Making a Big Racket

new Menard Tennis Center will help sport grow, Eau Claire YMCA says

Tom Giffey, photos by Branden Nall

TENNIS, ANYONE? The new John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center features eight indoor courts, state-of-the-art technology, and a viewing mezzanine. The facility's ribbon cutting was April 4.
TENNIS, ANYONE? The new John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center features eight indoor courts, state-of-the-art technology, and a viewing mezzanine. The facility's ribbon cutting was April 4.

A rainy Thanksgiving Day a few years ago at the old Eau Claire YMCA tennis center was a catalyst for a multimillion-dollar donation for a new facility that opened April 4. 

“This (new center) allows us the opportunity to grow youth and adult programming.” – Matt Boughton, director, John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center

Tennis center Director Matt Boughton recalls a crowded cardio tennis session on Thanksgiving morning that was made even more packed because a leaking roof had forced the closure of one of the center’s five indoor courts. One of that morning’s patrons, a local businessman, approached Boughton. “He looked at me and said, ‘You need a new facility,’ ” Boughton remembers. Fortunately, the man – John Menard – said he knew someone who could help. 

If Menard isn’t familiar to you, he should be: He’s the founder of the Eau Claire-based home improvement store chain that bears his name, a business that has made him Wisconsin’s wealthiest man. And while he’s well known for his love of auto racing, Menard is also a tennis player. After talking to the Eau Claire YMCA about its needs, Menard and his wife, Fay, agreed to make a gift of $10 million to build a new tennis center.

John & Fay Menard, April 4
John & Fay Menard, April 4

“You’re talking about a donation of not only the funds to do this, but also somebody who knows what a well-constructed building looks like,” said Theresa Hillis, executive director of the Eau Claire YMCA. Hillis lauded the Menards for joining a nearly 140-year history of generous donors to the community institution.

The new eight-court, 50,000-square-foot center is at 1260 Menomonie St., just across the street from the planned future site of a new Eau Claire YMCA. A dedication and ribbon cutting are planned for April 4 at 11am. 

Boughton, who has been director of the tennis center for a decade, is rightly proud of the new building, which he says will be the finest public facility of its kind in the Midwest. The eight well-lit, blue-surfaced courts are within easy view of a second-level mezzanine for spectators. Cameras will offer live video streams of the action for spectators in the building as well as online. 

The tennis program has seen rising participation over the past 10 years, especially among youth, but that led to a space crunch at the old building, 229 Moore St., which opened in 1972. (The YMCA’s junior team has 140 members between the ages of 10 and 18.) Currently, there are no opportunities for adults to play there after school hours. “This (new center) allows us the opportunity to grow youth and adult programming,” Boughton said. 

In addition, it will be an improved venue for junior, high school, and college tournaments. In the past, the limited number of courts meant that tournament play sometimes continued until midnight or 1am, Boughton said.

And, thanks to Menard’s foresight, the facility was built to be both functional and affordable. In other words, the YMCA will be able to maintain its low membership rates, allowing even families with modest means to take part in its programs – including tennis. “What makes tennis strong in this town is it’s at a Y,” rather than a private club, Boughton added.

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