Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, Gavin Dennett reflects on Hawker Tennis Centre’s former life as a thriving community hub.
Throughout history, humans have had a fascination with abandoned places that once thrived. From prehistoric cave dwellings and ancient ruins to modern structures that time has left behind, each site teaches us something about the past and reinforces the finite nature of our mortal coil.
They remind us that nothing lasts forever.
Historic sites have driven human curiosity for centuries, but modern abandoned buildings in municipal surrounds are sources of unique intrigue. The internet is full of websites, blogs and YouTube videos of urban explorers sneaking into disused homes, schools, hospitals, shopping malls and theme parks that are still standing but have been left by society to decay.
I recall walking through the Barcelona Olympics precinct that was previously bustling when Spain hosted the Games in 1992. By 2007, much of it was in a state of disrepair with nature partially reclaiming the land and the site looking tired and old. However, at least it is still in use and the Olympic Stadium itself, while underutilised, is reasonably well maintained.
Not all sports arenas are so lucky. Several abandoned facilities from the Athens Olympics in 2004 are disintegrating, while the bobsled and luge track in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina – built for the 1984 Winter Olympics – is decrepit, a byproduct of neglect and war.
In the US, Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome – once the host of the NFL Super Bowl – and Houston’s Astrodome are two iconic stadiums that have been forsaken and left to degrade.
Here in Canberra, the former Hawker Tennis Centre may not have been the scene of Olympic glory, but its closure in 2010 and subsequent abandonment is no less melancholic for the thousands of Belconnen kids who picked up a racquet and learnt to play the game there during its more than three decades of operation.
Opened in 1977 by Bruce and Stephanie Larkham, Hawker Tennis Centre was a buzz of activity on weekends, after school and during the holidays. Growing up in neighbouring Weetangera, most of my mates attended there for tennis lessons, holiday clinics and junior tournaments at one time or another. At its peak, the centre was coaching 300-400 students per week.
I have three enduring memories from my early years at Weetangera Primary School: Fanta, Coca-Cola and Leed lemonade yo-yos from the craze of ’83; dibs and galaxies from the marble craze of ’84; and tennis balls emblazoned with the Larkhams’ ‘L’ wedged into the spokes of BMX bikes.
Those locally famous balls were more than just nicked items from over the tennis centre’s fence. They represented a happy place where kids were free to enjoy being outdoors with friends and learning how to play a popular Aussie sport without an Xbox in sight.
Other memories of Hawker Tennis Centre were the predominant brands of the time – Yonex, ProKennex and Emrik – and fading posters of Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova mounted inside the clubhouse.
There were also the mixed lollies. No tennis lesson was complete without exiting via the shop to pick up a 20-cent bag of musk sticks, Milkos, teeth and spearmint leaves before riding home, racquet poking out the top of a backpack.
Of course, we all grew up, went to high school and eventually left the tennis centre behind. I did play some tournaments there in my teenage years, but personal enduring memories of the place are from primary school days.
The Larkhams continued to run it until leaving Canberra for Narooma, on the NSW South Coast, in 1999, but leased it for a number of years after that. The couple’s son, Todd, who went on to forge a career as a professional tennis player, returned home to run the centre in 2004, but it eventually closed in 2010 when the site was sold to developers.
With its closure came the end of a local sporting institution, and a slow decline into neglect and decay. In the decade since the centre was abandoned, plans have been floated for a childcare centre and the construction of townhouses – with no shortage of local opposition – but so far the first sod of soil is yet to be turned.
The Larkhams’ former home and the clubhouse are also now gone after a fire engulfed the buildings in 2018.
Wandering through Hawker Tennis Centre’s dilapidated, crumbling and eerily silent grounds, there’s an overarching sense of sadness that this once thriving community hub is being ravaged by the elements and destructive local vandals.
Now in the hands of developers, the site will one day – for better or worse – take on a new lease of life, and evidence of its rack and ruin will disappear. But there’ll always be the memories of the centre’s halcyon days, and recollections of a fantastic time to grow up in Canberra.