In the late 1990's, I was asked to join the board of Tennis Canada, which I agreed to do with great pleasure. I first started the game under the tutelage of my parents, keen recreational players, and learned a steady 'B' game which continues to this day, notwithstanding a torn left shoulder, tennis elbow in my right arm, and other signs that "I ache in the places where I used to play."
I watched Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall play an exhibition match well over 50 years ago, and in my first encounter with Wimbledon watched Rosewall make a dramatic return in 1970, beating both Jon Newcombe and Stan Smith after being down two sets, only to be swept by Jimmy Connors in three straight sets. I was hooked on the game, and remain so to this day.
After joining Tennis Canada, I quickly learned we faced challenges. Like so many institutions in Canada, we were a federal structure, with the usual arguments about turf and control, the strengths of a strong sense of the local, and the dysfunction of a weaker national approach.
We didn't have a clear path for really good players, so they ended up going elsewhere, or just not getting the help and coaching they needed. Our facilities in Toronto and Montreal were adequate, but the competition for tournaments that would attract the great players was stiff. The board was divided on some big issues: Could we bring people together to create an "elite" program without abandoning our remarkable local networks that had such strong roots and support? Could we finance two major infrastructure improvements in Montreal and Toronto to make sure those cities remained venues where the best in the world would come to play?
These were fascinating discussions, sometimes emotional and difficult, and in the midst of them we hired a new CEO, Michael Downey, who did not come from the world of tennis.
More than ten years later, it turns out we made some good decisions. The tennis centres in Toronto and Montreal generate vital revenues for the national training program. We took a big risk, supported one another, and the crowds came in big enough numbers to give us real money. Michael Downey showed that you don't need a tennis swing to understand good management and tough decision making. And dedicated pros and teachers saw great talent and let it grow under their mentorship. A Canadian, Jack Graham, is a key mover and shaker in the International Tennis Federation, having helped develop a renewed training program as a volunteer board member at Tennis Canada.
And so here we are, in 2013, in Belgrade. Canada is in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup, having beaten Spain and Italy, two countries whose national systems for training we were studying fifteen years ago. Milos Raonic is in the top ten. Daniel Nestor in his early 40's is still one of the greatest doubles players of all time, young Vasek Pospisil showed his talent for both singles and doubles and is one of those players capable of real surprise. Frank Dancevic is a steady, reliable player who has kept us in many games.
Canada is, admittedly, up against fierce competitors, the Serbs, whose own national program is extraordinary, and whose star, Novak Djokovic, is number one in the world. They have the advantage of home court (clay) and home crowd (loud and boisterous).
But whatever happens, we have shown what can happen when great talent, good professional advice, and much volunteer effort come together. Team Canada can work. And we shall show it in Belgrade.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.