On a historic weekend for Canadian tennis, Vancouver’s Filip Peliwo joined the likes of Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg in the record books, while Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., put her name alongside such greats as Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis.
They did it on the grass courts of the venerable All-England club, becoming the first Canadians in history to win Wimbledon junior singles titles – only the second time since 1981 that the boys and girls champions both came from the same country.
Canada’s emergence as a new, if unlikely, threat in the world of tennis can be traced to changes made at the junior level six years ago.
At the time, Tennis Canada hired a superstar French coach to overhaul the development system. It also owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts of Milos Raonic as a senior player on the men’s side, who, at 21, has become the highest ranked Canadian male player of all-time.
Eugenie started the made-in-Canada assault on Saturday, by defeating Elina Svitolina of Ukraine 6-2, 6-2 in the girls’ final. Twenty-four hours later, Filip – making his third consecutive appearance in a junior Grand Slam final – won the boys’ singles title by knocking off top-seeded Luke Saville of Australia 7-5, 6-4. With the victory, Filip became the No. 1 ranked junior boys player in the world.
For Canadian players, it marked a clean sweep of the most prestigious junior tournament on the tennis calendar – and it didn’t end with their victories, either.
A precocious 15-year-old from Montreal, Francoise Abanda, almost made it an all-Canadian girls’ final, but lost in the semi-finals to Ms. Svitolina in three sets. Ms. Bouchard, meanwhile, went on to win the girls doubles crown for the second consecutive year Sunday. The three Wimbledon junior titles won by Ms. Bouchard are the most in the modern age, or what is colloquially known in tennis as the Open era, according to Tennis Canada.
It was a stunning weekend, described as “an amazing accomplishment,” by Eugenie’s father, Mike, on the telephone from London, where he watched his daughter breeze to her singles victory in a precise, well-played match.
“She always wanted to win a junior Grand Slam – and if you’re going to win one, this is the one to win. She’s been at it for many years – since she’s been five years old, so we’re all very proud of her. Couldn’t be prouder.”
For his part, Filip said he drew “huge motivation” in his final match from Eugenie’s victory on Saturday.
“I won’t say I was jealous, I don’t think that’s the right word,” said Filip, “but I was just inspired by the fact that she won. That made me even more hungry to do the same. I wanted to have the same feeling she did.”
For Filip, the win was an important breakthrough after losing his two previous appearances in a Grand Slam junior final – to Mr. Saville in three sets at the Australian Open in January and then to Kimmer Coppejans in straight sets at the French Open in May.
Winning a junior Wimbledon title doesn’t necessarily guarantee success professionally, because a number of former champions failed to make any sort of impact on the tour. But it does represent a hopeful first step.
“Put it this way,” said Michael Downey, the president and CEO of Tennis Canada. “I’d rather have it on my résumé than not.”
Mr. Downey believes Canada’s improved fortunes on the courts can be traced back to a decision made in 2006 to hire French coach Louis Borfiga to administer the development system here. Mr. Borfiga was in charge of France’s boys’ development system during the rise of its men’s program, then moved to Montreal to launch a similar program in Canada.
“He was running a national program in France that had tons of success,” said Mr. Downey. “So he borrowed all those best practices. Even though all his experience is male-based, he just knows fundamentally how to develop a kid between the ages of 14 and 17.”
And then there is the leadership by example from Milos Raonic, whose success has, according Mr. Downey, had a trickle-down effect of “raising the bar of confidence” for the players coming through the system. “When you get to this level, a lot of it is the mental strength and the belief that you belong. Eugenie and Filip, among others, believe they belong.”
The inspiration was cited by both young champions this weekend.
“Milos showed it was possible,” said Filip. “He showed us that obviously, we have a good system going now.”
“It takes a champion to help the sport because more kids then want to get into it,” said Mr. Bouchard. “You’ve got smaller countries than Canada, like Belgium, producing some incredible talent, because they’re actually a tennis nation and as a result they have a bigger base. In Canada, the boys are all playing hockey and the girls are doing different things. But now that we have some champions like this, there is a groundswell building. I think that’s the way to promote a sport.”
Mr. Downey says the generation represented by Filip, Eugenie and Francoise are the first “true products” of the new national training approach. “Milos [Raonic] came in when he was 16 or 17. These kids came in younger. So for the younger kids, the eight-, nine-, and 10-year-olds we have in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in our national programs, they’re just going to look up and say, ‘I can do it.’ And I don’t think in the past they did. I don’t think a lot of other professionals, other than [Daniel] Nestor, believed they belonged. And you gotta believe.”
Except for Eugenie, the Bouchards are a family of “weekend tennis warriors.” But their daughter showed great promise at an early age, said her father. “The opportunity was there for her because we put her into tennis,” he said. “There are no five-year-olds who say, ‘I want to play tennis.’ It’s a difficult sport to learn because that ball is difficult to control when you’re young. So it takes a little bit of patience and focus – to start having fun and to start having a rally and enjoying the game.
“She demonstrated a good physical ability and the ability to focus. We hired some professionals and it went from there.”
Filip said his breakthrough moment came last fall, when he started to develop his consistency, just before the Australian Junior Open.
“It was interesting because with Filip, the first couple of years, it was a slow build,” said Mr. Downey. “But the coaches there said, ‘Be patient. The guy’s filling out his body. His game’s coming. Just don’t expect the results necessarily fast, because it takes longer for the young men to develop than it does women in our sport.’
“The last year, he just came into his own. You’ve seen the results. Three consecutive finals and he won today. He’s got phenomenal ferociousness on court. He’s a fairly aggressive kid. He channels that well on court. He’s very competitive. I like his edge.”