How exciting it was at Rogers Cup 2016! Six men from Ontario playing in the main draws at Rogers Cup and another four playing in qualifying. But not so long ago it was unusual to see more than one or two Canadian men in the main draws.
Back in the fall of 2003 Vic Braden wrote a special article for Ontario Tennis Magazine titled “Canada, A Tennis Mystery” in which he tried to open a discussion on why Canadian professional tennis players were rarely seen in the later stages of major events. Indeed at that time, the highest ever ranked Canadian male player was Andrew Sznajder who reached #46 in 1989.
On the women’s side, Jill Hetherington had reached a high ranking of #6 in doubles in 1989, and Helen Kelesi had reached a singles high ranking of #26 in 1991, but no women were close to challenging Carling Bassett-Seguso’s record of being ranked #8 in the world in 1985.
Several people responded to Vic’s article with excuses for Canada’s poor showing – climate, hockey, poor facilities, small population – but Vic suggested that instead Canada might have adopted a “runner up” attitude when it came to tennis development and thought that more young people might get seriously involved in tennis based on the concept of “Who will create history and lead Canada into the big time tennis world?”
As I recall, Tennis Canada was putting very little funding into high performance tennis development in the late ‘90s and Tennis Canada management were so focused on “the Opens” that it sometimes seemed they had forgotten that without the responsibility for tennis development at the national level, the organization probably wouldn’t exist and certainly wouldn’t be not-for-profit. But I digress.
So how did this turnaround start? I believe that the first crucial steps in the Canadian tennis turnaround were already being taken in the late 1990s under the OTA strategy of building of a comprehensive competitive structure. Such a structure would be accessible, democratic and provide ample competitive opportunities for young players in Ontario. Lots of competition would mean that results over the long term would count and that selection procedures could be objective and transparent. It would also be available to support athlete centred development in which coaches, players and parents could choose how many events and what level of competition best suited the development needs of each player.
So what were things like in the mid nineties? There was a competitive structure in Ontario and there were roughly 100 junior tournaments in the summer, including 15 regional qualifying events for the provincial championships. However there were no provincial or national tournaments for under 12s. There were also very few indoor junior tournaments. It was when Jim Boyce was hired as the Executive Director of the OTA late in 1997 that things started to change. Jim quickly turned his attention to building up the OTA competitive structure. He reinstated the position of Provincial Coach and hired Allison Hope to head up the player development efforts. Jim not only wanted to increase the number of tournament opportunities for young players, he also wanted to have the quality and profile of the provincial events improved. Gus Morhart helped out by making singles sticks, score cards and umpire chairs for the courts at Kew Gardens. Jag Gundu was hired to take photos of the players. On finals day, there were chair umpires for all the events and a formal presentation of all the awards including flowers for the girls. The players and their parents saw this as an extremely positive sign that things were improving rapidly.
The OTA’s resources were very limited at that time, but fortunately, the OTA had a sound leveraged approach for encouraging clubs to run tournaments. Because the clubs collected the tournament fees and only submitted a small portion to the OTA, this meant clubs could turn courts and volunteer effort into increased revenue by running tournaments. This encouraged more clubs to step up to the plate and run tournaments. Indoor provincial championships were added and, after consultation with some experienced junior players, the decision was made to hold indoor provincials during March break each year, a tradition which continues to this day. Possibly the most important piece of the basic structure Jim initiated was to upgrade the provincial computer ranking system to a dynamic web-based system, Baseline. Through this system player history, draws, results and rankings could be accessed on the tennisontario.com web site. This provided transparency to the ranking process and attracted a lot of interest in the web site.
New types of tournaments were added, for example rookie tournaments for new competitors, and David Defehr, who was Provincial Coach for the OTA between 2001 and 2005, even took on the responsibility of organizing and running the first under 12 nationals in order to establish this event in the calendar.
In the Spring of 2008 Kartik Vyas, the current Provincial Coach, wrote an article describing the competitive structure pyramid and his experience as follows. “In the six short years I have been with the OTA, there have been several major changes in player development programming ranging from a new tournament database system to the addition of under 12 and now a viable U8 & U10 competitive structure. In that time, our competitive membership has grown by 500 active players.”
He also noted that “The OTA continues to thrive as an organization because of our supporting member clubs, sponsors, partners and committed staff and the ideal of a pyramid shaped competitive structure is being built and enhanced continuously.” The ideal “pyramid” provides a large number of introductory level tournaments spread across the province to provide competitive access to all. Players who compete successfully then gather experience through playing in tournaments that bring together competitors from a broader area with greater rewards in terms of competitive experience, ranking points and prizes. Provincially this pyramid peaks with provincial championships. Players who perform well at the provincial championship level can then start participating in the larger pyramid of the national and international competitive structure.”
Kartik and his staff are still focused on continuing this work of building and enhancing the pyramid to ensure that the competitive structure remains relevant and effective in supporting players’ development needs at all levels and ages. Today there are twice as many summer OTA junior tournaments as in 1995 and almost the same number of winter junior tournaments as summer ones. When Tennis Canada increased the funding for tennis development, they added professional events across Canada (futures and challengers) which allowed players to earn international ranking points without traveling abroad, which complemented the OTA’s approach.
If we use Milos Raonic as an example of a player who used the OTA competitive structure as part of his development regime, we see that he actually started playing tournaments in 2000 at nine years of age. At 10 he played in 18 tournaments and had a win-loss ratio of just over 50%. It wasn’t until he was 11, in 2002, that he started to win tournaments, taking the U12 indoor provincial title and 3 under 14 events that year. At 13 he started playing and winning under 18 events. He took the indoor provincial honours for under 16s at 14 and for under 18s at 15 and he won his only junior national title (U18 indoors) at age 17 in 2008. Milos then concentrated on playing Open and ITF futures events. At the start of 2011 when Milos’ ATP ranking shot up to #37, he had played 522 matches with a win-loss ratio of 2/3, with 60% of these matches having been played in OTA sanctioned tournaments.
Ever since Milos Raonic moved rapidly up the ATP singles rankings (from 156 to 37) in the first two months of 2011 to become the highest world ranked Canadian male ever in singles, Canadian professional tennis has blossomed. Clearly Milos’ breakthrough has been an inspiration for others to succeed. Milos benefited from the OTA competitive structure to help develop his skill, competitive edge and identify him as someone worthy of special developmental treatment by Tennis Canada.
Players like Brayden Schnur, Denis Shapovolov, Bianca Andreescu, Layne Sleeth, and Jack Mingjie Lin who are coming to the fore today also have played numerous matches in the OTA competitive structure.
In 2012 when Milos was asked about the OTA competitive structure he said, “There was pretty much a tournament every weekend. I was very fortunate, there was a great foundation there and it provided enough competition, every weekend when I needed it.”
A hearty thank you must go to Jim, Alli, Dave, Kartik and all the OTA staff and Club volunteers who have stayed the course over the past twenty years to keep building the competitive structure and provide Ontario junior tennis players with the opportunity to get ample competition and experience all year round.
Milos Raonic answered Vic Braden's call for someone to make Canadian tennis history. In 2017 we have seen Gaby Dabrowski make more Canadian tennis history with her Grand Slam mixed doubles win and Bianca Andreescu starting to make waves on the WTA tour. Also this year Denis Shapovalov has been rewriting the Canadian tennis history books with his stellar performances against top ranked players by being the youngest player to achieve milestones and by being awarded the Emirates ATP Star of Tomorrow and the ATP Most Improved Player Awards for 2017.
These players represent the top of Ontario's very healthy and established cometitive structure pyramid in which there are many more players showing great promise for the future.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Ontario Tennis Magazine.