Bianca Andreescu delivered a Canadian sporting performance for the ages last summer. The Canadian Davis Cup team nearly provided another last weekend.
A remarkable 2019 season will be remembered as the year when everything changed on the Canadian tennis scene. Andreescu provided the showcase moment with her U.S. Open triumph in a remarkable campaign packed with memorable highlights from a number of players.
"The goal has always been to keep moving in the right direction," said retired tennis great Daniel Nestor. "I think it’s hard to move more in the right direction than we did this year."
There was also Felix Auger-Aliassime’s rapid ascension into the top 25 and Denis Shapovalov’s first ATP Tour title last month in Stockholm. Doubles star Gabriela Dabrowski reached the WTA Finals and a resurgent Vasek Pospisil helped anchor a Davis Cup side that reached new heights even without injured mainstay Milos Raonic.
Eugenie Bouchard and Raonic helped put Canadian tennis on the map earlier in the decade. A youthful core — Andreescu and Auger-Aliassime are only 19 and Shapovalov is just 20 — bodes well for the future.
"I think it’s gloves off," said Tennis Canada president and CEO Michael Downey. "How high these kids go, I don’t know. But we have not seen the best of them."
Sportsnet broadcaster and former national team coach Robert Bettauer is also bullish on their potential.
"It is not unrealistic to expect that Canada will win more singles Grand Slam titles, can win the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup for that matter in due course, and will have a Canadian singles player ranked No. 1 in the world," he said in a recent interview. "That is our new future. That’s what we can realistically look forward to."
Andreescu was a little-known player at the start of the year when she was ranked No. 152 in the world. Now, ‘Bianca’ is a household name in this country.
She won the BNP Paribas Open last March and took the Rogers Cup title five months later in Toronto. Andreescu reached a different stratosphere in September by beating the legendary Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final.
Andreescu, from Mississauga, Ont., earned over US$6.5 million on the season and is ranked fifth in the world.
Her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, said her performance at the season-opening ASB Classic in Auckland set the tone for the year. Andreescu beat former world No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams before falling to Julia Georges in the final.
"I was like, ‘OK she’s ready now,"’ Bruneau said. "I mean, not eventually, but now. She’s now at the point where she’s able to really come up big and take those big names down and make a name for herself and do something good.
"I knew it was going to happen and I guess Auckland was the moment where I thought, ‘OK maybe we don’t need to wait. Maybe it’s now."’
Andreescu, who finished the season with a 48-7 singles record, became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.
"What Bianca did is one of the greatest moments in Canadian sports history," Nestor said. "It’s truly amazing what’s going on."
Nestor, a former world No. 1 in doubles, had a front-row seat last week as a doubles coach for the Canadian Davis Cup team. Holding the No. 14 ranking spot at the start of the 18-team Finals, Canada was not expected to contend.
Instead they won Group F after upsetting Italy and the United States. Canada beat Australia and Russia in the playoff rounds before finally falling to Rafael Nadal’s Spanish side.
The top-ranked Nadal provided high praise for the finalists afterward.
"They’re going to be one of the teams that’s going to be almost unbeatable in the next couple of years," he said. "They have a very strong team in more ways and on all surfaces."
Pospisil, from Vancouver, missed the first half of the season after undergoing back surgery. A former top-25 singles player, he won two lower-level Challenger events this fall before being thrust into both singles and doubles play in Madrid.
"He was simply magnificent at the Davis Cup," said Bettauer, the CEO of the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence. "He gave Canada virtually every key tie, the first point, over tough, tough players."
Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., closes the season at a career-high No. 15. Auger-Aliassime, from Montreal, is No. 21 and Raonic, from Thornhill, Ont., is No. 31.
Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., who replaced Raonic on the Davis Cup Finals roster, also made big strides this season by rising to No. 107, a jump of 90 ranking positions since early January. Dabrowski, from Ottawa, closed the season at No. 8 in the women’s doubles rankings.
In addition, Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez is proving to be one of the sport’s top prospects. The 17-year-old from Laval, Que., is the Canadian No. 2 and ranked No. 211 in the world.
She reached the final of the junior Australian Open and won the junior French Open before changing her focus to pro events. Fernandez won the singles title at the Gatineau Challenger in July and took the doubles title with Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino.