Catching up with some of Ontario’s best tennis players has never been so easy, while at the same time, so challenging. All six of the players interviewed for this article are back on their home turf – like the rest of us – collectively socially distancing with their families. There was no worry about interrupting their focus mid-tournament or catching them at a bad time – but therein lies the problem. What do you talk to a tennis player about when they have not competed in weeks, a fact that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future? Fortunately, all of the players interviewed were more than happy to chat about their seasons so far; the progress they have made from a year ago and how they are creatively – and positively – approaching the challenges faced by COVID-19. These six players represent a real mix of Ontario talent: two teenagers who have chosen to go the college route, two in their mid twenties who have successfully transitioned from college to the pros and two vets, both doubles specialists and Olympic hopefuls. Hopefully, the reader can draw inspiration from reading about their stories.
Though born in Irvine, California, Carson Branstine proudly represents Canada when she hits the tennis court. Her Mom is Canadian and hails from Toronto, which was enough to convince her now 19-year-old daughter to adopt the Maple Leaf as her National tennis identity.
Branstine was making big strides with her game in 2019, reaching her first ITF final in – of all places – Carson, California, at the $15K tournament in March of that year. Later that summer Branstine reached another final, this time at the $25,000 event in Gatineau, Quebec, where she fell to compatriot Leylah Annie Fernandez. Positive news was also occurring off the court for Branstine when she decided to accept an offer from the University of Southern California to commence her post-secondary education and play tennis as well. She began her studies in September and immediately felt right at home in the academic environment. Unfortunately, Branstine’s on-court progress was stalled in 2020 by a nagging knee injury that finally required surgery due to a meniscus tear.
“I don’t think I’ve played a full schedule of tennis, probably since I was 15 or 16, without having to be out for a considerable time with an injury,” Branstine admitted. She also confirmed that her regular string of injuries helped direct her towards college rather than turning pro as many other successful juniors often do. ”I think a lot of it (the decision to go to USC) was injury related; just because you never know what is going to happen to you, especially with my situation - I was very up and down the last few years (with injuries). And then, from an educational standpoint, education in my family in general, is very important. I worked really hard throughout high school, even though I was doing all of my high school on the computer, I didn’t mess around with it, I really did try. I thought to myself, you know what, what’s a couple of years going to do to me, of me going to school and guaranteeing that I always have that education behind my back? Missing a year or two on tour, I don’t think, will be affected by going to college. I think college will be a growing experience, not only as an athlete but as a person.”
While Branstine described her first semester as a tough one – her profs did not offer any leniency because she was a student athlete - her second semester showed signs of progress as she settled in. She says that as a college athlete, there are many people checking-in on her to make sure she is on top of her academic commitments while she is putting in lots of time on the court and in the gym to be ready for competition.
Now sequestered with her sister in California during the COVID-19 pandemic, Branstine is staying connected with friends and family through social media and video conferencing. In particular, one friend that she has been in close contact with, is her former Junior Grand Slam doubles partner, Bianca Andreescu. The two have shared the frustrations of having their tennis seasons halted due to knee injuries and both look forward to getting back on court. Branstine’s surgery happened almost three months ago but she is now physically ready to resume her training. She admits that it has been tough knowing that she is cleared to play, but the court access is obviously not available at the moment. “I’m ok, it’s just very, very boring for me. I like being around people, just doing things all day long. So being stuck in my house all day is just difficult on the mind for me.”
Branstine is keeping up with her studies with her classes which are being delivered online, through Zoom. She is working out at home and has maintained close ties with her Tennis Canada coaching and physio team. She still talks to former coach Simon Larose weekly and says that she looks forward to training with him again after she is done at USC. She knows he will continue to have a big impact on her career.
As far a reunion with Bianca again in doubles? “Once I’m back on tour again, I’m pretty sure it will become more of a regular thing.” Something their Canadian fans can certainly look forward to.
Pickering’s Jada Bui was in the Dominican Republic the week that the tennis world came to a halt. The 18-year-old had just completed her quarterfinal doubles match when tournament referees told her and her partner that the rest of the event was cancelled and that neither team would get their ranking points from the match. With the option of jetting-off to Italy to continue her season no longer a possibility, Bui immediately headed home to rejoin her family for two weeks of mandated post-travel quarantine. “It was kind of weird at the beginning, but now it’s just reality,” says Bui. Like many of us, Bui has been forced into a new routine. She laments the potential loss of her final season of Junior eligibility, where she looked forward to competing in the coming weeks at Roland Garros and then a short while later at Wimbledon. At the same time, she realizes that we are all making the necessary adjustments and sacrifices in order to keep everyone safe and do our part.
Like all athletes of her calibre, Bui has had to get creative in order to continue her fitness and training regime, especially when it comes to tennis-specific routines. Her Dad, Thanh, came up with a unique idea, “He never lets us sit around and do nothing,” Bui says with a laugh. “He hung like a baseball net from the ceiling and feeds us tennis balls that we hit from six feet away into the netting.” They have since made some adjustments to their backyard layout as well and have another, much bigger, net there where she and her sister practice serves, volley to each other and even hit full-length groundstrokes for about an hour a day.
Bui was not playing too much in early 2020 due to an injury, so from that point of view she is already accustomed to time away from the court. Prior to playing in the Dominican Republic she had only completed two tournaments all year because of a torn muscle in her forearm that had been an issue since prior to the Australian Open. Tennis fans in Toronto may have caught Bui last Fall at the Tevlin Challenger, where she was given a main draw wildcard from Tennis Canada. She validated that decision by defeating Peangtarn Plipuech of Thailand, who was nearly 700 spots above her in the WTA rankings. That experience was a big confidence booster for the young Canadian. “It gave me so much confidence. I feel like I can compete with anyone no matter what ranking they are. I don’t think my game is weaker than anyone’s. There are still things to work on but I think with my aggressive style of play, coming in a lot and taking control of the point, it works against anyone. I don’t like to step down to anyone’s level or play the way their game is, I just try to play to mine and focus on my strategies and I’m super confident with anyone that I play.”
This Fall, Bui will be putting any professional tennis aspirations on hold as she has committed to attend the University of California, Berkeley where she will pursue her education and of course be a member of their tennis team. “For me, I never had a doubt about wanting to go to college. I always wanted to try to go pro but it was never in my mind to start right off from juniors.”
When asked who she looks up to on the Canadian tennis landscape, Bui does not hesitate to talk about Carol Zhao - someone who chose to go the college route initially and then successfully transitioned to the WTA. “Carol is one of my biggest inspirations. I’ve had the chance to hit with her, which is super cool, because I’ve looked up to her for years. She went to Stanford which was my dream school for the longest time. Just to see a Canadian player have so much success in college tennis - because that’s the route that I want to go – has really inspired me. Even hitting with her, she’s such a nice and caring person. She always asks how I’m doing.”
With her focus on studies and her growth as a tennis player, it is obvious that Jada Bui is doing just fine.
After a difficult past 16 months that put her resolve to the ultimate test, Carol Zhao was slowly preparing to return to competition when the tennis season was suspended indefinitely. In arguably the most difficult season of her career, Zhao missed a considerable amount of 2019 due to a recurring elbow injury. After missing the first six months, the Canadian played the Rogers Cup and a short series of ITF events before deciding to call time on her season.
“I was basically experiencing chronic elbow pain and went through several challenging rounds of misdiagnosis, medical interventions and rehab that did not work,” she explained, noting that this was the first major injury of her career. “The pain came back pretty quickly after my previous return and I was kind of just hoping it would resolve itself after all the work we did in rehab, but it did not.”
After being sidelined since September, Zhao officially returned to the courts a few months ago after managing to achieve a pain-free range of motion, which had become her and her team’s number one priority. It’s an arduous process that the 24-year-old has openly chronicled on social media, including through a poem written for Behind The Racquet — a new account started by American pro Noah Rubin to give players a platform to share their thoughts.
“That poem was definitely cathartic and pretty much captures exactly how I was feeling,” she reflected, saying that she had to redo the recovery process multiple times.
