I never thought I would live to see the day that a Canadian would make the final of the Canadian Open tennis tournament. That day came in August – and I lived to see it! It was a surprise and the highlight of my professional tennis watching days. Over and above all the majors (Wimbledon included), all I have ever wanted to see was a Canadian win their own national tournament. It is a source of national and personal pride. The fact that I never thought I would live to see it, makes the runner-up position sweet because now I do see a Canadian winning their own title in my lifetime.
One of the highlights of the tennis year for any Canadian tennis fan is the Canadian Open (or as it is known by its sponsorship name over the past several decades in various forms – the Rogers Cup, the Players International, the Players Challenge, the duMaurier, etc etc). I have long argued for the Canadian Open to be called just that – the Canadian Open. It tells people exactly what it is – Canada’s national open championship. Calling it by the sponsor’s name tells people who don’t follow tennis what? – the Rogers Cup of mouse racing? the Rogers Cup of lawn bowling? Why not call it the Rogers Canadian Open? Or the Canadian Open presented by Rogers?
This is purely another marketing ploy based on dollars and cents to put the sponsor’s name out there front and center. Don’t get me wrong – without a big sponsor, the Canadian Open would not enjoy the prestige it does on the tour and would not survive. I’d rather have a sponsored Canadian Open than no Canadian Open at all. I just think the name could better reflect what the tournament is all about.
I started watching the Canadian Open soon after I became interested in tennis in the mid-80s. I had already played a little but it was the success of the professional players like Carling Bassett, Helen Kelesi, Patricia Hy, Jill Hetherington, Grant Connell, Glenn Michibata and Andrew Sznajder that drew me to the tournament. Every year (much like the Canadian Open golf tournament on the PGA Tour), there was the annual story of what Canadian would make their way the furthest in the tournament with the media always reminding everyone that it had been since the 1950s that a Canadian had won either tournament.
The furthest that a Canadian has advanced in either the men’s or women’s event during the 1980s and 1990s has been the quarterfinals (Bassett, Kelesi, Hy, Connell and Sznajder). Since that time, that has been the benchmark for success. It is those players that deserve a lot of the credit for keeping Canadian tennis alive through those tough years. I cheered them on not only during the Canadian Open but on the tour as well. Since Hy’s quarterfinal appearance in 1992, Canadian tennis went through a long period of stagnation.
The arrival of Frank Dancevic and Aleksandra Wozniak in the mid 2000s signalled a promising upswing and the start of a new era. However, both have been beset by injuries which have turned promising top 10 potentials into unfortunate journeymen tour players. It was Wozniak though who became the first Canadian woman since Hy in 1992 to reach the Canadian Open quarterfinals in 2012. It was a bit of a surprise since she was in between injuries. Immediately following on the heels of that success, Milos Raonic became the first Canadian man to reach the Canadian Open quarterfinals since 1989 when Connell and Sznajder did the same.
It was a validation of the hard work put in by both the players and Tennis Canada. It was a thrilling time because it had been a long time in coming. Canadian tennis fans have had a very long wait to cheer on one of their own at home – that is why there is such fervour for Raonic. The thrills that Canadian tennis fans felt in 2012 went beyond exaltation in 2013.
What happened during the men’s Canadian Open in 2013 was simply a perfect storm. Both Raonic and Vasek Pospisil made the quarterfinals, then, providing every Canadian tennis fan with a memory to last a lifetime, they beat their quarterfinal opponents and because they were in the same section of the draw, faced each other in the semi finals. It was a dream semi final because for the first time a Canadian would play in the final in the open era. While it didn’t turn out to be a dream come true with a Canadian winning the title, it was a great weekend nonetheless.
For me, it was validation that what Tennis Canada has been doing to raise potential top tennis players is working. It also ended my wait to cheer on Canadian tennis players where I wanted them explicitly to do well. It is a source of Canadian pride for Canadian athletes to perform well at their own national championship. For these players to do what they did under intense pressure to perform shows me how far Canadian tennis has come and what a change in mental attitude the new breed of players have. I have a feeling that this is the start of something very special – I hope so anyway.
For every Canadian tennis player that came before the current crop, Canadian tennis fans should applaud them all loudly. It was this Canadian team that became the blueprint for success as a Canadian on the professional tour. These pioneers - Main, Fontana, Belkin, Urban, Rochon, Blackwood, Bickle and a host of others - were an example for the players that came after them. Canada has always had a crop of good tennis players playing at any one moment. It is these players that inspire the next generation. Already, the Raonic, Pospisil, Bouchard crop is inspiring the Felix, Denis, Charlotte crop and these players will follow suit.
Throughout Canada’s magical run in the 2013 Davis Cup, there has been a steady, unwavering presence at all of their matches – no, not any of the players, but the fans with the big giant heads in the stands. The big giant heads have been a mainstay at the ties – waving back and forth and up and down. For those unfamiliar with the big giant heads – they are not people, but large, blown-up cut outs of all of the Canadian players’ heads with various expressions of joy, elation and match play aggression.
