Milos Raonic (foreground) celebrates his win over Italy with teammates in the 2013 Davis Cup quarter-finals
When you think of historically dominant countries in tennis, Australia, the United States, Sweden and Spain probably come to mind. One country that you would never associate with tennis would be Canada. At the start of the last decade, Canada had never had a player ranked inside the top ten. No Canadian had ever won a grand slam singles title at any level. Canada had never made it past the first round of the World Group in international team competition. No Canadian had every made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam event. All these struggles go for men and women.
All that is about to change.
Canada currently has a plethora of young talent and is set to become the next superpower in the world of tennis. Since 2010, two Canadians have won junior grand slam titles. A Canadian man entered the top ten in the men's singles rankings. Canada's number two is also the second highest ranked Canadian man in history. Twice in the last three years, a Canadian has won the "Newcomer of the Year" award (once in men's, once in women's). Canada's Davis Cup team reached the semi-finals of the World Group, while the Fed Cup team qualified for the World Group II only losing two rubbers in the Americas zone. Canadians are going deeper in tournaments and causing upsets on a fairly regular basis. There are two Canadian men in the top five players from the Americas and one woman in the same category. There are two women and five men inside the top 200. Canada now possesses a fairly large group of capable players ready to make their mark on the tennis world. And the kicker is that the oldest member of this group is 23 years old.
Canada's young stars started to make their mark in 2011, when Milos Raonic made the fourth round of the Australian Open. Raonic, then only 20 years old, became the second Canadian to make the fourth round of a major event, a feat he would match three more times (Australia 2013, US 2012-2013) as of January 2014. Raonic would then become the first Canadian in over a decade to win a title, defeating top-ten player Fernando Verdasco in San Jose. He would then make the final of the event in Memphis the following week, pushing former US Open champion Andy Roddick to 7-5 in the third. Riding the strength of one of the best serves in tennis, Raonic won the ATP Newcomer of the Year award in 2011. Raonic won a pair of titles in 2012, defeating two top-ten opponents en route to the title in Chennai (d. Tipsarevic) and then won his second consecutive title in San Jose (d. Istomin). He scored his first top-five win over Andy Murray on clay in Barcelona in May. He would make back-to-back quarter-finals at the Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati before a fourth round appearance at the US Open (l. to Murray). He would save match points to beat Murray again in Tokyo. 2013 was his best year, making the fourth round of both the Australian Open (l. to Federer) and held match point at the US Open (l. to Gasquet). He won a pair of titles again; his third straight in San Jose (d. Haas) and Bangkok (d. number seventh ranked Berdych). Arguably most importantly, he made the final of his home Masters 1000 event, the Rogers Cup in Montreal, defeating Juan Martin Del Potro and Ernests Gulbis en route to the final, before losing to world number two Rafael Nadal. The run would allow Raonic into the top ten, becoming the first Canadian to climb that high in the rankings. Raonic has been tipped by not just sports writers, but big name players (including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras) as a future slam winner. Raonic has been making slow progress up the rankings and his results have been steadily improving. He possesses some of the biggest shots in tennis, especially his serve and forehand, and is one of the brightest young stars on the ATP tour.
In the semi-finals of the 2013 Rogers Cup in Montreal, Raonic found himself facing a very unlikely opponent. Considering his half of the draw included former top-ten players John Isner, Radek Stepanek and Nikolay Davydenko and current world number six Tomas Berdych, he was needless to say surprised to learn that his opponent would be world number 71 and fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil. Pospisil, who had just turned 23, was playing in his second career ATP semi-final, the first having come weeks earlier in Bogota and was coming off a title at the Challenger event in Vancouver. The match was one for the ages. Raonic ground out the first set 6-4, only to see Pospisil master his serve and take the second 6-1. The third set would become a dogfight that required a tiebreak. Raonic would take the tiebreak and the match, but it was hardly a loss for Pospisil. He saw ranking get nearly cut in half, jumping to number 40 in the world. Pospisil had made his mark, impressing players and fans alike. In fact, writers such as this one will tell you that Pospisil outplayed Raonic in that match. He would then make a third semi-final in Basel, losing to the legendary Roger Federer 7-5 in the third. Pospisil would achieve his 2013 goal of putting himself in position to be seeded at the Australian Open, finishing the year ranked 32. Much to the outrage of fans on the internet, Pospisil did not win the ATP Most Improved Player award. Though expressing his disappointment, Pospisil was positive looking forward to 2014. And why not? It's been suggested, and this author agrees, that Pospisil is actually in better position than Raonic to become a star. Pospisil plays a brilliant all-court game. His serve is huge. He strikes both his forehand and backhand consistently with great power and accuracy. He volleys extremely well and has great variation. His movement is also brilliant, even more so when you consider the fact that he is 6'4. Pospisil has a game that is built to win. He'll play his first full year on tour in 2014. And he's started with a bang, making the semi-finals of his first event of the season in Chennai. With only three tournaments with points to defend on the main tour, anything is Pospisil.
