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the inner competitor

Milos Raonic achieved a Canadian first at Wimbledon in men’s singles this year, reaching the final.Tony O’Brien/Reuters

It remains to be seen what 2017 and the years to come hold in store for Canadian tennis, but after a summer for the ages this year, the future seems to brim with exciting potential.

"I think the window of Wimbledon to the U.S. Open was one of the greatest periods of Canadian tennis," says Karl Hale, tournament director for the Rogers Cup and a former touring professional himself.

During that window, Milos Raonic became the first Canadian man to advance to a Grand Slam final, where he came up short against world No. 2 Andy Murray on Wimbledon's famed Centre Court. On top of that, up-and-comers such as 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov took the junior title at the All England Club, while rival and fellow Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, 16, won the equivalent title at the U.S. Open.

On the women's side, while world No. 46 Eugenie Bouchard still struggles to regain the form in which she reached three Grand Slam semi-finals in 2014, 16-year-old Bianca Andreescu recovered from a foot-stress-fracture-induced six-month layoff to reach the semi-finals in the junior U.S. Open tournament.

Hale says as a result of the current and emerging players, Canada is looked upon as the "emerging superpower" in tennis.

"Everyone's asking us, what did you do? How did you create this?" he says. "Because we don't have a high volume number of players across the country."

Hale says that participation numbers are growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year, with the majority of summer and winter clubs at or near capacity. The problem now, he says, is providing enough indoor facilities across the country to fulfill that need.

However, there has been recent movement in that department. In Atlantic Canada, three indoor facilities have been built in the past two years, while in Calgary, a new, state-of-the-art indoor facility with five outdoor courts was completed this year.

Hale, a native Jamaican turned Canadian Davis Cup player, knows the impact tennis can have on developing a purpose in life. He'd like to see tennis as part of school programs – it's a sport one can play for a lifetime and doesn't present the risk of concussions as football and hockey do.

This summer he held tennis programs for inner-city youth in the Toronto regions of Regent Park and Scarborough. The only problem was that he didn't hold enough.

"I was looking at it as a one-time program, get them interested in the sport and then hand them over to an existing, ongoing program," he says. "But these people loved it so much that they wanted us to do more ongoing programs, which we're looking at now logistically."

Tennis Canada, the sport's governing body, has taken steps to prepare for the upswing in participation and the rising level of excellence.

While hockey still dominates television, 4.7-million Canadians did tune in to watch Raonic play in the Wimbledon final.

"I think tennis is getting there," says Hatem McDadi, senior vice-president of tennis development for Tennis Canada. "There's no doubt we're a hockey culture … but tennis is gaining."

The country has been building toward its current swell for much of the past 20 or 30 years, but a big part of its recent rise has been immigration, McDadi says.

"New Canadians coming to Canada from Asia, Europe, South America have a real strong culture of tennis … so it's really helped the growth of the sport as well," he says.

Montenegro-born Raonic and Israel-born Shapovalov are among this immigrant wave. They moved to Canada with their families as young children.

Tennis Canada's efforts to get more people hooked on the game have stretched all the way down to the grassroots. Those efforts included putting a long-term athlete development model in place, introducing right-size equipment to suit children as young as 3 and 4, decompressed balls and three court sizes to help children enjoy the sport on their terms.

Tennis Canada furthered this aim by hiring French coach Louis Borfiga away from the French Tennis Federation in 2006. Borfiga put a high-performance structure in place and opened a full-time national training centre in 2007.

"It's not just throwing darts at a board," McDadi says. "There's national centres, club training programs, provincial partnerships, kids' tennis equipment."

While he says the common thread among Raonic, Bouchard, Shapovalov and Andreescu is talent, commitment, passion and sacrifice, getting support at the right time is also important to the development of a world-class athlete.

With tennis in a golden era, with the likes of Novak Djokovic, Murray and Roger Federer, and the indomitable Serena Williams, winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, alongside the rise of Canadian stars, it's a "perfect storm" for Canadian tennis.

"A lot of it is timing," McDadi says. "What Milos and Genie have done is inspire the next generation, and that next generation will inspire the next generation, and there's now a culture of winning, a culture of success, a culture of tennis in our country."

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