It can be a little hard to remember, with all the injuries, career reversals, and bewildering losses, but there was a time when everything seemed possible for Canadian tennis.
Every time a tennis fan looks at it, it seems like a talented or brave Canadian has made it to a Grand Slam final. Bianca Andreescu even won one, beating Serena Williams at the 2019 US Open when she was still a teenager, playing in a style so iconic it left tennis aesthetics drooling.
Lately, with all the knees (Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime), stress fractures (Lila Fernandez) and mental pain (Milos Raonic and Andreescu) that so many players are experiencing these days, even Fernandes’ unlikely arrival in the US 2021 can feel Open final it was a long time ago.
And then there was a day like Wednesday at Wimbledon, where the rain finally cleared up long enough for outdoor tennis to take place, for Shapovalov and Raonic to explain 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 remember what it was like to be a junior from a country known mostly for its prowess in ice sports (hockey and curling) and watch Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard nearly go the distance on the Wimbledon turf.
Shapovalov said after defeating Moldova’s Radu Albot 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the match that started on Monday. “And I am sure that the generations follow me, Felix, Bianca. Lilah, I am sure that there is a greater faith in the country, that it is possible even if the country is cold or most of it is in winter.”
Apparently, Canadians missed out on the string of champions that Sweden produced, unfairly speaking, during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, such as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.
Shapovalov and Raonic, who played and won his first match in a Grand Slam tournament in two and a half years Monday, by defeating Austrian Denis Novak, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6.1, will return on Monday. Thursday. Both men will have their second round matches, as will Fernandez. Andreescu will finally play her first round match against Anna Bondar of Hungary.
Auger-Aliassime, who had been suffering from a sore knee all year, lost in the first round at the All England Club for the second year in a row. A nagging injury and recent loss are major disappointments for Auger-Aliassime, who broke out in his late teens and whose powerful serve and movement should allow him to excel on the turf.
But a Wimbledon schedule packed with Canadians is what the sport’s top officials were aiming for when they set out to make Canada a top-level tennis nation nearly 20 years ago. Other than 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 the best coaches.
It built a tennis center in Montreal and affiliated facilities in other major cities and began to focus on the development of young children and adolescents. It hired Louis Borviga, a leading tennis brain from France who was Borg’s hitting partner, to oversee player development.
Thanks to the good luck of players with natural talent and parents willing to back it up, Canada had Bouchard and Raonic in the mid-2010s and Shapovalov, Andreescu and Auger Aliassime topped the junior rankings, and Fernandez wasn’t far behind.
Success – last year Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime led Canada to its first Davis Cup title – and the struggles have generated camaraderie between the players. They know when others are playing even when they are not in the same tournament.
“I’m guilty of following the results of all my fellow Canadians,” said Fernandez, who just a few years ago remembers seeing Auger-Aliassime training several courts away from her in Montreal and thinking.
When Fernandez was injured last year, one of the first text messages she received was from Andreescu, who has apparently been battling all sorts of ailments since winning the 2019 US Open. Andreescu told Fernandez that she was there for whatever she needed and that Fernandez was going through a rough time. But he will overcome it.
Earlier this year, when Andreescu rolled her ankle and suffered what appeared to be a devastating injury at the Miami Open, Fernandez sent support to the right wingback. “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 deal with the rain delays that had disrupted the tournament all week.
Raonic said he forgot his old routine because it had been a long time since he had dealt with something like that. At first he tried to keep moving to stay loose, but then he thought maybe he was burning up too much energy.
He sat for a bit with Shapovalov, who was spending time with his trainer by answering animal trivia questions. Raonic jumped into the game and said everyone had fun knowing which sea animal could breathe out its bottom. (turtle). There has also been a lively debate about the killing power of mosquitoes versus the killing power of sharks. Shapovalov was firmly in favor of sharks being more terrifying than malaria-carrying insects.
Eventually, the rain subsided with the zoology controversy. Then it was time for Raonic to get back on the court and score the kind of victory he’s been doing all along, as he wears Novak down with big serves and big forehands. Later in the afternoon, when Shapovalov found his rhythm on those smooth, graceful strokes, Albot never really got a chance.
In a symbol of just how poor Canada’s tennis efforts are, both Shapovalov and Raonic may not have been at the All England Club this year.
Shapovalov had been limping intermittently in recent months and had to cut short his practice on the grass when the pain got too severe.
Raonic said it was through struggling with his injury over the past few years that he came to the idea that his life after tennis had begun. But he was driving on a tennis court every day near his home in the Bahamas, or watching tennis on TV while working out at a local gym, and thought he might give it another shot.
On Wednesday, he said he was annoyed with himself for not enjoying the moment more, after returning to 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 spot a larger message about the often fleeting nature of success, in a single day, or during an era.
“You just get caught up in the whole process of competing and trying to find a way to win and that goes by really fast,” he said. “Then you won’t really enjoy the match.”
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