The Racquet Scientist: Canadian Tennis

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 /by

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Suddenly, Canada is cool. Okay, so it's always cool, literally speaking; our friendly northern neighbors keep it that way so they can continue to excel in hockey and win every danged walleye and pike ice-fishing contest you can name. But now it's cool, as in hip and happening, in tennis as well.

And that's certainly unusual, given that a short list of the most successful ATP and WTA pros in recent memory consists of names like Glenn Michibata (a Toronto native, who coached men's tennis at Princeton for 12 years; I guess the job at the Université de Moncton wasn't available); Patricia Hy-Boulais, the last woman (until Aleksandra Wozniak last week) to make the quarterfinals of the Canadian Open, aka Rogers Cup (alas, it was in 1992); Grant Connell (doubles specialist); Martin Laurendeau (former pro and current Canadian Davis Cup captain, and a heck of a salmon fisherman; I wouldn't kid you about that);  and — of course — Daniel Nestor, a doubles genius and Grand Slam champ many times over, still active. Nestor and partner Sébastien Lareau struck gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

But strange and exciting things have been happening across the Detroit River and in the doggedly Francophone precincts of Quebec. Canada suddenly is producing players, most of them still more promising than proven, but some sort of synergy clearly is at work there. As the late Arthur Ashe was so fond of saying, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Is it a mere coincidence that the most dramatic tidal fluctuation on the planet occurs at the Bay of Fundy on the New Brunswick coast?

Canada has one of the most promising of the dangerous young ATP players in Milos Raonic, who's just 21 and has reclaimed his career high ranking of No. 19 after struggling with injuries. Vasek Pospisil is just 22 and has been ranked as high as No. 85. Wozniak once knocked at the door of the Top 20 and is headed that way again. Rebecca Marino, 21, hit career high ranking of No. 38 just a little over a year ago (but is currently off the tour, dealing with burnout). Frank Dancevic still pops up now and then to make an impression and Stephanie Dubois is still plugging away.

And did you notice that both junior champions a Wimbledon this year were Canadians? The boys' title went to Filip Peliwo, while the girls' winner was Eugenie Bouchard? Last week, Bouchard beat former No. 11 Shahar Peer in Montreal, and went down fighting against 10th-seeded Li Na, 6-4, 6-4. Sheesh. Pretty soon they'll replace the maple leaf on the Canadian flag with a Babolat racquet frame and I'll be sad because that's the prettiest danged flag on the planet.

Curious about all this, I called up my old pal Tom Tebbutt, the dean of Canadian tennis writers (check out his Tebbutt Tuesday blog here). One of the first sentences out of Tom's mouth when I reeled off a few of these names was, "And you should see these Abanda sisters, Elisabeth and Francoise. They're like our version of the Williams sisters."

He may have been exaggerating; you know those guys from Trois Rivieres. But not by much. 

Francoise Abanda, the younger of the sisters, is just 15, tall and willowy like Venus Williams, and she's already won a match in an ITF Challenger (Granby). She lost a reasonably close match (6-2, 7-5) in the next round at Granby to — Bouchard. She, of course, went on to win the whole shooting match, beating — you guessed it — another Canadian, Dubois, in the final.  Should either of these promising players (better yet, both) crack the champion code, enthralled reporters will no doubt ferret out the story of that Granby tussle. 

Francoise,who is of Cameroonian descent (think Yannick Noah) was seeded No. 14 in the girls division at Wimbledon, where one day she happened to be assigned a practice court next to Venus, who reportedly kept glancing in Abanda's direction, intrigued. I don't know if they ever spoke, but there's time for that, too. Abanda made it all the way to the semis at Wimbledon, but lost a tough three-setter.

Some Canadians think the tipping point for Canadian tennis was achieved in September of 2007, when the nation dedicated its National Tennis Center — the brainchild of a coach imported from France, Louis Borfiga. A former pro (and hitting partner of Bjorn Borg), the Monte Carlo native has coached numerous successful ATP pros, from Fabrice Santoro to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and Gael Monfils. He has been vice president of high performance athlete development for Tennis Canada since 2006. Once the NTC was a reality, Raonic, Marino, and Bouchard (among others) became affiliated with the national program.

But Tebbutt and others know that very few successful generations are the product of a system, per se. It takes solid, dedicated coaching, willing talent, a little luck to get the ball rolling (fighter though he is, Peliwo did survive five match points in his Wimbledon semi), and — most important — stamina and resolve to keep it going. But as Tebbutt said, "You can't do any better than they (Peliwo and Bouchard) did at Wimbledon. It's all a little bit of a craps shoot, of course. But this is definitely a good sign for Canada."

It's a powerful tide up there in the Bay of Fundy, capable of lifting many boats — and lifting them higher than anyone imagined.

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