It might be a little hard to remember, with all the injuries, career detours and mystifying losses, but there was a time when anything seemed possible for Canadian tennis.
Every time a tennis fan looked up, it seemed, another wildly talented or gritty Canadian made a Grand Slam final. Bianca Andreescu even won one, beating Serena Williams in the 2019 US Open when she was still a teenager, playing with a style so creative that she left tennis aesthetes drooling.
Lately, with all the raw knees (Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime), stress fractures (Leylah Fernandez) and the mental anguish (Milos Raonic and Andreescu) that so many players struggle with around here, even Fernandez’s improbable run to USA 2021. An open final may feel like it was a long time ago.
And then there was a day like Wednesday at Wimbledon, where the rain finally let up long enough for outdoor tennis to take place, for Shapovalov and Raonic to show why there was so much fuss in the first place. Both came back from a set down to win in four sets, giving Shapovalov a chance to reminisce about what it meant to him to be a junior player from a country known mostly for its prowess in ice sports (hockey and curling) and watching. Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard almost go all the way on the Wimbledon grass.
“It kind of put real belief in mine and Felix’s eyes that it’s possible as a Canadian,” said Shapovalov, after beating Moldova’s Radu Albot 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in a match that started . on monday “And I’m sure that the generations, you know, follow me, Felix, Bianca. Leylah, I’m sure there’s a lot more belief in the country that it’s possible even if the country is cold or it’s mostly winter.”
Apparently, Canadians missed the string of champions that Sweden, hardly a temperate place, produced during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, such as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.
Shapovalov and Raonic, who played and won their first match at a Grand Slam tournament in two and a half years on Monday, defeating Denis Novak of Austria, 6-7(5), 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-1 , will be back at it on Thursday. Both men will play second-round matches, as will Fernandez. Andreescu will also be out there, finally playing her first round match against Hungary’s Anna Bondar.
Auger-Aliassime, who has been dealing with a sore knee all year, lost in the first round at the All England Club for the second consecutive year. The nagging injury and the latest loss count as major disappointments for Auger-Aliassime, who broke out in his late teens and whose powerful serve and movement should allow him to excel on grass.
But a Wimbledon schedule filled with Canadians is what the nation’s elite in the sport were gunning for when they set out to make Canada a top tennis country nearly 20 years ago. Apart from long, cold winters, Canada seemed to have everything a country needed to achieve big things in tennis – wealth, diversity and a commitment to spending money on building facilities and importing top coaches.
It built a tennis center in Montreal and satellite facilities in other major cities and began to focus on developing young children and teenagers. It hired Louis Borfiga, a leading tennis mind from France who was Borg’s hitting partner, to oversee player development.
Blessed with the good fortune of players with natural talent and parents willing to support it, Canada had Bouchard and Raonic rolling from the mid-2010s and Shapovalov, Andreescu and Auger-Aliassime tearing up the junior rankings, with Fernandez not far behind.
The success — last year Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime led Canada to its first Davis Cup title — and the struggles fostered camaraderie among the players. They know when the others are playing even when they are not in the same tournament.
“I’m guilty of following the results of all my Canadians,” said Fernandez, who remembers watching Auger-Aliassime coach some of her courts in Montreal just a few years ago and thinking, “Oh, this is inspiring.”
When Fernandez was injured last year, one of the first texts she received was from Andreescu, who has been battling all kinds of ailments apparently since winning the 2019 US Open. Andreescu told Fernandez that she was there for her whatever she needed and that Fernandez was headed for a tough time, but would get through it.
Earlier this year, when Andreescu rolled her ankle and suffered what looked to be a devastating injury at the Miami Open, Fernandez sent the support right back. “I was like, ‘Bianca, you’re strong, you’ll come back, you’re a great tennis player, and a great person.’
On Wednesday, Shapovalov and Raonic found each other in the locker room, trying to manage the rain delays that have disrupted the tournament all week.
Raonic said he forgot his old routine because it had been so long since he dealt with something like this. At first he tried to keep moving to stay loose, but then thought he might have burned too much energy.
He sat down a bit with Shapovalov, who spent the time with his trainer answering questions about animal trivia. Raonic jumped into the game and said everyone was amused to learn which sea animal can breathe through its rear end. (Turtle). There was also a lively argument about the killing power of a mosquito versus that of sharks. Shapovalov was firmly on the side that sharks are scarier than a malaria-carrying insect.
Later, the rain subsided along with the zoology debate. Then it was time for Raonic to return to the court and deliver the kind of victory that once happened all the time, wearing down Novak with his explosive serve and big forehand. Later in the afternoon, when Shapovalov found his rhythm on those smooth, graceful strokes, Albot never stood a chance.
A symbol of how weak Canada’s tennis efforts have become, both Shapovalov and Raonic could easily not have been at the All England Club this year.
Shapovalov has limped on and off in recent months and had to cut short his practices on grass when the pain became too intense.
Raonic said through his injury struggles over the past few years, he has come to terms with the idea that his life after tennis has begun. But he drove by a tennis court every day near his home in the Bahamas, or would see tennis on TV while working out at a local gym and he figured he might as well give it another shot.
On Wednesday, he said he was upset with himself for not enjoying the moment more, being back at the All England Club, playing in the Grand Slam where he had his greatest success and helped make Canada believe. In his words, it was easy to detect a larger message about the often fleeting nature of success, in a single day, or over an era.
“You just get caught up with the whole process of competing and trying to find a way to win and that goes by really quickly,” he said. “Then you can’t really enjoy the match.”