Canadians lose out on vital prize money, exposure without Rogers Cup

A rain storm forms in the background during the Rogers Cup in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

With most ATP and Challenger events wiped from the calendar due to COVID-19, and his sole source of income having disappeared with the appearance of countless press releases, Filip Peliwo knows he may have to consider Plan B to pay the bills.

In his case, that’s coaching.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said the 339th-ranked Canadian, who has been nursing some nagging injuries at home in Vancouver.

“If that’s what I’m gonna have to do to support myself a little bit here — I’ll do it.”

For Canadians such as Peliwo, one of the press releases that stung the most arrived on June 17. The email’s headline cut straight to the point: “Tennis Canada announces the postponement of the Rogers Cup.”

Slated to start Monday, with the qualifying round this past weekend, its absence till 2021 (the women’s side of the tournament was postponed in April) means they’ll miss out on not only the chance to play in front of adoring fans in their home country, but potentially a big paycheque — for some, their biggest of the year — amid a pandemic that has sapped their income, and a chance to gain vital exposure at a Masters event.

The Rogers Cup prioritizes the assignment of wildcards into the main draw and qualifying rounds to Canadians whose rankings aren’t high enough to get them entry on their own. Last year, players earned US$20,755 and $3,970, before taxes and expenses, for a spot in the first round and qualifiers, respectively.

And for those among the lower ranks of the ATP and WTA Tours, every paycheque counts. These are athletes who often struggle to afford the costly realities of wage disparities between the top and bottom spheres of tennis, and player compensation overall, which have been simmering beneath the surface.

“It’s terrible, honestly, especially for guys around my ranking — even Braden (Schnur, No. 177) since he’s not able to really get into the main draw … everyone pretty much could use that,” Peliwo said of the loss of potential Rogers Cup wildcards.

Canada’s Filip Peliwo serves to Denis Istomin from Uzbekistsan during second round of play at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament Wednesday August 7, 2013 in Montreal. Istomin won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

It’s the second consecutive year that Peliwo will miss out.

The two-time junior Grand Slam winner lost a main-draw wildcard into the 2019 tournament in Montreal after tearing his hamstring, and fell in straight sets to John Millman in the qualifiers after returning to action only a few short days before.

“That was a loss of about $20,000 that I would have had — and that’s by far the biggest prize money that I would have had that year. To not have it again this year — it’s tough,” Peliwo reflected.

“Especially since it’s the only big event we have at home, it’s not like the U.S. where you have multiple (ATP) 250s and 1000s and a Grand Slam. It’s your one tournament that you can really go and make a big jump somewhere, you know?” he added, noting his own rankings surged from 400 to 280 after getting a wildcard in 2013 and advancing to the second round.

It’s a sentiment shared by Ottawa native and two-time, mixed-doubles Grand Slam champion Gabriela Dabrowski.

The No. 7 doubles player in the world, who’s been granted multiple wildcards into the event, said it’s a “shame” those spots won’t be up for grabs this year.

“That’s the beauty of having these big tournaments in our home country, is that is one way to help support our national players, because … the Rogers Cup does pay well for the men and the women, even qualies (are) not bad, so it helps you keep surviving for sure,” said Dabrowski.

“But, yeah, it’s definitely sad that we don’t have the tournament this year. It’s a favourite stop not just for the Canadians, but for lots of top players as well — they love coming to Canada and playing the Rogers Cup in Toronto and in Montreal.”

Beyond the earnings, the absence of the Rogers Cup’s platform is also a big loss for the country’s homegrown talent.

The most obvious and recent example of its potential is Bianca Andreescu’s 2019 victory, the first by a Canadian at the tournament in years, which signalled her return to form amid a breakout year and hinted at the even greater accomplishment she would achieve at the U.S. Open less than a month later.

Bianca Andreescu lifts the Rogers Cup and a Canadian flag after defeating Serena Williams in the finals. (Nathan Denette/CP)

It’s the best-case scenario, but, at minimum, the Rogers Cup and wildcard spots give Canadians a chance to grab a bit of the spotlight.

“I know a lot of Canadian players, probably every single one, was looking forward to potentially playing, whether they’re in on their own or maybe looking forward to a wildcard of some sort, so I think it’s definitely disappointing, but that’s just how it’s going right now with the COVID situation,” said world No. 192 Peter Polansky, 32, who will have to wait until next year for his eighth appearance at his hometown event in Toronto.

“And when it comes to that tournament, I don’t think many players look at it as like a paycheque so to speak — just because it’s a Masters and good prize money, obviously — but I think a lot of them just really look for the opportunity to play at home in such a big event.”

Polansky, who has won six first-round matches at the Rogers Cup after numerous wildcards, said Canadians often get amped up to play in front of larger and more supportive crowds than what they’re used to, on what are sometimes televised matches, which produces better results that can catapult them onto the pro tennis scene.

“This is a great time to — whether it’s for showing the federation or a sponsor — (show) that you can play well,” Polansky said.

“Look at (Denis) Shapovalov a few years ago when he played (Rafael) Nadal and he had a little bit of a breakout run (to the semis as a wildcard) there and that really kickstarted his career. He shot up from 150 to 100 and never looked back. It basically showcased his potential and what he could do, and he kept going with it.”

Though the ship has sailed on this year’s tournament, both Dabrowski and Peliwo were hopeful that as some semblance of pre-COVID-19 normalcy begins to return to Canada, prize-money exhibitions — which have recently been done safely in Europe — could be a way for players to make up for lost earnings and opportunities.

“It generates matches for players, it generates some live tennis for people on TV, at the very least, and generates some income for the players, which is great,” Peliwo said.

And with the void left by the Rogers Cup, that’s an idea Canadian tennis players and fans alike could rally behind.

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