History was made at Wimbledon in 2012. After losing in the finals of the junior Australian Open and junior French Open, Canadian Filip Peliwo won the Wimbledon junior title. He was the first Canadian man to win a grand slam singles title at any level. Peliwo followed up the victory by winning the US Open junior title and finished the year as the number one ranked junior in the world. The first Canadian to do so. Peliwo won his first futures title in September 2013. At the Rogers Cup in August, Peliwo won his first round match, in the process becoming one of five Canadian men to win on that day (a record). He's 19. Junior success isn't always indicative of future success but it's encouraging. What's more encouraging, though, is Peliwo himself. First, an examination of his game is encouraging. He plays a similar game to Pospisil. He plays with aggressive and consistent strokes, comes to net and moves well. Secondly, and more importantly, he's smart.
Peliwo understands what he needs to work on. Mentality. He knows that being mentally tough is more important than perfecting his shots. That's something maybe someone should have told Raonic, or better still Andy Murray. Peliwo is also realistic. He understands that he's had a great junior career, but that means nothing. He knows he has to prove himself on a big tour, but he doesn't feel the need to rush. He made his goal for 2013 to finish in the top 300. He's ranked 250. His goal in three years (he'll be 22) is to be playing at the majors. Not winning, or even doing well, just playing. In five years (age 24), he wants to be doing well at majors. Again, not winning, just doing well. He realises he'll likely be in his mid-to-late twenties before he's in position to win a major. Peliwo knows that nothing will be given to him. He's going to have to work for it. He understands that and is willing to put in the work. That's why he's so exciting.
Something you always have to say for Canadian men is that they bring it when paying for their country. Canada had ridden doubles legend Daniel Nestor for decades in Davis Cup competition, but in 2011, the team came alive. The excitement started when Raonic became a factor on the men's tour. He led Canada past Mexico in the first round of the Americas zone. However, he was injured for the second round match against Ecuador. Canada would fall behind 2-0 in the tie, but Nestor, Pospisil and Philip Bester led the Canadians back for the improbable 3-2 win. Raonic was back from the World Group playoff, but wasn't 100% and lost. Pospisil took the team on his back, winning both his singles matches, including a singles upset of Dudi Sela, and a doubles upset, with Nestor, of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, to push Canada into the World Group. The tie established Pospisil's reputation as a key to Canada's Davis Cup team. Though Canada would lose to France 4-1 in the World Group in 2012, Canada would sweep the singles courtesy of Raonic, Pospisil and Frank Dancevic in the World Group playoffs to beat South Africa 4-1. Unfortunately, all seemed lost when Canada was drawn to face world number one Spain in the opening round of the 2013 World Group. However, Canada lucked out when Spain's top four players (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco) all withrew and Canada was home turf (Canada chose a fast indoor hard court). Canada didn't let the opportunity slip away, as Raonic won both his singles matches and Frank Dancevic added a third to clinch the tie. In the quarter-finals against Italy, who brought their top lineup, Raonic again won both his singles matches and Pospisil joined with Nestor for a huge win in the doubles (15-13 in the fifth set). They would then take a 2-1 lead over the Novak Djokovic-led Serbians, courtesy of a pair of 10-8 fifth set wins by Raonic in singles and Pospisil/Nestor in doubles before falling 3-2. Raonic and Pospisil both boast very strong Davis Cup records and bring their A-game when representing Canada. As the pair grow in skill and experience, and are joined by players like Peliwo, Canada could soon be bringing home a David Cup title.
