By Robert J. Lake
You’d have to been living under a rock not to have heard news of the stunning upset of Serena Williams by the Canadian 19-year old Bianca Andreescu in the final of the U.S. Open on September 7. Commentators and journalists rushed to remind their audiences that Bianca, whose Romanian parents immigrated to Canada six years before she was born, was not only the first player born in the 2000s and the first teenager since 2006 (Maria Sharapova, U.S. Open) to win a major singles tournament, but also the first ever Canadian. The narratives of youth and history-making for a nation were married to the story of Williams, whose efforts to secure a 24th major tournament victory – thus, equalling Margaret Court’s incredible record – went begging, again. Her last three efforts in major tournament finals resulted in losses, and while the number ‘24’ no doubt means a great deal to her, so too does the potential feeling of lifting her first major trophy as a mother, since giving birth to her daughter Alexis in September 2017. This combination of factors made the occasion compelling viewing for Canadians and Americans alike; the former looking to embrace its newest star, and the latter lamenting what could have been for their most successful star and arguably the GOAT.
While the news of Andreescu’s victory made the front pages (both on paper and digitally) of the major Canadian news outlets (namely CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun) and the hash-tag #SheTheNorth on Twitter generated huge social media interest after the event, she was virtually ignored in the run-up to the tournament, aside from her victory over Williams in the Rogers Cup in August. As an indication of where tennis generally sat on the priority list of Canadian broadcasters, TSN had the momentous Saturday afternoon final relegated to its 4th channel (TSN4) preferring baseball news and U.S. college football over potentially one of the greatest Canadian sports stories of the year, or even decade. Tennis fans in Canada would certainly regret in general the lack of media attention given to their sport over the years, but also possibly the fact that, arguably, more could have been made to hype up this particular occasion, as she progressed through the tournament playing some of the most consistent attacking tennis seen by any female player this year.
Possibly of even greater regret, however, was the absence within the history-making narratives of any real ‘history’ underpinning the story. What I mean is, the history of Canadian tennis, spanning an impressive 145 years, was overlooked by implication, as Canada was presented as something of a tennis backwater—a nation that had hitherto, until Andreescu, never produced a champion of merit and therefore also a nation seemingly of little significance on the tennis map.
This is as unfair as it is inaccurate, and overlooks the important contributions Canada has made to the historical development of tennis internationally, particularly its culture, and in other areas such as coaching and governance. One reason why the history of Canadian tennis has been given so little attention is, undoubtedly, the over-emphasis on elite-level success as a barometer of a nation’s general impact as a ‘tennis nation.’ This is indicative of the sensationalist media that drives sporting narratives; mundane but significant impacts are overlooked in favour of those spectacular but fleeting.
It is certainly true that Tennis Canada has never had anything like the immense budget of its southern neighbours, the United States Tennis Association, or Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), both of which rely on their money-spinning two-week-long majors to generate much, if not most, of their income. Nevertheless, the Canadian association responsible for growing the sport, which began as the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) in 1890, has probably been one of the more successful governing bodies over the last decade judged in terms of both grass-roots development and elite level success.
Tennis Canada has seen steady growth in participation figures since the 1980s, due at least in part to their efforts to aggressively pursue the developmental side of the sport in terms of strategic planning and competitive opportunities: creating an integrated system of talent development, a national team, regional training centres across Canada and support through corporate sponsorship. This occurred in conjunction with the tennis boom stirring in the U.S. and, undoubtedly, the influx of new immigrants to Canada with a built in love for the sport. Andreescu’s parents fit that category, and the young star has been part of the Canadian tennis system for some time, having participated in Toronto National Junior Training Program each year since 2011.
Previous to Andreescu’s recent successes, both Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic reached Wimbledon singles finals (Bouchard lost to Petra Kvitova in 2014 and Raonic lost to Andy Murray in 2016, reaching a world-ranking of 3 soon after), while Vasek Pospisil (Wimbledon doubles champion 2014 and singles quarter-finalist, 2015) has been a stalwart in their Davis Cup team for over a decade. Youngsters Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime have made notable inroads into the men’s circuit and are potential stars of the future; both have cracked into the world’s top-20 and are among the youngest players in the top-100. Meanwhile, recently retired 47-year-old Daniel Nestor is ranked as one of the greatest doubles specialists of all time: 3rd on the all-time list of career titles, including 12 majors, and 5th on the all-time list of inconsecutive weeks as world number-one, holding that position for 108 weeks between 2002 and 2012.
