legendre succeeded in bringing it to Quebec City.

Today, the 2001 member of the Hall of Fame of Canadian Tennis likes to remind young tennis athletes that tennis requires patience, concentration, being fit and being well supported and surrounded since "a match can last from 50 minutes to three hours, so you have to be patient and in control."

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"Mostly, you need to be passionate, work hard, train seriously and be intelligent. That is, you need to know the game. " It is also a business that involves hiring coaches - technical, physical and psychological coaches - and hopefully later on, getting solid sponsors.

Hérisset, 65, has plans to ease into a 2011 retirement and join his wife in real estate, but he has no plans to stop organizing and supporting the Bell Challenge.

If Hérisset is the vision and passion behind this event, the 350 volunteers are an essential part of its backbone. Some say the show simply could not happen without their constant, solid devotion to the event. Also absolutely essential to the event's success is behind-the-scenes tech expert, Jim Halpin who has been with the organization since it began in 1993.

Halpin is the technical manager and TV consultant for the Bell Challenge, who has also been working for the Rogers tournament in Toronto and Montreal for 19 years. He is the mastermind behind all things technical, ranging from radar guns to sound to audio to video and to TV networks.

A graduate of Laval University's Journalism programme, he went on to a career in broadcasting, hoping to become a freelancer in 1986. His early education began at St.Vincent's Elementary School after which he attended St.Lawrence College for high school and college. "In the 1970s, we did both at St.Lawrence, " he explains. John, his brother, now works at St.Lawrence College as Dean of Faculty. Like Jack Hérisset, Halpin is bilingual.

"My father was Irish, my mother French-Canadian so we-my two brothers, sister and I-grew up in both languages simultaneously."

Halpin's father James was a pharmacist and painter whose family attended St.Patrick's parish.

"I've had a great career," he smiles, "doing something I love - TV and broadcasting - and freelancing has had advantages like choosing my own contracts and work schedule. I've been able to focus on sports coverage including the Quebec Nordiques on the road and at home, the Montreal Expos, the Montreal Canadians and the Ottawa Senators."

Halpin, like Hérisset, and the hard-wrking volunteers and crews again made the tournament a success.

In her victory speech, Melinda Czink thanked "the organizers, the volunteers and the best car drivers ever,'' while complimenting Safarova's talent.

Jack Hérisset's has said that what makes the difference in attracting players to Quebec's tournament, is that "here, we care."

"Each player is treated as special and all are treated equally well," sums up Jack Hérisset.