In terms of team competition, Canada has generally done better in men's tennis than women's. Canada's Fed Cup team has never won a World Group II tie, let alone World Group. That could be about to change in 2014. For the second time this decade, Canada won the Americas zone, only dropping one out of a potential twelve matches. They then defeated Ukraine 3-2 in the World Group II playoffs to advance to the 2014 World Group II. Only one member of Canada's Fed Cup team is over 23. And that's their substitute. All of their starters are 23 or under. The team is led by Sharon Fichman (23), Gabriela Dabrowski (21) and the young sensation who is taking women's tennis by storm.
Before July 7th, 2012, no Canadian had ever won a grand slam singles titles at any level. All of that changed on a Saturday in July. Eighteen year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard defeated Ukrainian Elina Svitolina in the finals of the girls Wimbledon championship to become the first Canadian grand slam singles champion. The title was Bouchard's third junior Wimbledon title, winning consecutive doubles titles in 2011-2012. By the end of 2012, Bouchard had won six titles on the WTA Challenger and Futures tours. She started 2013 on the WTA tour. After struggling for the first few months, Genie broke through at the Family Circle Cup on clay in Charleston. She recorded her first top-50 win against fellow teenager Laura Robson in the second round. She then stunned former-US Open champion Samatha Stosur in the third round. Though she lost in her first WTA quarter-final, she entered the top 100 at the age of 19. In her first appearance in a grand slam main draw at the French Open, she won her first match ever at a slam. At Wimbledon, she beat former World Number One Ana Ivanovic on center court in straight sets. In Cincinnati, at the WTA Premier 5 event, Genie faced off with a current World Number One for the first time, Serena Williams. Saying that Williams dominates the WTA tour would be an understatement. Bouchard sent shockwaves through the WTA by taking the first set off of Williams. After the US Open, Bouchard topped up-and-comers Monica Puig and Australian Open semi-finalist Sloane Stephens before defeating her second former world number one and current top-ten opponent Jelena Jankovic before losing in a tight three-setter to Venus Williams. In Osaka, Genie made her first career final. She was beaten by Stosur, but managed to take the first set and lost the second 7-5. Bouchard finished the year ranked 32 and won the newcomer of the year award. Might I repeat that she's 19? As a teenager, Bouchard is already experiencing good results. She plays a brilliant power game, with huge groundstrokes on both wings. Her style is comparable to the Williams sisters. She is a capable volleyer and has solid movement. She has room for improvement, but she's 19. Bouchard has become the darling of the WTA tour, both for her age, game and the fact that she's quite an attractive young woman. Bouchard is the most likely of the young group of Canadians to become a star and champion. She has a great base to work with that's brought her success, and with more match play, Genie has nowhere to go but up.
As is common with Canadians, Bouchard brings her A-game when representing her country. She has a brilliant Fed Cup record. In 2013, she only lost one match (to Svitolina) in the World Group II playoffs but bounced back to win her second singles and doubles match to lead Canada into the World Group II. She was undefeated in the Americas zone. She's 7-2 career in Fed Cup play. And it's not like she's carrying the Fed Cup team. Dabrowski is 3-0 in doubles and Fichman 22-7 (9-3 in singles, 13-4 in doubles). All of them are 23 or under. This team of young stars plays their best when representing Canada. As they grow in skill and experience, Canada is set to become a power in the Fed Cup.
Even though Bouchard and Raonic will probably be disappointed with their performance at the Hopman Cup this past week, the mere fact that they were there is a sign of Canada's potential. The Hopman Cup is an invitational tournament for the top tennis countries in the world. Thanks to the performances of Raonic, Pospisil and Bouchard in 2013, Canada was invited to the 2014 edition. That alone is a compliment and a sign of Canada being an up-and-coming tennis power. Tennis Canada has made winning a priority and the national training center in Montreal has become a hub for developing future champions. Raonic, Bouchard and Peliwo are proof of Canada taking tennis more seriously. Canada has some of the best young players in the world, and we have a lot of them. On both the men's and women's tours, Canadians making deep runs, causing upsets and winning titles isn't uncommon or surprising. There is constant talk about the young Canadians in the tennis world and there is good reason to do so. Canadian tennis is coming of age and it won't be long before Canadians are the dominant force in the world of tennis. Watch out, because the Canadians are coming.