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Canada tipped to lead the way with next generation of tennis stars

Canada tipped to lead the way with next generation of tennis stars
© Reuters
Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu are flying the flag for Canada.

As teenage hotshot Felix Auger-Aliassime prepares for his Wimbledon debut, Canada finds itself the envy of the tennis world.

In 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime, 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov and 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, Canada has three of the most exciting young talents in tennis despite very little pedigree in the sport.

As ESPN pundit John McEnroe put it: "Who would have thought that the best prospects would be Canadians? We're looking with egg on our faces in America."

— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) June 21, 2019

"It's a pretty special time," Tennis Canada chief executive and president Michael Downey told Press Association Sport.

"And beyond what they're doing on court, these are really special kids, they've got great values. They're products of the world and it's so reflective of what Canada's about and what we take pride in."

The diverse backgrounds of the three players – as well as their predecessors Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil – are an indication that this success story is a lot more complicated than Canada having found the secret to producing champions.

Downey is happy to admit the system that Tennis Canada created in 2006, with its main centre in Montreal, cannot take all the credit, but it can take some.

Milos Raonic, right, was the runner-up to Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2016
Milos Raonic, right, was the runner-up to Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2016 (Adam Davy/PA)

Two of the first intake were Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, both of whom went on to reach Wimbledon finals, and the next generation look set to move Canadian tennis on further, with 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez another top prospect having won the French Open junior title.

"The system's there to help them overachieve their own expectations but it takes a lot more than a system to create a champion," said Downey.

"I think the fact we have a system gives them a better chance of success but I also think the system has raised the bar for kids and parents and coaches that are outside the system.

"Denis, for example, was not a product of the system, he was basically developed by his mother. We have helped in the last two or three years financially in a significant way and we gave him competitive structure when he was a junior. It's kind of like one and one adds up to three."

Prior to the success of Raonic and Bouchard, Canada only really had anything to shout about in doubles, particularly in the form of multiple grand slam champion Daniel Nestor.

And Downey is all too aware that, if Canada is to truly become a tennis power, then the country has a lot of work ahead of it.

He said: "I think for the last five years the organisation has had periodic visits and calls – what's in the water in Canada to have these three teenagers all break through at the same time? But there's no secret, they feed off each other.

"We've got about 200 kids in our pipeline, that's how small it is. We have a massive shortage of indoor courts. Our winters are pretty horrific, so for a kid that might be in the prairies, if he can't train indoors, he's not going to stick to the sport."

Downey cites participation growth of 30 per cent at grass-roots level as a demonstration of the impact the success of the country's elite players has had, and now his priority is to ensure there are enough affordable facilities to use year-round.

The same mantra was being repeated on Wednesday by Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Scott Lloyd, who announced a commitment to develop hundreds of new indoor courts in Britain over the next few years.

Downey also happens to be Lloyd's predecessor having left Canada to lead the British game in January 2014 before returning to his old position three and a half years later.

"I'm always going to be a fan of British tennis, I kind of cheer for two nations," said Downey.

Michael Downey was chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association from 2014 to 2017
Michael Downey was chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association from 2014 to 2017 (Steven Paston/PA)

He cites pride at Britain's Davis Cup triumph in 2015 as well as the grass-roots programmes Tennis for Kids and the Great British Tennis Weekend as his greatest achievements while at the LTA but knows the mess that constituted high performance for much of his tenure is a major black mark.

Having essentially shut down the National Tennis Centre as a high performance venue, Downey's appointment of Bob Brett as director of player development was a failure and players and coaches were left in limbo until Simon Timson was brought in as performance director at the end of 2016.

Timson remains in the post and his 10-year plan for improving Britain's pipeline of talent will kick into gear this autumn with the opening of two national academies.

Downey believes Britain is on the right track and hopes Timson's vision is given the time to come to fruition.

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"My legacy will obviously be tainted by criticism in the high performance area," he said. "In the end I think myself and the LTA got it right when we hired Simon Timson.

"He's now built that 10-year plan and hopefully people will give him the time because he's not going to get quick answers. If there's quick results, it's probably more fluky than anything. It's going to take a decade to build the system that Britain wants."

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