In the 1980s and 90s, Carling Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi, Sebastien Lareau, Grant Connell, Glenn Michibata and also Greg Rusedski (Montreal-born but relocated to Britain in his 20s enabling him to compete for GB) had successful careers. Given the sport’s relative niche following in Canada, and the persistent challenges with meagre funding and winter weather that necessitates indoor facilities for year-round play, these achievements over the last two or three decades are really quite impressive. However, while the groundwork began to be laid in the 1980s, the major thrust of development came from 2005 onwards, argues Roger Martin (former Chair of Tennis Canada), as new leadership within the Canadian association embarked on an innovative strategy of talent identification and elite-level coaching, aimed at being ‘unique and distinctive’ (Globe & Mail, September 8, 2019). Particularly in the last five years or so, the strategy has begun to reap rewards. Alongside the successes above, Canada has also crowned six junior grand slam champions since 2012; prior to then, not a single Canadian had ever won a junior singles championship across the four majors.
Such has been the steadily growing respect for Canadian methods, one of the key figures largely responsible for developing some of the top players, coach Louis Cayer, was poached by the LTA over a decade ago. Previously for Tennis Canada, Cayer developed their Coach Education Program and for twelve years coached and captained (as a non-player) the Canadian Davis Cup team, before relocating to Britain in 2007 to work in coaching development. While giving a tennis workshop in Monte Carlo, he was spotted by Judy Murray – elite-level British tennis coach and mother of tennis stars Andy and Jamie – and was asked to coach the latter en route to becoming a Davis Cup champion, in 2015, and the world’s number-one doubles player, in 2016, the year he won two majors (Australian and US Open). Bruno Soares, Murray’s Brazilian doubles teammate for much of the last 4 years, said of the Canadian, widely regarded as the best doubles coach in the world: “He [Cayer] is by far the best coach I’ve worked with. His tennis knowledge is insane. You can see what Jamie’s talking about, every guy that he works with, they improve, no matter what” (The Telegraph, January 19, 2019).
In 2014, Cayer was joined at the LTA by Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey (2004-2013), who was brought over to lead the development of tennis in Britain with its annual ~£30million budget. However, news of his appointment, though extraordinary – he was the first overseas leader/CEO in the LTA’s 130-year history – received barely a whisper within the Canadian sporting press at the time. After some notable successes at the LTA, Downey left in 2017 for personal reasons and has since returned to lead Tennis Canada.
Canada’s Early Impact
Canada’s influence upon the developing culture of tennis has deep historical roots. The nation’s first club was formed in Toronto – led by the efforts of Isodore Hellmuth, a local barrister – in 1874, around the same time that it emerged on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, officially formed in 1876, rapidly became a bastion of class privilege and “haunt of Upper Canada’s ruling elite.” argues Martin Kendrick – author of Advantage Canada: A Tennis Centenary (published by Tennis Canada, 1990) – with QCs, KCs ,and members of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie’s new government among its initial membership (p.10). Hellmuth competed alongside some of the world’s best players in the following years, notably coming runner-up in the first unofficial US National Championships in Staten Island in 1880 and, the following year, returned to Toronto to inaugurate the Canadian National Championships, open to ‘all comers’ (all who are amateurs and gentlemen; a ladies event was not held until 1892). Though the number of entries in the men’s event was small (just seven), nevertheless it attracted a swathe of Toronto’s elite, including Lieutenant-Governor Robinson and his wife alongside members of numerous prominent families.
By the 1880s, the sport had spread across Canada, with clubs established in St. John’s, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Principally for the Anglophone Canadians that were sympathetic to British high-culture, these clubs reinforced the hierarchical structures and class-based privilege that their equivalents would have enjoyed ‘across the pond,’ with membership restricted to ladies and gentlemen of good standing within the local community. Those potential members deemed undesirable were ‘blackballed’ to preserve exclusivity, and it is apparent that the clubs’ social emphases in these regards trumped the tennis itself. Highly-skilled players were desirable, as vehicles to enhance a club’s standing among its peers, but they had to be the ‘right sort’ and play in the ‘right way.’ Thus, these clubs served the important function of bonding members of the Canadian upper- and professional-middle class together, during the period shortly after Confederation when the nation was expanding westward and seeking to establish its own identity, distinct from their colonial rulers and southern neighbours.
Membership of such clubs played a not insignificant role in the process of consolidating their authority. Tennis clubs served as spaces of higher-class male sociability, but most included women as members – often with limited playing time and access to only certain rooms within clubhouses – as women were more tolerated than accepted. Their presence in clubs and at tournaments naturally lent these locales a modicum of frivolity. For example, the tournament established in 1885 at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, was known, internationally, for its social accoutrements, where wealthy ladies and gentlemen would watch some of North America’s best players in the afternoon before turning their attentions to the numerous dances and concerts, where romantic encounters played a large if not clandestine part of the tournament’s attraction. From 1895 to the onset of the Great War, Niagara-on-the-Lake hosted the Canadian National Championships, thereby attracting star players like the Americans May Sutton (1904 U.S. Nationals singles champion; 1905 & 1907 Wimbledon singles champion), William Larned (1896 Wimbledon singles champion; 1901-2 & 1907-1911 U.S. Nationals singles champion) and even a young Dwight Davis, who – in 1896, it has been claimed previously – likely got wind of an idea being floated to stage an international tennis championships (what came to be known as the Davis Cup) while attending the tournament.