“You’re kind of swimming in this sea of constant uncertainty where your life, your goals, everything, hinges on if, and when, you’re able to beat it. The worst moments come when you've invested many months of time and effort in a treatment plan, injections and thousands of reps of rehab, only to end up back at the beginning because it was ineffective. You feel like it was all for naught and there's this whole process of accepting that it failed and starting anew.”
With the poem acting as a form of catharsis in an otherwise “unrelenting, all-consuming and anxiety-inducing” recovery process, Zhao also found refuge in her own music, which is a passion that she has rekindled in the last few years. During her time off, the former Stanford Cardinal has sung at her best friend Nicole Gibbs’ wedding, played a couple of live shows in downtown Toronto and even collaborated with some friends on the professional tour. When asked about her musical endeavours, Zhao laughed and said, “I’m still a baby beginner when it comes to performing and playing my own shows, but I hope they've gotten better with each new iteration.”
“I first gained experience performing while at Stanford and sort of just fell into several unique opportunities recently. I feel like it does bear a lot of resemblance to tennis too. It’s all performing—sometimes under pressure—and presenting, sometimes like a character, the best version of yourself on a stage. It’s fun, keeps me on my toes, stretches my comfort zone and those kinds of challenges are what I look for constantly in my life.”
While she has spent a little more time on her musical pursuits, it goes without saying that tennis is still Zhao’s greatest passion, as she has been doing more conditioning work off the court to prepare for her eventual return.
“I think the whole tour will kind of be reset after this [break] and everyone will feel like they’re starting fresh again,” she said. “As someone returning from injury this could be a positive thing, but my goal is always to be better than I was yesterday. I want to hit the ground running and show that I’ve become a much more improved player after everything I’ve gone through in the past little while.”
In a season of firsts for many at the forefront of Canadian tennis, one of the several Canadians to break through last year was Brayden Schnur, who, as a qualifier, stunned much of the tennis world by reaching his first ATP 250 final in New York. After a strong start to the season on the ATP Challenger circuit, the Pickering native scored two wins in qualifying before earning his first ATP main-draw win over compatriot Jack Mingjie Lin. From there, he would earn three more victories before falling in the final to big-serving American Reilly Opelka, losing in a third-set tiebreak. “Obviously, it was a super emotional week for me,” he reflected earlier this month in a sit-down interview. “You play tennis and you play these events, and you just don’t know when you’re going to have your breakthrough moment. Everyone tries to tell you that it’ll come, but you never know when that moment is gonna come or if it’ll ever come. And for it just to come during that week, it was overwhelming because it’s something that I did believe in and I knew I was capable of. I couldn’t have dreamed it any better to be honest.”
In a year that saw him crack the top 100 and reach a career-high of No. 92 in the world, Schnur also made his first main-draw appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, with the former proving to be one of the biggest highlights of his young career. “That was my first time stepping foot at the All England Club; I had never stepped foot on the grounds before,” he said, reflecting on his first Wimbledon experience as he marvelled at everything from the passionate fans to the perfectly manicured lawns. “Just walking the grounds and walking out to my match where I’m 100 metres away from my court but it takes us 10 minutes to get there because we’re shuffling through so many people. I’ll remember everything about that moment, and it was just really special.”
Despite being unable to compete in the new Davis Cup Finals due to a back injury, Schnur was still part of the Canadian contingent that made a stunning run to the final, losing to a Spanish team led by Rafael Nadal. In an incredible week that saw the Canadians earn wins over the United States, Italy, Australia and Russia, the 24-year-old now considers that week to be the perfect ending to his most successful season to date. “To be around those guys and laugh at all the jokes and go through the tight, nerve-wracking matches that we were having and to just pull it out each day and finish [at] 2-3 in the morning sometimes… It was just a heck of a week—a crazy week but a lot of fun—and I think any of the players on that team will agree that it was a highlight of their career as well.”
While he admits that the current circumstances are extremely difficult for any athlete in terms of finding the motivation to train for an unknown return date, Schnur says that he has taken advantage of this time off to spend more time with his family in Toronto, which has not always been possible due to his playing schedule. In addition, he has also been working more on his fitness, as he was unable to have a proper preseason due to his back injury.
