Tracy Austin must have known what she was talking about before Denis Shapovalov took the court.
When asked Thursday about the state of Canadian tennis, the former world No. 1 and Sportsnet commentator at the Rogers Cup spoke glowingly, proclaiming, “Canada has never been better, never been stronger.”
And then Shapovalov, an 18-year-old former Wimbledon boys’ champion from Richmond Hill, Ont., shocked the tennis world by beating one of the all-time greats in Rafael Nadal.
“Denis was a phenomenal junior, but that doesn’t always mean that it’s gonna translate into the pros,” Austin said. “Obviously, it has in a very quick manner.
“It takes about 10 years to see the effects of building the Tennis Canada (centre) in Toronto and the sites there in Montreal. I think you’re seeing the progress, the fruits of the labour. It takes all those years, with coaches, with fellow players all going in the same direction. That’s what it takes. Canada is starting to see that.”
Austin is being recognized for her contributions to Canadian tennis on Friday with her induction into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame, a ceremony you can watch live on Sportsnet.
In addition to working in the broadcast booth at the event since 2004, Austin was the women’s champion in Toronto in 1981.
She would go on to win her second U.S. Open later that year, the first coming in 1979 when she became the event’s youngest champion at 16 years, eight months and 28 days. Injuries wound up taking their toll, but she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame when she was just 29.
Austin, now 54, remains one of tennis’s top authorities. She took some time out of her broadcasting schedule to discuss her induction, the tournament and the state of the women’s game.
SPORTSNET: Where does this hall of fame induction rank on your list of accolades?
TRACY AUSTIN: I don’t feel any need to rank it. It’s an honour. I know about the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame because I’ve been covering the Rogers Cup for the past 13 years. I’ve seen Justine Henin come in. I’ve seen Chris Evert come in and numerous others come in and accept their award. I’m aware of it and any time you’re recognized and acknowledged for the work that you’ve done it’s an honour.
SN: Although the Rogers Cup isn’t a major, what do you think of where it fits in the calendar for tennis players and what it means to them?
TA: It’s a very important time of the year. That’s why both the men and the women get such a strong field every year. The players have been playing in Europe for about three months, first on the clay for eight or nine weeks and then they go on grass for what is now a five-week, grass-court season. After that, most players need to take a break. They’ll take a vacation. They’ll take some time off. The Rogers Cup, for some, is the first big tournament back on hard courts as they get ready to gear up for the last major. Most times you get such strong fields because of where it fits in in the schedule.
The players really need that time after Wimbledon to get recharged and to refresh. Now it’s the last push towards the fourth major.
SN: Most people today know you as someone who has commentated on this tournament for years. But there’s also your win back in 1981 when you beat Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in your last two matches. What stands out now about that tournament win?
TA: That was a very important tournament for me. I beat Pam Shriver in the quarters, Martina in the semis, and Chris Evert in the final. Back-to-back wins like that gave me a lot of confidence I needed going into the U.S. Open that year. I had been out for about four or five months at the beginning of the year with a back injury. I came back in May. I think this was my fifth or sixth tournament back. I didn’t have a lot of matches under my belt. So, the fact that I was able to get through the whole tournament and hold the trophy up at the end of the week and beating players back-to-back like Pam, Martina and Chris and in two weeks start the U.S. Open, I felt a lot of belief. I felt back to playing strong, solid tennis. It was a very important step for me.
SN: Speaking of confidence, what did you make of Genie Bouchard’s comments the other night given she appears to be lacking some right now?
TA: I didn’t (hear them). So, I can’t comment on her comments. But it’s hard because when you have your confidence, you feel like you’re never going to lose it. When you lose your confidence, you feel like, gosh, am I ever going to find it again? That’s the tough thing about sports. Even when you win a title on Sunday, Monday you have to start anew at another tournament. It doesn’t matter what you did last week, last year or last decade. You have to keep putting it on the line. The only way to get out of a slump is to continue to work hard on and off the court, meaning in the gym as well. Keep trying to give yourself the opportunity and put yourself in the position for something to click and get a big win – although she had a couple in Madrid. All of the sudden, those same shots she’s missing by a foot land in by a foot and she starts to get on a roll.
SN: Bouchard made a remark that in order to get her confidence back she just needed to “win matches.” How is a tennis player of her calibre able to break out of a funk when there’s constant pressure to win matches, improve in the rankings and, ultimately, make money?
TA: You’ve got to put in the hard time and hope the opportunities will come. You keep playing tournaments, and putting time in on the practice court. For me, that year in ’81, I didn’t have a lot of matches.
SN: What do you think of the state of the women’s tour without Serena Williams?
TA: It’s interesting. No player has stepped up and been completely consistent. You can’t really pick a clear favourite going into most of the tournaments. You can look at it on the converse side that that makes it more interesting. The French Open, Wimbledon, we had 10 or 12 players that we were thinking they have a possibility of taking this title. Not many thought of Jelena Ostapenko. She’d never won any title at all of any kind on the WTA Tour. It certainly is wide open with Serena out. For a while there, you had Serena, Maria (Sharapova) and Victoria Azarenka all out – almost all the Grand Slam winners. The players at the time and even now have to look at it as a real opportunity before Serena gets back. She said she wants to come back in January.
The other thing that’s interesting is you have young players that are starting to make a breakthrough (like) CiCi Bellis. And then you have players that have been around for a while like the Caroline Wozniackis, (Agnieszka) Radwanskas. Karolina Pliskova, who just three years ago was a qualifier here at the Rogers Cup at age 22. Now she’s No. 1 in the world. Then you have Venus (Williams), who’s 37 and still going strong and in the top 10. You really have all ages, different countries, you have different personalities. It’s a great mix. But there is a lot of opportunity. It’s wide open.
SN: The success you had came early in your career. Can you imagine having the types results the Williams sisters have had into their mid-30s, when you were playing?
TA: It’s absolutely phenomenal. Not only to have had, and continue to have success on the court, but to have the motivation for that many years. It’s 22-23 years now for Venus to be out there. Venus and Serena took some extended breaks, whether for one reason or another – injury or a few other reasons. So, I think that actually helped extend their career. It gave them some breaks to be away from the game, get fresh, get some perspective. They really love it and they’re passionate about it. We’re fortunate.
SN: You mentioned a bunch of players earlier. Who is the favourite going into the U.S. Open?
TA: Going into the French, going into Wimbledon, you could pick 10 names. There wasn’t a clear favourite. The Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, after those two tournaments are over, we’ll get possibly – not necessarily, but possibly – an indication of who’s playing well.