Such was the respect accorded to Canadian tournaments, players and officials, and its role in the sport’s early growth, that Canada was invited to join as one of 19 founding members of the International Lawn Tennis Federation in 1913, but alongside the US and Norway, declined to do so. Their voting power, however, was limited to just two votes, compared to GB’s proposed six, and the U.S., France, and Australia’s five—a possible reason for their disinclination to join until 1923. This was a reflection of Canada’s declining status as a tennis nation, a trend that continued until after the Second World War. Stubbornly parochial, staunchly amateur, and against commercializing the sport, the CLTA were hindered by a concomitant lack of funding to support training and development of players. Several decent male players emerged in the late 1940s and 50s to stymie their decline, but none came close to winning a major tournament. Nevertheless, Canada’s global status, administratively, was consolidated when, in 1957-8, Montreal’s Robert N. Watt was elected ILTF President, the first and only Canadian to ever hold that position. By 1968, the year that tennis went ‘open,’ allowing amateurs and professionals to compete together at the leading tennis tournaments, Canada’s status and voting power in the ILTF had become second-tier, meaning their representatives had nine votes compared to the first tier (U.S., G.B., France and Australia) with twelve. Canada shared their position with only a handful of other nations – Czechoslovakia, Italy, New Zealand, and South Africa – and above the likes of Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany, which sustained them in the upper echelons of the sport, internationally.
Canada’s international status, administratively, was not matched by on-court performances. Nevertheless, Tennis Canada entered the 1980s in a buoyant mood, having just consolidated the position of the Canadian Open as the premier warm-up event to the U.S. Open, and also secured a new venue at York University to replace their event at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, which it had outgrown; previous to that, the tournament had been bounced around several cities across Canada, which arguably damaged its credibility. The Canadian Open had become recognized as one of the most significant and prestigious tournaments within both the men’s and women’s tours. In 1981, with new sponsorship and a generous purse, a permanent site and a plan to build a national tennis base, Tennis Canada agreed to share the event with Montreal. Since then it has been played as a combined men’s (ATP) and women’s (WTA) event. Such was its rapid progress to become regarded as one of the best tournaments of the year, in the 1980s/90s, outside of the four majors, no other tournament on the Grand Prix (what became the ATP Tour) consistently attracted more top-twenty players. Over the years it has progressed also through a number of iterations in its title before becoming the Rogers Cup in 2005.
Also in Canada, tournaments in Quebec City (WTA International Tournoi de Québec, 1993-2018), Granby (ATP Challenger Challenger de Granby, 1993-present), Drummondville/Rimouski (ATP Challenger Challenger de Drummondville, 2006-present), and Vancouver (ATP Challenger Vancouver Open, 2002-present) have been accorded high status as ranking events in the men’s and women’s tours, alongside other events including the defunct Toronto Indoor (1971-90), and the 1987 edition of the Fed Cup, hosted at Vancouver’s Hollyburn Country Club. These events ensured local fans access to witness of the play of the some of the world’s best players annually.
Beyond the exciting recent emergence of Bianca Andreescu to the highest echelons of professional tennis, the sport in Canada has a niche yet deep-rooted culture and history. Her achievements have built upon the steady progress and accomplishments of her fellow countrymen and women over the last few decades – including players, coaches and administrators – which has suddenly put Canadian tennis in the spotlight. However, what is for public consumption remains a truncated narrative of success coming seemingly ‘out of nowhere,’ when in reality a more detailed and critical examination would reveal nuances in the story. Beyond the respectable emergence of Canadian champions, the nation has figured much more centrally in the sport’s history, playing an important role in numerous aspects of its international growth and development—a role that deserves our attention if we are to accurately assess Andreescu’s achievements in their broader socio-historical contexts.
The author would like to thank Chris Bowers and Omar Gonzalez for their assistance in preparing this article.
Robert J. Lake is in the Department of Sport Science at Douglas College, Canada. He has published widely in the areas of sport history and sport sociology, with a primary focus on tennis and issues of class, gender, race, national identity, politics, governance, coaching and talent development. His research has been published in over a dozen different academic journals, and he has authored/edited three books; his first, A Social History of Tennis in Britain (Routledge 2015), won the 2016 Lord Aberdare Literary Prize awarded by the British Society of Sport History. He is an Associate Editor for both The International Journal of the History of Sport and Sport in History. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @roblake29