Canadian tennis scene blossoming with bright future ahead

Sofia Kenin of the U.S. shouts as she wins a point in her Mexican Tennis Open semifinal match against Canada's Bianca Andreescu, in Acapulco, Mexico, Friday, March 1, 2019. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

TORONTO — Nicu and Maria Andreescu were sitting in a meeting room at Tennis Canada headquarters in Toronto recently when a wave of tennis folks came in to give them their best.

Tennis Canada CEO and president Michael Downey sat down to chat for over an hour. Staffers from the nearby training centre popped in to catch up and exchange hugs and pleasantries.

Nicu and Maria’s daughter, Bianca, trained at the facility during her formative years in the sport. Finally home after a breakout month to open the WTA Tour season, the Canadian teen was in the next room handling a long list of media interviews.

A success story for family and federation, Andreescu’s arrival has deepened a solid domestic singles talent base that includes Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Eugenie Bouchard, Felix Auger-Aliassime and others.

"We can never take credit for all this. We are a facilitator," Downey said. "At the end of the day, there are many parents, many external coaches and the players themselves that go on court and actually win these matches.

"Tennis Canada’s role is to be a facilitator to try to help this young talent exceed their own expectations."

There are several reasons why Canada has developed into a stronger tennis nation. The emergence of Raonic and Bouchard — highlighted by deep Grand Slam runs in the mid-2010s — provided a big boost of inspiration and interest at all levels.

Tennis is an appealing option to many parents across a country where hockey and soccer are king. Racket sports aren’t saddled with concussion worries and equipment costs can be reasonable.

The creation of Tennis Canada’s national training centre in Montreal in 2007 and the addition of regional training hubs were also significant stimulants.

"I think the coaches and the physios, the trainers, the psychologists, everyone is very knowledgeable," Andreescu said. "And I think the key is that we stay — I don’t know how to say this — we’re kind of like one big happy family."

‘Kids tennis,’ where children use modified rackets, balls, nets and courts, is becoming more prominent across the country. It allows youngsters to work their way up to playing with regular equipment on regulation courts.

The popularity of tennis around the world has also helped make the sport an appealing option for first-generation Canadians.

"That’s been a factor as well," said Hatem McDadi, Tennis Canada’s senior vice-president of tennis development. "A lot of new Canadians have a culture of tennis coming in from Europe and Asia and South America."

Many of Canada’s top players have international family roots. Andreescu spent part of her childhood in Romania before moving to Mississauga, Ont.

Shapovalov was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Richmond Hill, Ont. Montreal native Auger-Aliassime’s father is from Togo while Raonic, who grew up in Thornhill, Ont., was born in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Raonic, 28, was a Wimbledon finalist in 2016 and leads all Canadians at No. 14 in the world rankings.

He was one of the first players to join Tennis Canada’s national training centre. Andreescu currently trains out of the Montreal venue with coach Sylvain Bruneau.

"We don’t have a really big group," Andreescu said in a recent interview. "So I think that since they are focusing individually on each player because we don’t have as (many), it’s not as hard. I think that’s what is contributing a lot to the success."

Andreescu rose 11 spots to a career-high No. 60 on this week’s WTA Tour rankings list. She was a distant No. 152 at the start of the season.

Bouchard, 25, cracked the top five in 2014 and made it to two straight Grand Slam semifinals that year before reaching the Wimbledon final. She has struggled in recent seasons but has shown flashes of previous form and is No. 73 overall.

It’s Canada’s under-20 depth that is the envy of the tennis world and has fans excited about the prospect of finally getting over the Grand Slam hump.

The 19-year-old Shapovalov is ranked 25th overall and is No. 1 among teenagers on the ATP Tour.

Like Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime is just 18 and is already up to a career-high No. 58. Auger-Aliassime is also No. 1 among men’s players aged 18 or under.

"The thing that is most compelling about (the recent success) is the inspiration it creates," Downey said. "Because fundamentally Tennis Canada doesn’t invest in high performance for high performance sake. It invests in high performance so these young kids can exceed their expectations, excel on the global scene and inspire the nation back in Canada so more kids and more adults pick up a racket.

"And that’s what’s happening because our sport continues to see double-digit growth in grassroots."

Not everyone chooses the Tennis Canada path. Sometimes players do their own thing or start out with the federation before moving on.

Leylah Fernandez, a 16-year-old Montreal native, is 10th on the ITF junior girls’ rankings list and is No. 404 in the world. The 2019 Australian Open junior girls finalist decided not to integrate into the federation’s high-performance structure and is instead based in Boynton Beach, Fla., where her father serves as her coach.

There are pros and cons to such a move. Fernandez said the main reason for her decision was she wanted to be close to family.

She has a deeper pool of training partners and opponents in Florida, but only receives a fraction of financial assistance from Tennis Canada. As a result, overseas travel is limited.

"It depends if I’m able to get into the tournament and if the budget is there," Fernandez said on a recent conference call. "If it’s not there, then we’ll still be training very hard and wait for the next couple of tournaments that I can get into (outside North America) with the budget that we have."

Shapovalov used a similar model by staying near home and training with his mother, who serves as his coach.

Raonic and Bouchard spent time in Montreal before moving elsewhere to work with different coaches. Auger-Aliassime moved from Quebec City to Montreal to work out of the training centre.

"There’s parallel pathways," McDadi said. "Not always do they come through the province or the clubs or the national program. There’s support all the way through. There’s different ways of doing it."

Athletes are subsidized if they’re selected for the national training centre. If a player chooses to do their own thing, they can still receive some financial support to offset costs if they meet certain performance standards.

In addition to the five Canadians currently in the top 100, several players are hovering just outside.

Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., is up to a career-high No. 106. Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil, who’s recovering from back surgery, has slipped to No. 114 while fellow veteran Peter Polansky of Thornhill, Ont., is at No. 127.

Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski has emerged as a doubles threat with two career Grand Slam mixed crowns and eight women’s doubles titles. She’s ranked 15th in the world.

The national teams are coming off key victories as well. The men have qualified for the Davis Cup Finals while the women reached the Fed Cup World Group playoffs.

"It’s a really exciting time to be a part of Canadian tennis," McDadi said. "From many of the people I speak to and what we’re seeing, it’s the golden age of Canadian tennis. We’ve never as a nation, tennis in Canada, had so much high-performance success."

Andreescu received a wild-card entry for the BNP Paribas Open, which runs through March 17 at Indian Wells, Calif. She’ll take on 70th-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania in the first round while Bouchard will open against 56th-ranked Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.

The men’s draw was set for Tuesday night. Raonic, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime — who’s a wild-card entry — will play in the main draw.

Polansky, the No. 22 seed in the qualifying draw, will take on Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko in his opening match.

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