The Canadian fans holding these oversized cut outs first appeared at the Davis Cup tie in Vancouver vs. Spain in the round of 16. The fans would rise from their seats and bounce and sway the big giant heads in the air as if they were moving by themselves. It turned out to be a great attention getter and rallying point for Canada during the matches.
When they turned up again in the quarterfinals vs. Italy (again in Vancouver), they were an even bigger treat to see because it seemed as though the big giant heads had multiplied. A trip to the Davis Cup semifinals was on the line – uncharted territory in the modern era for Canada (though Canada did make it to the semifinals way back in 1913 when there was way less competition). The vociferous fans were even more intent upon pushing Canada through to the semifinals. It was a treat not only to watch the tennis but to see the big giant heads waving in the crowd.
When Canada ultimately won the quarterfinal tie, it was nice to hear the players afterwards mention the big giant heads and the fans that carried them. The play on the court was essential but the fans and the big giant heads also played a part in the tie and the atmosphere in the arena. Without them, I think it would have been a much tougher tie to watch and become involved in. They made it possible to believe that Canada could prevail, even though at times it was unpredictable.
When the fans with the big giant heads turned up in Serbia, it was a complete surprise. Thousands of miles from home, they had made it across the Atlantic to cheer for the underdog Canadian team. To see them in the stands, again bouncing and waving the big giant heads, it made me think that anything was possible. The first thought that crossed my mind was ‘how did they get those things to Serbia?’ Mail? Courier? Freight? Printed in Serbia? It remains a mystery, until possibly someone reading this blog will reveal the secret of how the big giant heads made it to Serbia.
At times, the Canadian fans overpowered the Serbian fans in terms of volume, intensity and camaraderie. Even though Canada lost the tie and it was hard to watch, the best thing to carry Canadian fans through the weekend was the participation of the Canadian fans in Belgrade and their big giant heads. I have never seen anything like it before in Davis Cup.
It was a brilliant maneuver marketing-wise and brought out Canadian patriotism in such a unique way that it will always be remembered. Why another country hadn’t thought of this is a mystery. I’m quite sure that there will be copycats down the road in 2014 because it was such a success for Canada in 2013. Look for the big giant heads in 2014 in Japan.
Everything (well, almost everything) fell into place for Canada in 2013 during the team’s run to the Davis Cup. It was an unprecedented performance in uncharted territory. Canada had been to the semifinals of the Davis Cup only twice before (in 1913 and 1920, then when the competition was much less fierce). In 2013, it is safe to say that Canada surprised many by ultimately becoming one of the top four men’s tennis teams in the world.
The Davis Cup is the ultimate men’s team tennis competition in the world, beginning in 1900. For over 70 years, the US, Britain, Australia and France dominated the competition. Canada’s only significant appearance during this time was in 1913 when they actually made it to the final, defeated by the US. It wasn’t until 1991 that Canada re-emerged from the tennis wilderness to compete in the re-organized World Group. By then, tennis had truly become an international sport with European countries dominating the sport. Although Canada played in the World Group twice again (1992 and 2004), they were win less in their ties.
Since then, the transformation that Tennis Canada has undertaken to change the image of Canadian tennis and the success of Canadian tennis players has begun to show dividends. Strictly discussing Davis Cup, Canada toiled in the trenches of zonal play for decades which makes this recent success much more satisfying. Hard work, dedication, spirit and heart were the key ingredients. Even though Canada made it to the World Group in 1991, 1992 and 2004, there was no momentum following these victories and they fell further in zonal play. Almost hitting rock bottom coincided with a surge in player development by 2010, which led to Canada’s current success.
Although Milos Raonic has been seen as the public figure that has propelled Canada to these new heights, there are a few more public people that deserve just as much credit. Vasek Pospisil has been the new workhorse for this Canadian team. He has immense potential and one day (with the right guidance) may surpass Raonic in the rankings. He has all the tools and talent to get where he wants to go. Raonic has been the fire starter of this new team. He was the one who got the ball rolling and everyone else got behind him because of that confidence.
Daniel Nestor is simply a tennis legend. For over 20 years, he has kept Canada alive on the world stage in every capacity possible – Olympics, Davis Cup, the Grand Slam, the ATP Tour. He is one of the most underrated Canadian athletes of all-time. Frank Dancevic also deserves huge praise for coming through with clutch victories when Canada desperately needed them. His match vs. Spain in the first round of singles this year was unbelievable. One can only imagine where his career could have been in the stratosphere had it not been for multiple injuries throughout his career.
Canada is a great team and deserves to be where it is – now firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of world tennis. It is true that the team caught a break when Nadal and Ferrer chose not to play for Spain in Vancouver. That’s tennis. You get breaks, you get lucky. You also have to rely on your talent and not on the breaks – that is what Canada did in 2013. The talent came through in every possible way: Raonic playing like a winner; Pospisil coming through in singles and doubles; Nestor being the legend that he is; and Dancevic playing like a man possessed because he knew he had it in him. Confidence. It’s huge in professional sports. Canada now has huge confidence and the belief that they can play and outplay anyone. It’s going to be an exciting next few years for Canada’s Davis Cup team.
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