Serving tennis and the SA community

Debbie Sterrey

Photo by: Dean Martin Photography.

Appointed CEO of Tennis SA in late 2019, it has been an eventful 15 months in the role for alumna Debbie Sterrey. During that time, Tennis SA hosted its first Adelaide International in January 2020 along with the Davis Cup in March, the bushfires hit and then COVID. 

More recently, Tennis SA held the first major international tennis event for 2021, A Day at the Drive. Held at Adelaide’s refreshed Memorial Drive, the event gave South Australians the opportunity to see in person the world’s best play on centre court, with millions of fans across the world watching on streaming services. 

“It went worldwide within half an hour – I was getting snippets from the Spanish News saying ‘Australia leading the way in Adelaide’. It was really the first sporting event for the year of that calibre,” said Debbie.

“We worked very closely with SAPOL [South Australia Police] and SA Health on our COVID management plan to make sure everything was absolutely in place to ensure everyone remained safe. The quarantining of players was next level again. 

“What I’ve learned overall is that bringing organisations together working towards an end goal, it can be achieved.”

Debbie has always loved tennis. She started playing at the age of six and was coached by Ray Woodforde, the father of Australian doubles tennis legend Mark Woodforde, at the Park Holme tennis club. 

 “I loved watching tennis, especially watching mum and dad play. I played at Park Holme and it was such a community club,” said Debbie.

 “I looked up to key players growing up – Yvonne Goolagong and Sue Barker come to mind, and a lot of other famous tennis players as well. 

“I had aspirations to be that good one day but didn’t get there. I loved the sport and made some great friends and enjoyed travelling around Australia playing the game I love.”

Although Debbie always thought she would become a physio or physical education (PE) teacher, after high school she was accepted as a junior at ANZ bank and ended up staying there for 15 years, working her way through the ranks to branch manager and then into financial planning.

“I enjoyed the challenge and the challenge back then was that there weren’t very many female branch managers or financial planners. So as a female getting to that level it took a lot of hard work,” said Debbie.

It was after completing an MBA with the University of Adelaide, and following executive roles at ING, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, and Statewide Super, that Debbie was approached by Tennis SA about joining the Board. There were two positions available at the time, one was a female only position and the other Board elected. 

“I was looking at the Board elected position because I wanted to get it on my merits not because I’m female,” she said.

“That’s not a negative comment. I think it’s great that everyone is focussed on females in leadership positions and boards, but I’ve always been one who wants to get the position not because of who I am but for what I can do.”

Fast-forward 17months and when the previous CEO resigned, Debbie put her “hat in the ring” for the role and was successful. 

With the success of A Day at the Drive in January and the second Adelaide International, South Australia is in a great position to attract future high profile events, tennis and a wider variety of community, sporting and entertainment events. This has been boosted by the announcement of a further $44 million in State Government funding for the second stage of the Memorial Drive Centre Court redevelopment, with stage one completed in 2019. 

Debbie says while hosting big events at ‘the Drive’ is great for all South Australians and the economy, Tennis SA’s main priority remains grass roots tennis, growing participation in the sport in South Australia.

“We’re all about supporting the clubs as much as we can. We have a campaign we are calling Thriving Communities, which is about working side-by-side with the clubs wherever they need help – be that in increasing numbers, assistance in regards to upgrades at the club, or bringing new tennis events to the club such as cardio tennis or open court sessions.

“This year we want to – especially in the regions – make sure that the clubs are sustainable and survive and hopefully grow their numbers playing in the coming years.”

In addition to supporting clubs, Tennis SA is also supporting the wider community. Tennis SA supports the Australian Tennis Foundation which gives disadvantaged children opportunities to play tennis where they may not get the chance otherwise. With the Australian Tennis Foundation, they also raised valuable funds for bushfire affected areas. Last year they replenished the Stokes Bay community club on Kangaroo Island with new tennis courts, a new clubhouse and nets, after they were completely wiped-out by the bushfires. 

“We are all about community as well. People sometimes just see us as sport, they see the big events and they think that’s what we do. But we are also very much about providing funding to help communities where we can,” Debbie said.

Story by Kelly Brown.

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