For a country obsessed with sports played on ice and snow, Canada has become a rising power in the summer pastime of tennis.
At this year's Wimbledon tournament Milos Raonic made the men's final, Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov won the boy's title and two other juniors reached the finals and semi-finals in doubles in what some are considering the biggest day in Canadian tennis history.
Mr. Raonic lost to Andy Murray, giving the British star his second Wimbledon title, but it was still the best showing yet by a Canadian in a men's Grand Slam. And Mr. Shapovalov became only the third Canadian to win a junior Grand Slam.
"There's a lot to look forward to," Mr. Raonic said when asked about the state of Canadian tennis. "There are a lot of prospects, there's a lot of hope, there's a positive future in Canadian tennis."
The results in London marked a turning point for Tennis Canada, which has spent nine years identifying and developing promising players with full-time coaching, educational support and financial assistance. The effort has been paying off faster than some officials imagined.
Three Canadian junior men – Mr. Shapovalov, Montreal's Félix Auger-Aliassime and Benjamin Sigouin of Vancouver – are ranked in the top 15 in the world among players under 18. No other country has that many players in the top 20 and Mr. Auger-Aliassime, who is 15, is ranked third. Bianca Andreescu is ranked in the top 10 junior girls, and Charlotte Robillard-Millette has also been among the top 10. Mr. Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, who made the Wimbledon final in 2014, also came through the program.
"This has been building in many ways," said Jack Graham, a long-time director of Tennis Canada who is also on the board of the International Tennis Federation. Other countries "regard us as a serious emerging tennis country, if not one of the leading tennis countries now, because of the progress that we've made in the last several years."
It started in 2007 when the board of Tennis Canada made a key decision not to focus only on paying down the debt associated with construction of the new $40-million tennis stadium in Toronto, but to invest in player development. That led to the opening of a tennis centre in Montreal and the hiring of Louis Borfiga, a French coach who had developed players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Mr. Borfiga brought along Guillaume Marx and the two have been critical to the success of the program.
Two other training centres have opened in Toronto and Vancouver, but Montreal remains the focal point.
The board also boosted the development budget to nearly $13-million annually from $3.5-million with most of the money coming from proceeds generated by the annual Rogers Cup tournament.
Players are identified as young as 9 through a national feeder network and the best are brought to Montreal for intensive training.
That's how Mr. Sigouin got into the program. He started batting balls with his father, Hubert, on the public courts in Vancouver's Stanley Park when he was 4. He showed enough promise by the age of 11 that he was recruited into the Tennis Canada program. He now commutes between the Montreal tennis centre and Vancouver, typically spending two months in Montreal and two weeks at home. He's on the court or studying from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and travels to competitions around the world with Tennis Canada picking up the costs.
This year, Mr. Sigouin, 17, has played in 10 tournaments, including the French Open, where he made the quarter-final in junior singles. After Wimbledon he's off to tournaments in Winnipeg, Quebec, Toronto and the U.S. Open in New York.
"The financial support is probably the biggest part," Mr. Sigouin said. "I wouldn't be able to travel or play my tennis without them."
"It's a very intensive program," said his father, an avid tennis player who watched his son play in London. "They are a good bunch of people. They work as a team."
Hubert Sigouin said his son's game and mental toughness has improved remarkably under the program and all he needs now is to put on a bit more weight. "Another 10 pounds on him would be really good," he said with a smile. The elder Sigouin, who runs a baby-accessory business with his wife, Isle Vandehoef, said it's hard on the family to be separated so much. But he has always dreamed of his son playing in places such as Wimbledon. "I had it on my mind a long time ago," he said. "That was all my plan, before he was born."
Mr. Sigouin will have to decide next year whether to turn professional or head to university on a tennis scholarship. "My goal is definitely to be a professional tennis player," he said. And he pointed to Mr. Raonic for inspiration. "He wasn't the best junior, but he shows that if you work really, really hard you can do it."
Michael Downey, who spearheaded the Tennis Canada program and now runs the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees the sport in Britain, said part of the program's success was supporting players such as Mr. Raonic even when he wanted to leave the country to upgrade his coaching in Spain.
"It's all about facilitation more than anything else," he said, adding that Tennis Canada helped Mr. Raonic work with a variety of coaches, inside and outside the organization.
Mr. Downey said Canada is getting a lot of attention internationally thanks largely to Mr. Raonic, Ms. Bouchard and perennial doubles champion Daniel Nestor.
"What they've done is raise the profile of the game in the country," Mr. Downey said. "It's about inspiration, it's about a shop window for the next generation of kids, whether they are going to be professionals or just recreational players, they've now got role models they look for."