A REGULAR at the Haven Tennis Club for more than 50 years, Sue Exell has been rewarded for her service with an award from Tennis Victoria.
After being nominated by her club, the junior co-ordinator received the Highly Commended Service Award, which is handed out to just 10 volunteers annually.
Exell has helped ignite a passion for tennis through the junior players for decades at the club after starting off as a player.
Exell said about 50 people from the club, including members of her family, packed out the Haven hall on Monday night as she was presented with the distinguished award.
“When the family started turning up I thought something was going on,” she said. “There were tennis kids there for training and then everyone was there in their Haven shirts and it was really nice.
“I had no idea it was happening and I’m very honoured – I’m just really passionate about tennis and keeping it going. It was Rebecca Bird our secretary who nominated me and she is amazing too and helps me out with the juniors.”
With Exell’s help, the junior program at Haven has flourished, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“I got into it because we had some mums doing the juniors years ago and one of them told me it looked like there wouldn’t be any juniors there at all one year,” she said.
“She needed some help to make a team and I rang some people and then I organised a coach to come. We ended up with 30 kids turning up, because they all just came across from the school. From then on my daughters got involved and I’ve been the junior co-ordinator.
“We have about 90 juniors making up 20 teams playing on a Saturday morning now, so it has grown a lot. We will use all the courts at Haven and then all the courts at St Michael’s.”
Haven Tennis Club’s treasurer Lisa Fulton was taught by Exell. Fulton said the award for Exell was absolutely deserved.
“Back when I was playing juniors, she was very hands on and she was there every week – when you thought about tennis you thought of Sue,” Fulton said.
“She helped develop us juniors through the ranks and she knew everyone by their names.
“She would always feed the balls from the other end of the court and you’d try not to hit her, but she was sometimes in some dangerous spots and might have copped a stray tennis ball along the way.”
Exell also spent plenty of years playing tennis, and was part of Haven’s first Central Wimmera Tennis Association pennant premiership.
“I started playing during primary school and I never stopped until a couple of years ago when I had a knee replacement,” she said.
“My family has been involved over the years and I’ve always been here. I grew up across the road and had to walk through the tennis courts to get to school at Haven.
“I came up through the juniors and then the seniors always encouraged us to play seniors. I started in the lower grades and I ended up in the pennant. I’ve made so many friends playing tennis and I was part of winning some pennant titles in Haven and to win that very first one was so exciting.
“We had one the A Grade title undefeated and then we struggled for a couple of years up in pennant but then we started winning.”
Exell played tennis across the Wimmera and also featured in some country week teams.
She still hasn’t ruled out hope of making a return to the court at some point.
“I played a country week down in Melbourne once and also had a go at veterans over in Albury-Wodonga and I was just totally wiped off the court by some fantastic older ladies,” she said.
“I did tournaments around the region and we would go to Nhill and Warracknabeal and also down to Warrnambool.”
As she transferred into coaching, Exell said she has learnt along the way how to guide juniors through the various programs.
“When I started I didn’t really have the coaching skills – we ended up with so many kids that we realised we needed to learn properly how to teach the kids,” she said. “The club got a grant for us to do a coaching course and we trained under a coach in Stawell.
“We did a coaching course in Melbourne too and it gave us those skills on how to break it down and make tennis a bit more fun.”
Exell’s involvement with Haven goes further than the tennis club – she is a pivotal member of the community and runs a playgroup for children at the Haven hall.
“My grandparents helped build the first school here, so my family has been involved here at Haven for a long time,” she said.
She was on hand when on Black Saturday in 2009, fires burnt through Haven, just missing the tennis courts and hall.
“The fire went around the courts and the hall almost burnt down – everything was black,” she said.
“The playground was demolished and I was trying to help out with the fire recovery. Priority one was getting a new playground for the children.
“One of the Black Saturday projects was to start a playgroup to make sure everyone was okay and when the funding for that ran out we have kept it going as a community.
“I was doing that and then still doing stuff for tennis too and it was huge, so I was talking to Tennis Victoria to get some help here at the club.”
With two professional tennis coaches in Horsham now, Exell said it was exciting to see more and more children attending tennis training and enjoying their development.
“It’s fantastic and we have children who want to come and learn,” she said.
“We have Jeremy Quast who is based at Haven and he is excellent with the kids. Normally as a club we would do a two-hour block once a week, but he is here many nights a week.
“I grew up playing on black asphalt courts but we have these beautiful courts here now and they should be used.”