Let’s face it. The weather in Canada has never been conducive to playing tennis outdoors. As a kid, I waited patiently for the snow to melt off the outdoor rink that doubled as a tennis court each spring. I’d often bring a shovel with me to clear a space beside the court where there was a hitting wall with a line painted on it to represent the height of the net just so I could get a jump start on the season. I dreamed of playing against McEnroe and my idol Lendl and the only person close to a Canadian tennis player worth cheering for was our local tennis pro who would sometimes come out to hit with me (probably when he  was tired of having me hangout in the clubhouse watching tennis on TV).

Kids are the same today. If they’re not into hockey or skiing and love picking up a racquet, they are outdoors at those same outdoor rinks or tennis courts waiting for the snow to melt so they can pretend to be their favourite tennis stars. The difference today is that they don’t need to look up to the stars from another country. They can now pretend to be their idols from right here in Canada.

Tennis in Canada has taken off dramatically over the past decade. It all began with the rise of superstar Milos Raonic in 2011 when he made it all the way to the fourth round of the Australian Open as a qualifier. With his monster serve (only bettered by John Isner in terms of speed) Raonic quickly shot up the rankings to reach as high as number 3 in the world in 2016. His win at Wimbledon in the semi-finals that year over arguably the world’s best male tennis player of all time Roger Federer was the stuff of legends for Canadian tennis fans and was only prevented from claiming the most coveted prize in tennis by Andy Murray in the finals.

Not to be outdone by her male counterpart, Genie Bouchard had a breakout season in 2014 where she reached the semi-finals at both the Australian and French Open before making it all the way to the finals at Wimbledon. I still remember that game as we held a “Breakfast at Wimbledon” event at the Hotel MacDonald early that Sunday morning only to watch Genie lose in straight sets to Petra Kvitová. Unfortunately for Genie, she hasn’t been able to recapture her play from 2014 falling out of the top 50.

The best part for Canadian tennis fans has not been merely having players from Canada to cheer for. It’s also been about the attention tennis has finally received in the country. In record numbers, Canadian kids are playing tennis — and the rise in participation rates just happens to coincide with breakthrough performances by Raonic and Bouchard on the world stage.

According to Tennis Canada, 161,000 boys and girls under the age of 12 played tennis on a frequent basis in 2016 — meaning at least once a week over an eight-week season. That number represents an 8% increase from 2015 and a 23% jump from 2014.

“It’s also globally a golden era of tennis with Serena Williams hitting milestones — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova,” says Hatem McDadi, senior vice-president of tennis development for Tennis Canada. “There’s been tremendous excitement at the highest level and interest in the sport. And that’s translated to families and kids at the grassroots.”

Development dollars from corporate sponsorship and government funding has helped many of these young players develop their potential at home. A new crop of players is starting to make a name for themselves proving that tennis is here to stay in Canada and that Raonic and Bouchard weren’t one hit wonders.

Dennis Shapovalov was the first group of young stars to follow in the footsteps of Raonic and this young player has all the talent needed to be inside the top 10. His style of play is reminiscent of Andre Agassi with an all-out attitude and risk-taking game play that makes his matches exciting to watch. Edmontonians were fortunate to catch a glimpse of this star at the Davis Cup matches against India in 2018 when he had yet to crack the top 50 and then shot up the rankings before some mediocre play and injuries dropped him back down the rankings. Hopefully 2024 will be another breakout year for him.

“Denis truly captured the hearts of Canadian sports fans this year, and it has been a joy to watch him grow into a budding star,” said Michael Downey, president and CEO, Tennis Canada. “He has the spirit, desire, and work ethic to be among the elite athletes in our sport and we look forward to seeing what’s next for him.”

Félix Auger-Aliassime is just a year younger than Shapovalov and poised to do as well, if not better than his compatriot. Auger-Aliassime has a lot of development still ahead of him and you can still see this in his play but if 2022 is any indication of where his play is going, it’s looking like it will be a great career for him. He finished in the top 10 that year for him before having a poor showing in 2023.

Probably the most surprising has been the play of Bianca Andreescu. Perhaps it’s due to the shadow cast by all the attention on the play of Bouchard over the past four years (both good and bad) but it has been a blessing in disguise for Bianca. Without the spotlight and pressure to perform by the fans and the media, she has been able to develop her play shooting up to number 6 in the world after winning the Indian Wells tournament in March and then following that up with the National Bank open in Toronto and capping off an amazing year with a US Open victory in September.

Leylah Annie Fernandez is the latest tennis sensation and a breakout star in the world of Canadian sports. Fernandez’s journey to the top echelons of tennis began at a young age, displaying an exceptional talent that quickly caught the attention of tennis enthusiasts and professionals alike. Her impressive performances continued to turn heads, and in 2021, Leylah made history by reaching the final of the US Open at just 19 years old. Though she narrowly missed the title, her fearless and dynamic style of play left an indelible mark on the tennis world. This year she helped lead the Canadian team to victory in the Billie Jean King Cup.

Like Gretzky for my generation and McDavid of todays, most of us will never reach the same  skill level that they have. The same can be said of players like Raonic for today’s tennis plating youth, but he serves as a role model for any Canadian kid with a dream of playing tennis.

The future looks bright Canada.

By TJ Sadler

Photo courtesy of BNP Paribas Open