Nicolela at Dalhousie Tennis Courts (by Shirreff Hall). ASHLEY STRINGER
Nicolela at Dalhousie Tennis Courts (by Shirreff Hall). ASHLEY STRINGER

A tennis champion’s guide to playing in Halifax

Tennis star Anna Nicolela says any court can be a good court: “I play wherever is open.”

If Anna Nicolela's life were made into a sports movie, it's easy to imagine where the training montage would be—the scene where, over intense music, the protagonist works tirelessly to defy all expectations. It would start when she's around 13, after losing strings of tennis matches at Canadian national championships. These losses followed countless local wins: Nicolela had excelled in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada, establishing herself as a young player to watch.

“I would go out to the bigger tournaments, the national ones, and I just got walked over,” she recalls. “The other girls were a lot better than me because they had girls to play with all the time, and I didn't really have that here.”

Nicolela, who grew up in Halifax, started playing in national tournaments at around the age of 10, but it was in her teenage years when she finally reached a tipping point. The problem was simple: With so few other girls playing the sport competitively in the area, the pool of people to practice against was too small to improve. Frustrated, she took her progress into her own hands, practicing against the boys at her club—HEADstart Tennis—and training herself at the gym. In short, she did everything she could to ensure her sweeping losses wouldn’t be repeated.

“The expectation was to lose,” she says. “Even the coaches that were taking the team to nationals wouldn't be surprised when [we] would get blown off the court. I didn’t like that feeling.”

Her efforts—combined with out-of-province training, like a tennis camp in Montreal and a year spent at a New York boarding school—would pay off. In addition to performing better in Canadian championships, with two top-20 finishes at nationals, she excelled in the Maritimes, earning multiple Atlantic titles (she thinks the exact number is 13, though she’s not quite sure) and winning the Nova Scotia Open in both 2018 and 2019.

Nicolela’s success was a long time coming. She started playing tennis not long after she started walking, her first memories of holding a racket taking place at the age of three or four. In the beginning, it wasn't something she took seriously—at least, not any more seriously than the host of other sports she spent her childhood involved in, ranging from ringette to swimming and gymnastics. She was just one of those kids who loved being active, picking up anything her parents let her. She jokes that her dad (who’s from Brazil, where soccer is immensely popular), hoped that’s the sport she would stick with.

“I was just really horrible at soccer. I just had no talent for it at all,” she laughs. “I guess I had a knack for tennis.”

Now an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, where she just finished her second year studying life sciences, the 20-year-old’s life revolves less around tennis than it does academics. She’s spending her summer back home in Halifax, where she’s working as a summer research student in Dalhousie’s immunology department. Though she’s happy to be working in her field, she misses having the time to coach, which she’s done on-and-off for the past few years.

“Growing up without a bunch of girls to play with wasn’t super easy for me, so I love to coach girls and get them involved in the sport as well,” she says.

Nicolela has no plans of ever playing professionally, but she does plan to keep playing competitively, especially at a university level: when she returns to school in the fall, it’ll be as the captain of Queen’s tennis team. Though she's too busy to play as much as she'd like this summer, she still makes an effort to hit the courts in Halifax at least twice a week. She’s not alone in that—given that outdoor tennis is a safe and distanced sport, it seems more and more people across the city are seeking out public courts.

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