The Next Big Tennis Powerhouse? Canada
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Diverse Canadians winning on the tennis court is yet another reason to celebrate the global and inclusive nature of the sport.
Americans pride themselves on their “melting pot” society, but Canada has its own heterogenous national stew, as seen on tennis courts this year. Indeed, the brightest emerging stars in global tennis are a diverse set of young players from the Great White North. They’ll be under the bright lights of New York City at the U.S. Open later this month.
With names like Milos Raonic, Vasek Pospisil and Eugenie Bouchard, you could be forgiven for thinking these tennis phenoms hailed from somewhere across the ocean. But the three 20-somethings sound pretty much like any other North American millennial, down to the distinctive Canadian pronunciation of “oh.” Collectively, the raven-haired Montenegro native Raonic, the lanky blonde Anglo-Canadian Bouchard and Pospisil, the West Coaster with the toothy grin, are ushering in a golden age in Canadian tennis like this hockey-mad country has never seen.
These three Canadian phenoms have one thing in common, according to Cahill: “maturity.”
“It’s pretty much uncharted territory,” says Casey Curtis, a premier youth coach who worked with the young Raonic, who moved with his family to the Toronto ’burbs when he was 3.
Now 23, Raonic is having a break-out year. When he made it to the Wimbledon semifinal in July, he was the first Canadian male ever to get that far in a Grand Slam tournament. But he was quickly one-upped by his fellow Canucks on the All England Club’s fabled grass courts.
The 20-year-old Bouchard, who grew up in an English-speaking Montreal suburb but also speaks fluent French, became the first Canadian player ever to reach a Grand Slam final. She ended up losing badly to Petra Kvitová in the Wimbledon final, but still won over legions of fans (and marketers) with her play, persona and good looks.
Pospisil, the 24-year-old from Vancouver, won an unlikely Wimbledon men’s doubles championship with American partner Jack Sock in their first tournament paired together. The son of Czech immigrants, Pospisil is also a promising singles player who climbed into the top 50 in the men’s tennis rankings despite a back injury that limited his play early in the year.
A year after Pospisil turned pro in 2009, he began working with the ex-Canadian player Frederic Niemeyer.
As the world’s No. 7, the hard-serving Raonic is the highest-ranked Canadian player in history, though Genie, as she is known, is close behind at No. 8 on the women’s side. Raonic also pasted Pospisil in the finals of Washington, D.C.’s Citi Open in late July, the first all-Canadian final ever in an ATP tournament. It made for a strange sight — the premier tennis venue in the heart of the U.S. capital festooned with Canada’s red-and-white maple leaf flags.
It’s a lot of firsts for Canadian tennis, which has upped its youth development programs, led by the Canadian Tennis Association. It’s also a heady moment for these young players. At times, that’s been overwhelming. Exhibit A: Bouchard’s shocking first-round thumping in her hometown Rogers Cup at the hands of an unheralded American earlier this month. “She looked like a deer in headlights,” says veteran ESPN tennis analyst Darren Cahill.
But despite their varied upbringings and career trajectories, these three Canadian phenoms have one thing in common, according to Cahill: “maturity.”
All three are “incredibly professional for their age,” notes Cahill, a former pro from Australia. They’ve also shown the willingness to get themselves to the big matches and, with a few exceptions, play well, he says.
Perhaps it’s their low-key Canadian roots. None can claim the sort of tennis parents so notorious in the game — the overbearing, drama-inducing mom and pop watching their child’s every swing of the racket.
She is one of the few players who can walk on the court and find a way to win a tennis match when things aren’t going great.
Bouchard’s parents signed both her and her twin sister, Beatrice (named after the British royals, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice), up for tennis lessons at the age of 5, but when Beatrice lost interest a couple years later she “took an early retirement,” the elder twin joked earlier this year. Eugenie pursued the sport with a fierce focus even as a tyke. “Genie wanted to keep hitting tennis balls for hours on end,” Beatrice recalled.
Cahill says that focus has made Bouchard a uniquely resilient tennis player in a sport where one mental error can cascade into a lost set and match.
“She is one of the few players who can walk on the court and find a way to win a tennis match when things aren’t going great,” he says. “When something’s not working, she puts it aside.”
For Raonic, keeping cool’s an acquired skill. “When he was younger, he was quite fiery,” Curtis tells OZY. “What he’s learned to do is channel that passion and that drive and energy into his game and away from the emotional side.”
His parents — both engineers — have certainly done so. “I never gave any opinion or any suggestion,” his father, Dusan, told a Canadian newspaper last week. “I only asked what I could do to help.”
Raonic is being tapped as one of a handful of young players with a shot at toppling the Big Four: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Pospisil’s father was more hands-on. In a lengthy biographical essay on his website, the younger Pospisil says his father was an “all-around athlete” in the Czech Republic but started developing “a slight obsession” with tennis after moving to Canada. “He began buying all sorts of tennis magazines and books, started recording tennis matches, and studied the game with great detail and precision,” Pospisil writes. “He started his coaching career with my two older brothers.”
But Pospisil’s father recognized his limitations. A year after Pospisil turned pro in 2009, he began working with the ex-Canadian player Frederic Niemeyer, who had also coached Raonic.
“Vasek was a rival of Milos’ and they were very good friends coming up,” Curtis says.
Whatever the backstory, they’re become a force.
Serena Williams, the reigning queen of the women’s game, has labeled Bouchard her likely heir.
Others are tapping Raonic as one of a handful of young players with a shot at toppling the Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — who’ve dominated the men’s Grand Slam titles for years. “Milos has already proven that he can beat some of these guys,” says Cahill.
Pospisil, too, has demonstrated promise as a top singles player, Cahill says.
All three thrive on hard courts, which they’ll find in Queens, N.Y., in 10 days’ time.