These are heady days for Canada’s tennis program when two 18-year-olds can turn up at a news conference and place three Wimbledon trophies on the table.
That’s what Eugenie Bouchard of Montreal and Filip Peliwo of Vancouver did Monday as they were officially welcomed back from their triumphs in junior competition at the All England Club last week.
Bouchard took the junior girls titles in singles and doubles, while Peliwo won the junior boys competition at the grand slam event. Both were firsts for Canada, which is suddenly awaking from a long run of tennis mediocrity in singles play.
“Canada has become a country with ambitions,” said Louis Borfiga, who runs the national tennis centre that produced Canada’s emerging crop of young talent. “Now we have to keep working hard to try to become a great tennis country.”
The triumphs at the junior level followed the rise of 21-year-old Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., into the world’s top 30, the highest a Canadian has reached since rankings were inaugurated in 1973. Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino, 21, who is currently on leave from the sport, and 24-year-old Aleksandra Wozniak of Montreal have also made strides in the women’s game.
And there are more players on the way up, including 15-year-old Francoise Abanda of Montreal, who reached the girls semifinals at Wimbledon.
Peliwo reached the final at two grand slams earlier this year, the Australian and French Opens, and is now the world’s top-ranked junior.
”To be honest, it would be difficult to expect a year like this,“ said Peliwo. ”I knew that if I played my best tennis on a consistent basis it was possible, but I didn’t think I’d have a record like this and be number one after Wimbledon.“
There was still a buzz over Bouchard’s triumph in the girl’s final when Peliwo gave Canada another win.
“I really wanted to have same feeling she had after winning,” he said. “I had two previous finals and I wasn’t going to let Genie be the only one winning that week.
“It really motivated me. I was happy about Genie winning, and that if two Canadians won it would be an even more amazing achievement.”
The Canadian system has taken flight since Borfiga was hired to set up a national development program after doing the same for the boy’s program in France, which produced a handful of top players including Sebastien Grosjean and Fabrice Santoro.
Six boys and six girls are selected from programs across the country to train at the Jarry Park centre in Montreal. The ones moving from other provinces are billeted with families. They get top-level coaching and fitness facilities and funding to play in tournaments around the world.
For Borfiga, it is mostly about getting them into a tennis environment that pushes them to excel.
“What I wanted was a competitive environment,” said Borfiga. “What was missing before in Canada was that hunger to win.
“I wanted to make them understand that in Canada there was no reason that they can’t win. You just have to want it. Filip is [in the same place] where Raonic is. Filip sees what he does and says ‘I can do that too.’ Same for Eugenie.”
When asked to name his idols while growing up, Peliwo mentioned Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and others. No Canadians.
Canada has done well in doubles in recent decades with Daniel Nestor, Grant Connell, Sebastien Lareau and others, but the best singles player to emerge for many years was Greg Rusedski, who opted to play for Britain.
That looks to be changing. Raonic was born in Montenegro and moved to Canada when he was three, but the power server is ardent about playing Davis Cup for Canada.
“No discredit to any previous players because obviously guys like Simon Larose and Fred Niemayer were great players, but you didn’t see them on a regular basis at the highest levels at grand slams,” he said. “You cheered for them and wished them the best.”
The national centre costs Tennis Canada a little over $1-million per year, which is raised from the Rogers Cup tournaments in Toronto and Montreal.
“The biggest thing is to be able to travel,” said Bouchard. “With the funding, we’re able to play all the tournaments.
“Getting out of Canada and playing the toughest tournaments in Europe and South America will help make us the best in the world.”
It is still a long jump from junior success to getting to the top as a professional player. Both Bouchard and Peliwo are looking to start climbing the ladder this year in smaller tournaments. How high it will take them remains to be seen, although winning junior Wimbledon hardware is a fine start.
“It’s playing players in the top 100 or 200 and just getting used to it and knowing you can beat a player at that level,” said Bouchard. “They’re very close and within reach.”