Roger Martin is a past chair of Tennis Canada and a professor emeritus and former dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
Bianca Andreescu’s triumph at the U.S. Open is first and foremost an individual one. The 19-year-old Canadian prodigy stared down perhaps the most dominant player in tennis history, beat her on her own home court and became a genuine superstar, as well as a credit to her country.
But her victory also provides a valuable object lesson to Canadian organizations more generally. The lesson is that if a Canadian organization, whether corporate, non-profit or public sector, both aims high and is willing to make distinctive choices in pursuit of those lofty aims, it can achieve true greatness.
To be sure, Ms. Andreescu needed to make all those spectacular shots alone on the court. But in the background was a strategy created at Tennis Canada in 2005 that provided her with world-class support of the sort her competitors enjoy. The strategy was bold – and it needed to be, because tennis in Canada had a long track record of mediocrity.
The gold standard in tennis is success in the four annual Grand Slam singles events: Australian, French and U.S. Opens plus Wimbledon. As of 2005, in more than a century of Grand Slam history, Canada had not produced a single Grand Slam singles winner or finalist, and boasted one semi-finalist, Carling Bassett-Seguso, but that was more than 20 years earlier in 1984.
Canadian tennis was irrelevant on the international stage. It was hobbled by winter weather – an average county in California has more all-year tennis courts than all of Canada because ours need to be covered for year-round play. Tennis Canada had a tiny budget for supporting players. Canada lacked both world-class tournament and coaching infrastructures. Net, there were lots of great excuses for Canada’s mediocrity in tennis.
In the face of those daunting headwinds, newly appointed chair Jack Graham, future chairs Tony Eames and I, and newly appointed chief executive officer Michael Downey led the forging of a strategy for playing to win globally in tennis. Given that we were dwarfed by the leading tennis countries – such as the United States, France, Russia and Australia - in both resources and tennis heritage, we needed to make unique and distinctive choices, and we did.
For example, we appointed Bob Brett, one of the world’s legendary coaches, as head of our Under-14 program and gave him the task of scouring Canada for young talent that might have been otherwise overlooked, and ensuring these youngsters set off on a path consistent with becoming a top 10 global player, not just an excellent Canadian player. Use of a world-class coach of Mr. Brett’s status on young players, rather than already high-ranking professionals, was unprecedented in the tennis world.
In addition, we created a unique hybrid of the highly controlled French Tennis Federation system and the laissez-faire U.S. Tennis Association system, which funded high-performance Canadian players whether they used their own coaches or Tennis Canada’s – as long as they met our development standards.
Perhaps most importantly, we unflinchingly enforced adherence to the strategy through the successive three-year chairmanships of Mr. Graham, Mr. Eames and myself. As Ms. Andreescu knows, winning takes commitment by the athlete, and we were determined to be as committed to our strategy as they were to their training.
It took patience. The green shoots started showing up seven years later with the young products of our system at the Junior Grand Slams. In Junior Grand Slams Boys and Girls Singles Championships from inception (with the Junior Boys Australian Open in 1922) through 2011, Canada had won exactly zero titles: Canada was zero for 492. But in the 32 championships since, we have won six titles and tied with powerhouse Russia, in second place to the United States, with 12. This is truly rarefied air: Only six other countries have won half as many as Canada or more over this period.
Then came new benchmarks on the biggest stage. Genie Bouchard became Canada’s first Grand Slam adult finalist at Wimbledon in 2014. Milos Raonic did likewise at Wimbledon in 2016 and, of course, Ms. Andreescu at the U.S. Open in 2019. While three different finalists in that six-year period may not seem like many, it, in fact, is high in relative terms. Only five countries – Czech (four), Canada (three), the U.S. (three), Switzerland (two) and Spain (two) – have enjoyed multiple finalists during that period, and we are tied for second, just behind the leader in producing multiple finalists rather than just one great player.
Plus, we now have our first winner – and she won’t be our last. We are confident because we have the highest-ranked teenagers on both the women’s (Ms. Andreescu) and men’s (Félix Auger-Aliassime) tours, and two of the top four men’s top-ranked “Next Gen” (i.e. 21 and under) players (Mr. Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov). That promising threesome is the envy of all countries. Canada’s improbable success under the 2005 strategy caused American tennis legend and lead TV commentator John McEnroe to ask during a recent Wimbledon telecast: “Who would have thought Canada would become a tennis superpower?”
The good news is that Ms. Andreescu’s signature breakthrough and the Tennis Canada strategy that facilitated it demonstrate that any Canadian organization can achieve success, but only if it aims high and makes distinctive choices. Unfortunately, too few do either.
Most aim to play, not win, and do so by replicating the popular choices of their peers rather than innovating. That approach guarantees mediocrity and generates a self-fulfilling prophecy about poor little Canada not really being able to compete in a tough competitive world.
But it simply doesn’t have to be the case. Thanks to Ms. Andreescu’s magnificent performance and all those who supported her, it is more evident today than it was last week that it is time for more Canadian organizations to step up to higher aspirations and more distinctive strategies.