Grant Connell has lost track of how many times he’s played centre court at Wimbledon. The best guess he can muster is somewhere north of a dozen. Tennis once consumed him. But since retiring in 1997, one of Canada’s most successful players has largely moved on from the sport. The 48-year-old real estate agent in Vancouver estimates he’s maybe watched three matches on television since then.
But when Eugenie Bouchard steps onto centre court at the All England Club Saturday for the women’s final, it will draw him back. And what he sees on TV will be something even Connell says he doesn’t recognize – a brand of tennis that is almost foreign to this country. It is about Canada not just playing and hoping, perhaps praying, to do well, but a new kind of drive that comes with an expectation to win every time out.
“It is a whole different ball game,” Connell said of the tennis he sees Canadians – such as Bouchard, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil – putting on display this year. “It’s not like ‘wow.’ It’s not a novelty. They expect to be there. It’s night and day from when I played 20 years ago. It’s kind of nice.”
Canadian tennis has gone through a massive overhaul in less than a decade, changing its culture, its approach and, most important, its results on the court.
A country that was once a backwater for the sport now boasts a national program that has become the talk of Wimbledon with a pipeline of young stars. At 20, Bouchard has a shot Saturday at becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam title, while Raonic, at 23, came close before falling to Roger Federer in the semi-finals. Pospisil, 24, will compete in the men’s doubles final, and countryman Daniel Nestor, the elder statesman at 41, will likely find himself playing for the mixed doubles title.
Canada is everywhere in London, but to understand how the country turned itself into a contender, you have to go back to the early days of the transformation. The talent factory Tennis Canada has created began as a rough blueprint in 2005, and an idea that its board members hoped would work – though they didn’t know for sure.
At that time, Tennis Canada’s chief role as a non-profit organization was to host the two Rogers Cup tournaments in Toronto and Montreal, and channel the proceeds into developing the sport. The money was paltry, though, producing about $3-million a year for Tennis Canada, compared to well over $50-million that Grand Slams such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open can generate, said Roger Martin, a former Tennis Canada chairman who remains on the board.
An injection of new board members, which included Martin, then-dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto; Tony Eames, the former head of Coca-Cola Canada; tennis mind Michael Downey; and Nova Scotia lawyer Jack Graham decided the non-profit needed to get more aggressive. In addition to squeezing more revenue out of the Rogers Cup, boosting the proceeds to the $12-million to $14-million range today through better marketing, the federation needed to spend its limited money smarter.
Rather than spreading the funds thin, supporting too many players across the tennis ranks, the board decided to revamp the program and begin targeting players that showed the most promise, and the fiercest dedication. And it needed to consolidate those players in one spot, so they could practise and play together, which spawned the National Tennis Centre in Montreal.
“We said, we’re only playing to win,” Martin recalls from the early board discussions. “It’s not justifiable to spread money around to players who aren’t training the way they need to train to be great. Historically, if you were sort of okay, you got money from Tennis Canada – a little bit for everyone. And we said no, we’ve got to focus the money on the people who are training the way we need to train.”
Then Downey suggested Tennis Canada attempt something it had never done before. It would take some of that money and hire international coaches to teach Canadian players. It is what some people see as the pivotal moment for the program.
“Downey hired foreign coaches for the first time ever, and he was under the gun. He got a lot of criticism,” Connell said. “But he had the guts to do it. That’s what is behind the success. He hired outside.”
Two men led the shift. The first was French coach Louis Borfiga, who was hired as vice-president of high performance athlete development in 2006. In addition to being a hitting partner for Bjorn Borg in his prime, Borfiga helped build the French Tennis Federation into a venerable force, overseeing the emergence of young French players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils and Gilles Simon in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The second key move was hiring Australian Bob Brett, who coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, among others. While Borfiga was tasked with building the country’s tennis talent at the top, Brett’s job was to oversee the development of players under age 14. It was something few countries had tried, said Martin, taking a top pro coach and putting him with kids.
“We had to give our young players world-class coaching that was required, because if you didn’t have that, it was getting to the point where it just didn’t matter any more how good you were athletically, you could not be a winner,” Martin said. “You have to have world-class coaching and an environment for that.”
After years in France, Borfiga recalls arriving to a much different situation in Canada in August, 2006.
“When I arrived, what surprised me a bit was that there was no structure. What I tried to bring above all was a very solid structure,” he said on the phone from Wimbledon. “We gathered all the players together in the same place. We had them compete with each other, and work with coaches.”
Of particular importance was taking stock of the younger talent. “We had a program for those under 12, so we started to get to know the under-12s … What I wanted was to really know all the young players well, and to follow their progress day after day.”
Changing the Canadian psyche in tennis was more difficult, Borfiga said. “I found the Canadian players … they played to have a good match, rather than to win,” he said. “What I tried to do was change the mentality … telling them that they are really stronger than the others, that they could win. We did this work even with the younger players, with all the boys and girls at the centre.”
Raonic went through the program at 16, while Bouchard was a student at 14. With Raonic, the coaches wanted to build out his strength, and get him playing more on clay to develop tactics in his game. But when the student started to outstrip the program in terms of talent and drive, Tennis Canada took another important step. It knew Raonic was too good to be training full-time in Canada, and helped him arrange coaching in Spain, where he could practise with better players, and continue getting funding from Tennis Canada. Bouchard made the same step with training in Florida.
“That’s something other countries don’t do,” Martin said. “We are not incredibly possessive. It became clear that Milos was getting too good and couldn’t be pushed hard enough. It’s a joint thing: We don’t hold on tight and say ‘It’s got to be in Canada.’”
The new approach, particularly the addition of people like Brett and Borfiga, trickles down through the player ranks, said Connell. “You feed off that. It gives the players a lot of confidence knowing that in their corner they’ve got this world-class coach and instructor,” he said.
“It’s amazing. I’m hearing the Americans are jealous of the Canadian system. The Americans have been trying to get this sort of success for a long time. Basically ever since [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi finished, they haven’t really had an American No. 1, or even close to it.”
But the success of Tennis Canada’s makeover has come with certain casualties. Downey was poached to run the British Lawn Tennis Association, and took Brett with him, as the British hope for similar results in their program.
Despite the praise being heaped on Tennis Canada by other countries, Martin says the results seen at Wimbledon this year are undoubtedly the work of the players. Bouchard, Raonic, and Pospisil are special talents who deserve the credit. The organization has simply helped move them along.
“To say that it’s [the strategy] and not the players, would be, of course, stupid,” Martin said. “We have awesome players with heart and awesome willingness to train.”
With a report from Susan Krashinsky