Can Andreescu’s win kick off a Canadian tennis boom?

The newly minted US Open champion will get back to training next week.

But for now, in the wake of her historic victory over Serena Williams in New York on Saturday, Bianca Andreescu is busy.

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She returned to her hometown of Toronto yesterday by private jet, and will have a media availability Wednesday morning at the Aviva Centre, site of her Rogers Cup triumph just a month ago.

On Sunday, the day after the win, Andreescu hit the top of Rockefeller Center for the champion’s photo shoot, and to answer a few of the same questions she navigated the previous night.

That night, there was a run of media interviews that ranged from one-on-ones with the various TV networks, to a general press conference, to a round table with tennis journalists.

Canada thrilled with the victory

As the monumental victory sinks in, there is going to be a lot going on. 

That’s true not only of Andreescu herself – her life will be forever changed – but also for Tennis Canada. The federation will – and should – jump to capitalize on the opportunity to raise the profile of the sport in Canada.

(Meanwhile, how fabulous was Andreescu on Fallon?)

Not incidentally, the suits will also jump on the opportunity to pat themselves on the back, and to praise their development program. Because that’s how suits work.

Praising themselves

It began a few days ago, with a puff piece in Canada’s “national newspaper”, the Globe and Mail, penned by former Tennis Canada board chair Roger Martin.

The underlying premise is bold, that Canada was a “mediocrity” on the world stage in tennis. The reality is pretty simple; tennis is a niche sport in Canada, a winter-sport nation and hockey nation. It didn’t really … matter that much if Canadians weren’t “great” at tennis. Even if the country did earn a gold medal in doubles in Sydney in 2000, and Daniel Nestor had a Hall of Fame career.

The piece compares Canada to California, where you can play tennis all year long. But many European countries also are “hobbled” by winter weather. In the 1970s and 1980s there were multiple top-10 players who came out of … Sweden, which additionally is hobbled by lack of daylight in the winter months.

And yet, they manage. Champions find a way.

The piece also completely ignores the previous doubles success on the world stage – yet proudly includes doubles titles in Canada’s junior Grand Slam tally.

You could pick a dozen nits in the statements and premise of this piece. But this is a week for celebrating.

Andreescu as impetus for growth

The prevailing theory has always been that if you can somehow unearth a champion in your country – whatever country that is – you can spur growth in the game as the youngsters leap to follow that example.

It can be true – Bjorn Borg had to be the biggest reason a generation of fine Swedish – male Swedish – tennis players came along after him. But it was a short-lived boom; there have been a lot of lean times since then.

There was plenty of talk a few years ago when Genie Bouchard won the junior Wimbledon title in 2012 and, two years later reached the big girls’ final, about how a generation of young girls would pick up a racket and “be like Genie”.

Milos Raonic reached the Wimbledon final three years ago and, when healthy, is a consistent top-10 player. Vasek Pospisil reached the top 25 and won a Wimbledon doubles title.

But there’s been no notable surge in successful young players, even if the vaunted national program has been in place for a dozen years now and has invested millions upon millions of dollars.

“It is incontestably my greatest victory. It’s a blessing. Winning a Grand Slam is beyond my expectations. It was more than an ultimate goal, it was a dream,”  Louis Borfiga, the french architect of the national development program, told TVA Sports Tuesday. “The goal was to have players in the top 50 in the world – if possible, in the top 10.”

Borfiga told TVA Sports that they needed to be prepared to welcome a lot of young girls in the various clubs in Canada.

One school in Toronto is holding “Bianca Andreescu Spirit Day” Friday.

Not much depth coming up the ranks

As Andreescu hits the top five, she is currently the only Canadian female player in the top … 150 in the WTA Tour rankings.

The stated goal from the high performance program from the get-go was to have as many players as possible in the top 100. Beyond Bouchard, it happened on the women’s side only when Andreescu broke through this year. And technically, it didn’t happened on the men’s side until Félix Auger-Aliassime broke through this year. Raonic and Pospisil mostly pre-date the big investment. Shapovalov went his own way.

But, of course, the program has another high-profile success on the men’s side with No. 21 Auger-Aliassime, who just turned 19.

If Auger-Aliassime was clearly another prodigious talent from a very young age and is as dedicated and self-motivated as they come, Tennis Canada has done every single thing right with him. They’ve taken a long-term view of his career. They’ve surrounded him with a team that includes two French coaches whose skill sets complement each other beautifully. Better yet, they work together; they don’t compete with each other to claim credit for his success.

But the truth is that there was only one player who’s a product of Tennis Canada’s development system taking part in the junior Grand Slams this season. Taha Baadi is already in his final year of junior eligibility – and only this year did his ranking climb high enough to qualify for the top level.

