Tennis surpassing football, cricket popularity in tiny rural towns
Tennis is emerging as the dominant sport and social event in some tiny towns as small communities battle to maintain social networks.
Only 65 people live in Kikoira in the Riverina region of New South Wales, but a tennis night can sometimes attract around 50 people to watch, play and catch up with mates.
In the 1940s, the Kikoira tennis courts were relocated to the recreation grounds where it had to compete for space alongside other sports such as cricket and football.
But today all that remains are the tennis courts and club house.
Kikoira Night Tennis Club secretary Lynette Potter credited the longevity of the club to the social nature of tennis.
Ms Potter said that football, cricket and netball players gravitate to bigger towns in the area like West Wyalong for a more competitive game.
"This is very social — maybe if we took it more seriously we wouldn't have the following, people just like to come," she said.
"You have fun, everybody has a laugh and it's never too serious, I think that's one of its pulling powers.
"We do have a very big grand final night sometime in March, we out on a barbecue.
"Lots of kids come down to watch their parents play or they'll be playing themselves and it's a very good night."
Neighbouring towns get into the swing
Further south of the Riverina in Pleasant Hills, the town of 130 people has an even bigger club with four courts used regularly, even attracting people from nearby larger towns such as Henty.
Club president David Stein said that tennis practice and matches are a highlight of the district's social calendar.
"Tennis is only part of it, some people just love to catch up, have a bit of afternoon tea and a gathering and a social drink afterwards," he said.
"There's not much else going on over weekends in this area so I think it's a really good social gathering and catch up for people from around the district.
"It's a chance to catch up with people you might not have otherwise seen and talk about issues that are affecting everyone in the rural environment."
Rural tennis clubs credit the family appeal of the sport to its success.
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In Pleasant Hills there are around 20 adult players and 40 children.
Schools coordinator with Tennis NSW John Ferguson said that it is a family-orientated sport.
"You've got fathers and mother sitting with their sons and daughters, which is a bit hard to do when you try to play football or netball with your kids," he said.
"We start off at a fairly early age with children in kindergarten and Year 1 and we give them gross motor skills, so they're just learning to catch the ball, throw the ball, maybe even hit the ball.
"It's also a great social meeting place — I keep telling young kids that it's not just a game that you play, it's a game where you might meet your future partner."
Community support crucial
John Ferguson said there has been something of a revival of the sport in small communities but is urging communities to keep it up.
"Once you leave that facility it means the actual community loses one of its biggest resources," he said.
"And it's also a meeting place for the community, so it's important that we hang on to these and that we don't lose them."
Both the Kikoira and Pleasant Hills tennis clubs rely on volunteers to stay afloat.
"It's good that people put their hands up to be captains and things like that just to keep it going," Lynette Potter said.
"If it didn't run we wouldn't be able to just come down and have a chat with people that we don't necessarily see all the time and it's just a great meeting place."
David Stein said the Pleasant Hill club has had some grant assistance for equipment and courts but that it would all fall apart without community support.
"At the moment club volunteers help out with the Hot Shots programs, it's basically volunteer run but we've had great support from Tennis NSW and their Hot Shots program to get some of the equipment and resources to help run that as well," he said.
"The club really pushed to get [court upgrades] a few years ago and fundraised quite heavily with the great support of the local community to get that up and running along with some grant assistance from the government."