Despite the current break in the calendar, Schnur remains committed to using his voice to advocate for a players’ union, which is a topic that has become more widely discussed in recent years. An initiative led by the likes of Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, players like Schnur have been advocating for better representation for players across all levels, which includes a more justified distribution of prize money. Compared to a lot of other sports, Schnur says that he finds it extremely frustrating that players outside of the top 100 are usually struggling to break even, let alone make a decent living. According to him, the Grand Slams only give 13-16 percent of their total revenue back to the players, which is one of the biggest concerns that could be addressed by a union that represents players at pivotal board meetings. “We, as tennis players, are our own company and we’re supposed to represent ourselves, but most tennis players are not worried about the politics that go into hosting a tournament,” he explained. “So, I think it’s really important that the players come together, and we have a law firm to represent us now, and this player’s union is a whole step in the right direction.”
It has been a long road back to professional tennis for Toronto’s Sharon Fichman. After stepping away from the game for a few years to pursue other passions, the 29-year-old officially returned to the competitive circuit in the fall of 2018 with a renewed mindset and an eye on the Tokyo Olympics. With a distinct focus on doubles, the Canadian has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the last 12 months, winning two WTA doubles titles and reaching five tour-level finals overall. In the process, the Torontonian has since equalled her career-high doubles ranking of No. 48 in the world and will look to build on that milestone when the tennis season resumes.
Looking back on the last 12 months, Fichman says she is most pleased with everything that she has accomplished to date in this second phase of her career, which can be attributed to her refreshing change in perspective. “From grinding through small ITF events in India to winning two WTA events, there have been many ups and downs,” she reflected. “The old Sharon rode the highs and lows too emotionally but the person and athlete I am now is embracing the journey and learning that it is important to find joy wherever I am. It’s always so easy to look back and go, ‘Oh, I know if I just did this differently or won this point, my ranking would have been here.’ But in the end, I am grateful for all the situations I’ve been in, both the lessons and the blessings, and accept that they were meant to happen as they did for a reason.”
After a few difficult months to start 2019, the Canadian tasted her first bit of tour-level success on the European red clay, a surface that she has historically excelled on. A couple of months after reaching the final of Nürnberg with American Nicole Melichar, Fichman teamed up with Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic, for just the second time, to win the inaugural Baltic Open in Jurmala.
Since returning to the tour, Fichman has played with 25 different players at a total of 42 events—a pattern that, she joked, makes her feel like she has been “speed dating” when it comes to finding a consistent doubles partner. After a whirlwind past few months, the 29-year-old has recently found success with former Grand Slam doubles champion Kateryna Bondarenko. Earlier last month in Mexico, the two joined forces to win their first WTA title of the season in Monterrey, exactly a week after making the final at a similar event in Acapulco.
“Katia and I connect well together; we are at ease with each other on court and I feel like we’re united in stressful moments,” said the Canadian. “Our playing styles compliment each other as well and the more we play together, the more comfortable we feel. With a player like Katia who has a laundry list of achievements in both singles and doubles, I feel very confident in us as a team and the belief to win is always there.”
Following their recent success, Fichman and Bondarenko were planning to play a lot more together during the spring, but those plans have obviously been put on hold. With the focus now on “staying safe and healthy” in these unprecedented circumstances, Fichman has spent the last few weeks at home in Toronto with fiancé Dylan Moscovitch, a retired pairs figure skater, who has been an invaluable source of inspiration throughout her comeback. “I am very grateful because I have someone with the wisdom, experience and knowledge of competing and he is the most positive person I’ve ever met,” she said.
Given that she just returned from Indian Wells a few weeks ago, Fichman has been chronicling some of her time in self-quarantine on social media. In recent weeks, she has posted about her and Moscovitch’s new workout routines, which has included some short circuit training and the use of a portable tennis wall made out of sail cloth that they have set up in their condo. After being on the road for so long, Fichman has begun to appreciate this sudden change that she lovingly describes as “being stuck with your best friend.”
