It may be a little hard to remember, with all the injuries, career detours and mystifying losses, but there was a time when everything seemed possible for Canadian tennis.
Every time a tennis fan looked up, it seemed, another wildly talented or gritty Canadian had made a Grand Slam final. Bianca Andreescu even won one, beating Serena Williams in the 2019 U.S. Open when she was still a teenager, playing with a style so creative she left tennis aesthetes drooling.
Lately, with all the bum 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 these days, even Fernandez’s improbable run to the 2021 U.S. Open final can feel like it was a long time ago.
And then there was a day like Wednesday at Wimbledon, with the rain finally going away long enough for outdoor tennis to happen, for Shapovalov and Raonic to show why there had been 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 had meant to him to be a junior player from a country known mostly for its prowess in sports with ice (hockey and curling) and watching Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard nearly go all the way on the Wimbledon grass.
“It kind of put a real belief in mine and Felix’s eyes that it’s possible as a Canadian,” Shapovalov said, after beating Radu Albot of Moldova 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in a match that began on Monday. “And I’m sure with the generations, you know, following me, Felix, Bianca. Leylah, I’m sure there’s much more belief in the country, that it is possible even if the country is cold or is mostly wintertime.”
Apparently, Canadians missed the string of champions that Sweden, hardly a temperate locale, produced during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, such as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.
Shapovalov and Raonic, who played and won his first match at a Grand Slam tournament in two and a half years Monday, beating 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 be out there, too, finally playing her first-round match against Anna Bondar of Hungary.
Auger-Aliassime, who has been dealing with a sore knee all year, lost in the first round at the All England Club for a 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 higher-ups in the sport were shooting for when they set out to make Canada a top-level tennis country 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 spend 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 by 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 have bred a 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 fellow Canadians,” said Fernandez, who remembers just a few years ago seeing Auger-Aliassime training a few courts down from her in Montreal 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 sorts of ailments seemingly since she won the 2019 U.S. 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 get 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 had forgotten his old routine because it had been so long since he had dealt with something like that. At first he tried to keep moving to stay loose, but then thought he might have been burning too much energy.
He sat down for a bit with Shapovalov, who was passing the time with his coach by answering animal trivia questions. Raonic jumped into the game and said everyone was entertained to learn which sea animal can breathe through its rear end. (Turtle). There was also a spirited 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.
Eventually, the rain subsided along with the zoology debate. Then it was time for Raonic to head back to the court and deliver the sort of victory that once happened all the time, wearing down Novak with his blasting serve and big forehand. Later in the afternoon, when Shapovalov found his rhythm on those smooth, graceful strokes, Albot never had a chance.
In a symbol of how tenuous Canada’s tennis efforts have become, both Shapovalov and Raonic easily might not have been at the All England Club this year.
Shapovalov has been limping on and off in recent months and had to cut his practices short on grass when the pain grew too intense.
Raonic said through his injury struggles during the past few years he had come to terms with the idea that his life after tennis had begun. But he drove by a tennis court each day near his home in the Bahamas, or would see tennis on television while he worked out at a local gym, and he figured he might as well give it another shot.
On Wednesday, he said he was annoyed 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, on a single day, or during an era.
“You just get caught up with the whole process of competing and trying to find a way to win and that passes by really quickly,” he said. “Then you don’t really get to enjoy the match.”