From the number of college recruiters who were out watching his first-round loss at the US Open last week, it seems that might be his likely path. 

Other prospects, outside the system

There were others who played the junior Slams in 2019 – notably junior French Open champion Leylah Fernandez, but also 15-year-old Mélodie Collard and 17-year-old Liam Draxl (who is headed to the University of Kentucky). But those players were developed outside the national program. 

As they rose – this is particularly true in Fernandez’s case – they often found themselves up against a bureaucracy that, from all accounts, is restrictive in its support of players who didn’t think Tennis Canada’s way was the best way for them, and wanted to do it their way.

The biggest example of that is Denis Shapovalov, who was the first of the “young generation” to break through with his junior Wimbledon title in 2016 and his semifinal at the Rogers Cup in Montreal two years ago.

It almost seems, at times, that Tennis Canada is competing with the grassroots coaches across the country to win the “who can develop champions” contest. Of course, the organization’s mandate should be to make sure every Canadian kid has a chance to get to the top levels of tennis, regardless of the method.

American envy

Despite the dearth down the ranks, many American commentators and tennis people have looked in envy at the Canadian success. 

It’s a knee-jerk reaction. In addition to the paucity of Canadian players in the WTA top 150, there are no Tennis Canada products born after 2002 in the top 300 in the junior girls’ rankings (and none in the top 100 at all). On the boys’s side, it’s even more sparse. There are no boys born later than 2002 in the … top 600 in the junior ITF rankings. 

You can talk about talented 12- and 13-year-olds in the pipeline all you want. But that’s still the “potential” stage. You don’t even have to crunch the numbers at all to know that if kids aren’t in the above-mentioned areas of the junior rankings by 17, it’s extremely unusual for them to have viable (i.e. top 100) pro careers.

The Americans have 35 girls in the top 300 in the juniors – 15 of them born post-2002. And, more pertinently, they have … 23 women in the WTA’s top 150, five of them in the top 30 alone. 

They have four boys in the junior top 10 – two of them, Martin Damm and Tody Kodat of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., were born in 2003.

They have 19 boys in the top 100, and 13 men in the ATP Tour’s top 150.

The U.S. is actually doing fine – particularly, but not only, on the women’s side.  If they don’t have a Grand Slam champion this year, a tennis federation probably wouldn’t trade all that volume and depth for one standout result.

Building on Andreescu

champions
It takes a village: Physio Kirstin Bauer, coach Sylvain Bruneau, Andreescu, trainer Virginie Tremblay, hitting partner Hugo di Feo and agent Jonathan Dasnières de Veigy pose atop Rockefeller Center Sept. 9, 2019. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Andreescu had scheduled three tournaments back-to-back-to-back this fall: the Premier tournament in Osaka next week, followed by the Premier 5 in Wuhan, China and then the Premier Mandatory in Beijing.

According to coach Sylvain Bruneau, Andreescu will only play Beijing. 

At No. 4 in the “race to Shenzhen” for the WTA Tour Finals, she looks like a lock to make that event at the end of October.

Andreescu may only have two more tournaments left this year – both of them on the other side of the world, played in the middle of the night, Canada time.

So the new star won’t have much visibility on court until the end of the season. It might be just as well; with the spotlight so firmly upon her, still processing the achievement, she might well have a dip in those tournaments. Everyone would understand that; even those quick to try to push her off the pedestal might give her a pass.

In the meantime, once Tennis Canada has eased up on the self-congratulations, it’ll need to handle the hordes of young girls it expects to hit the clubs to “be like Bianca”.

Winter is coming, though. So it’ll have to be indoors. 🙂

Once-in-a-generation crop

One truth is undeniable. Tennis Canada has hit the lottery with three rising stars, all 20 or younger, who will stand out for the next decade on both the WTA and ATP Tours.

All three are wildly talented. All three are personable and outgoing and have exciting games to watch. In Auger-Aliassime’s case, he’s fluently bilingual and will singlehandedly be able to reach the significant base of tennis fans in his native Québec. 

There’s an element of luck in all this; Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov both have a parent who’s a tennis coach. So they came to the game that way, not through any sort of grassroots or talent detection program Tennis Canada might have in place.

But they’ve got ’em. If this once-in-a-generation crop of talent can’t make Canada the tennis nation it now aspires to be, nothing can.

The key now will be to generate volume. It’s one thing to nurture a big talent and give them the support team and coaching they need to compete with the best in the world. It’s another to produce depth in the system with kids who don’t necessarily have that same rare combination of talent, determination and drive.

Some champions are born. The more challenging road is to develop the champions who are made. That’s also the true test of a development program.

We won’t really know how the “Bianca effect” plays out for another decade. Only then will some of those little girls (and hopefully, boys too) who are six and seven years old right now make a big splash on the world stage.

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