“Dylan is very creative. He loves to work out, he just loves to have fun and tries to make everything exciting. He loves a challenge, so figuring out ways to push our bodies and work out and exercise in a small space with limited equipment has actually been super, super fun,” she noted. “[The tennis wall] is not remotely the same as playing but it’s nice to get the reps in and at least the muscle memory. Dylan loves it because he gets to play and it’s like having the perfect feed every time, so he gets a lot of reps and we’re enjoying it. We’re really maximizing our time together.”
As far as doubles players go on the WTA, there are few who have been more consistent in recent years than Ottawa’s Gaby Dabrowski. She has been a mainstay in the top-ten of the WTA rankings since early 2018 and has captured two Grand Slam titles in Mixed Doubles. She made the finals at Wimbledon last summer in Women’s Doubles as well. Toronto fans were treated to watching Dabrowski attain the semifinals in 2019 at the Rogers Cup, with her then regular partner Xu Yi-Fan; a feat she had also accomplished back in 2013 with Sharon Fichman.
In November of last year, Dabrowski found herself and Xu playing in the WTA Championships for a third consecutive year. It is an accomplishment that most tandems would be incredibly fulfilled by, yet Dabrowski felt it was time to head in a different direction. The plan for 2020 was to partner with a player known more for her singles results, Jelena Ostapenko. The Latvian is most recognized for her French Open singles title in 2017, yet she has also become quite an accomplished doubles player on tour. Dabrowski and Ostapenko have had some additional familiarity as doubles partners, having joined forces at the Rogers Cup in 2017, winning the title in Doha in 2018 and reaching the semifinals in Stuttgart in 2019.
Before formalizing their partnership for this season, Dabrowski wanted assurances that Ostapenko would commit to both singles and doubles. Once that was confirmed, it was time to see if they could rekindle some of their previous magic. Their first 2020 event together was at the Australian Open, where they made the quarterfinals, losing a close three set match. Next was the finals in Doha where they beat arguably one of the best doubles tandems on the WTA tour in Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens. This was followed up by a victory against Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic.
In discussing what permits she and Ostapenko to mesh so well as a tandem, Dabrowski had plenty of good things to share. “She’s got a great serve and an extremely strong baseline game, so if I’m doing the right things as a doubles player then I think our strengths work together really well. I can pick up volleys at the net and she sets me up. I think also, if I’m having a good serving and a good returning day then we’re a really tough team to beat. We’re definitely looking to improve together when we get back on the court.”
At this moment, that remains the big unknown for Dabrowski and every other professional tennis player. She was just coming off the practice courts in Indian Wells in March when she heard the news about the tournament being cancelled. She has had a very, busy few months in 2020 of the court as well. As a member of the WTA player council, Dabrowski has aided in making tough decisions about play during the Australian bush fires and protocol pertaining to the most recent pandemic. “Everybody’s top priority is health, and player health, so we always want to make sure that’s taken care of. But financially, a lot of players will be affected negatively from this, especially those who are lower ranked. That’s one of the main worries we have going forward.”
Dabrowski is riding things out in Tampa, Florida where she normally trains at the Saddlebrook Tennis Resort. As for the adjustment to her lifestyle, it seems as if Dabrowski is perfectly suited to having some time to herself if needed. “I call myself an introvert at heart, so honestly staying home and catching up on school and books and TV shows and just phoning friends and family, I’m ok with that for a little while. I might get a little stir crazy in a few weeks, but for the time being I’m honestly ok. There are a lot of things that you can do at home even for your tennis; we can workout at home as well. So, it’s just a matter of putting your own positive spin on the situation I guess.”
The biggest loss for Dabrowski through all of this, is the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It has come up in every conversation we have had since the last Olympics in Rio and, for Dabrowski, the Olympics has always been priority No. 1. “We’re playing for Canada. We’re playing for that little kid that’s watching us on the screen and saying to themselves, I want to be that girl or boy.” For Dabrowski, her second Olympic experience will be delayed a little longer but, if she continues to play the way she has, it will undoubtedly be waiting for her next summer.