Canadian Tennis Reaches New Heights
The Big Win
Move over McDavid and Crosby: Canadian kids have a new batch of athletes to look up to, and they aren’t playing hockey.
Even if you’re not a huge tennis fan, you heard about it. In March, 2019, the biggest win in Canadian tennis history: 18-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu won the BNP Paribas Open (AKA Indian Wells) women’s singles tournament.
To prove this was no flash in the pan for Canadian singles players, fellow Canadians Félix Auger-Aliassime (18) and Denis Shapovalov (19) both reached the semi finals the following week at the Miami Open.
Is this current success a surprise to Michael Downey, the two-time CEO of Tennis Canada, or was it expected? “I’m not totally surprised,” he grins.
So how did we get here? Lightning struck, but Tennis Canada created the conductor: Canada’s first National Training Centre (NTC), which opened in Montreal in 2007.
The idea behind the NTC “was to regroup the best tennis players in the country full-time in Montreal and give them [everything] to get them ready for the professional game, under the leadership of world-renowned coach Louis Borfiga, who ran a similar program for the French Tennis Federation.”
Since it’s inauguration in 2007, Borfiga’s expertise is already producing promising results and has placed Canada amongst the world’s top tennis nations. Within the first ten years, NTC players captured four junior Grand Slam singles titles—an accomplishment never before realized in Canadian tennis history.
Canadian players have reached nine Grand Slam finals, seven in juniors and two at the professional level. Two Canadian players, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, have also been ranked in the Top 5 of their respective tours.
Tennis Canada then rolled out additional satellite regional tennis centres in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, with plans to open one in Halifax in 2020.
“We were a bit lucky that Milos (Raonic) was the first cohort of Montreal,” says Downey. “When we opened the NTC, he made the decision not to go to Virginia on a scholarship and instead hooked up with Guillaume Marx, who is now Felix’s coach.”
As tennis fans will remember, “Raonic had a phenomenal breakthrough” in 2011, says Downey, rising from 155th to 37th in the world in the span of about three months. “And what that did was inspire these kids. Felix, Denis, Bianca were all about ten years old watching this.”
Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, writes “Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story—the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.”
Downey believes that Raonic and Bouchard gave Canadian tennis the ignition it needed in 2011, allowing the next cohort of players to dream bigger. “They could relate to them,” says Downey. “Here are Canadian players doing well in singles! When you take that new level of confidence and belief, it means they can dream big. Couple it with a better understanding with what it takes from a training practise, and then put them with really good coaching, it’s a formula for success.”
Downey quotes Coyle, who theorizes the next cohort to break through will happen quicker, and will be broader. “When Louis Borfiga (Tennis Canada’s Vice President of High Performance & Athlete Development) came from the French Tennis Federation, he said Canadians just wanted to be there (at the tournaments). Now they believe they deserve to be there. Now we are one more step forward; thanks to Andreescu, they believe they can win. We have moved the dialogue from how to get into the Top 100, to how to get to top 10,” says Downey.
Downey says he thinks Andreescu, Shapovalov, and Auger-Aliassime are feeding off each other. “I think there is something very special happening between them—there is a pack mentality there, they each want the other to be successful and are gaining confidence in each other’s wins.”
“It’s insane to see what Andr-eescu is doing,” Shapovalov said in a Miami Open press conference. Regarding two Canadians making the semi finals in Miami, he said, “It’s kind of crazy to share this with Félix. I was just thinking in the locker room how far back we go, and from the national groupings when we were eight and nine years old, so it’s so crazy to see how far we have come.”
Has the success in the professional sport influenced participation? In a word: yes. Tennis Canada is reporting double digit growth in grassroots participations. The challenge now is to continue to foster this interest.
The reality is, Canada doesn’t have the covered courts it needs to support year-round interest.
Currently, Canada only has 750 accessible covered courts. That’s one public court for every 50,000 people. Compare this to most European countries, where the number is closer to one in 5,000 to 15,000 people.
Downey says bubbled (covered) courts make sense at a municipal level too. A $20 court fee can help cover the $2 million cost of covering the courts. “The sweet spot is putting the bubble up for eight months of the year, and leave it open and free in the summer. This way we are not taking anything away from citizens in the summer, but taking an otherwise unused asset and making it usable in the rest of the year.”
The Rogers Cup
Interest in the Rogers Cup tournaments is also at an all-time high, including amongst renewing and new sponsors. This is vital to the Tennis Canada ecosystem since Rogers Cup is the engine of Canadian tennis, “generating 85 per cent of the money we plow back into high-performance coach development, safe sport, facility development, and community tennis,” says Downey.
Where Rogers Cup is the engine, inspiration is the gasoline, “Not just to inspire our athletes to win on the global scene, but also to inspire adults and kids to be fans and play. We then take that inspiration, and encourage more cities to invest in economical covered courts so more people can play year-round.”