Tennis Canada is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year as stewards of the game in this country. Over the next several weeks, we will be honouring Canada’s vast history in tennis and remembering many of the people and moments that have played a role in creating the fabric of Canadian tennis. This is part two of a five-part series.
Tennis Canada’s mission is to lead the growth of tennis across the country, but achieving that mission would not be possible if not for the two flagship events that are the pillars of the tennis world each summer. The Canadian Open (currently known as Rogers Cup presented by National Bank) has been the foundation of the organization since day one. Starting almost as a national showcase for Canadian players, it has evolved into one of the most respected and well-attended tournaments on the entire tennis calendar. Furthermore, all proceeds from the two events, held in Montreal and Toronto each year, are invested directly back into growing the game in Canada, including increasing participation amongst kids, building world-class facilities, and developing future champions. Let’s take a look back at how the tournaments got to where they are today.
Believe it or not, the very first Canadian Open was held in 1881 after Isidore Hellmuth (the closest thing Canada has to a tennis pioneer) took it upon himself to organize it at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club. This makes the Canadian Open the third-oldest tournament in the world behind just the US Open and Wimbledon. Hellmuth himself went on to win that inaugural event, and was a finalist three more times in singles and a one-time doubles champion during the early years at the Toronto Lawn.
Incorporated in 1890, the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association (precursor to Tennis Canada) began dreaming of ways to grow the event from its modest but solid beginnings. The first step was the formalization of a women’s championship, which came into existence in 1892. Shortly after, they needed a larger venue which was found in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
It was here, at the Queen’s Royal Hotel, the event really took off. Attracting the best men and women players in North America, unprecedented attendance numbers and press attention, the Canadian Open grew to new heights. Over two decades, it was played in Niagara-on-the-Lake 14 times and those are counted as the truly formative years of the event as an international property. In 1915 however, the onset of World War I cancelled the tournament for four years and it never returned to the picturesque town.
At the end of the war, efforts to revive the Canadian championships resulted in the event moving around quite a bit. It was staged in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal and others, switching from coast-to-coast often through the 1930s and never truly regaining the magic of the Niagara years. It was then closed down again to focus on war efforts from 1940-1945.
It wasn’t until the Open Era started in 1968 that a permanent home was found for the Canadian Open as it finally settled in Toronto, rotating between the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club and the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Within the first three to five years in this format, it became clear the event was outgrowing its host venue. A new site had to be found.
In 1975, led by Ken Sinclair, Klaus Bindhardt and Lawrie Strong, a site was found and agreement reached with York University for a venue large enough to house the ever-growing tournament. By the skin of their teeth, and with only the bare minimum in construction completed, they staged the first Canadian Open at this site, the National Tennis Centre, in 1976.
With the palpable success of the first five years at the York University site, Tennis Canada agreed to a request from sponsor Imperial Tobacco to expand the event to Montreal and the site at Jarry Park was built. Not wanting either city to have a monopoly on the men’s or women’s games, it was decided that starting in 1981 the two events would be alternately held in the two cities. This was the birth of the completely unique model that still holds true today.
Only one more change in venue was needed to bring the events to the level they are today. Once it became clear the York University stadium needed a significant upgrade, a new agreement was formed for a larger chunk of land on a different part of campus. Led by Harold Milavsky, Derek Strang and Stacey Allaster, the doors opened in 2004 to the brand-new, world-class Aviva Centre (formerly Rexall Centre) that still hosts the Toronto event today.
Location is not the only reason the tournaments have grown to the elite level they are today. The status of the Canadian Open has steadily progressed over the years to help establish it as one of the preeminent events in the world of tennis today.
One of the first steps in that progress came in 1890 when Charles Hyman and the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association made the decision to adopt the rules of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Wimbledon which immediately put the event on the level of an international championship. In 1961, a decision was made to make the men’s championships a best-of-five tournament so that it was even more comparable to the Grand Slams.
In addition to the adaptation of the rules, it was evidenced by the longstanding tenure of the event in Niagara that keeping the championships in one city and building on them became the clear route to ensuring growth and longevity in terms of prestige. And thus, the Open Era began and ushered in real change. The last amateur championships was held in Canada in 1967.
Canadian Lawn Tennis Association officers, including Don Fontana and chairman Klaus Bindhardt, were instrumental in professionalizing the events. One key factor was securing the right week on the calendar. They locked in on the time period that was two weeks prior to the US Open. Even then, the organizers had the foresight to know this was the ideal week for players to come to North America and warm up for one of the biggest events of the year.
Slowly but surely the prestige continued to grow. Attendance went from 1,500 in 1968 to more than 50,000 in 1979. That doubled again by 1985 to over 100,000 under the leadership of John Beddington. Today, the tournaments regularly see between 150-200,000 spectators enter the gates over the nine-day event in both cities.
TV also played a large role in heightening the allure of the tournaments. The first Canadian Open final was aired nationally on CBC in 1973 and by the late 1980s the broadcast had expanded to include ESPN, broadening the reach even further. They had officially reached elite status internationally and today the Canadian Open is broadcast in more than 190 countries worldwide with a global audience of more than 50 million.
The trick was always ensuring that prize money stayed at a level that met the standards of the ATP and WTA Tours to keep the Canadian events in the upper echelon of tournaments. Today, that means a Masters 1000 event on the men’s side and a Premier 5 event on the women’s side – both with a designation just below the Grand Slams.
Once the Open Era was established, and the prize money of the event increased steadily, it started to consistently draw the biggest names in the world. This included Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. By the mid-‘70s you started to see Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert as regular attendees to the Canadian event. All but King won the event at least once.
In the ‘80s no other tournament in the world outside of the Grand Slams boasted as many of the top players from both the women’s and the men’s game. Everyone was taking notice of Canada. This included Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver and Gabriela Sabatini. Leading into the ‘90s, fans were treated to the Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, and Steffi Graf generation that continued to instill a great sense of pride in the sport.
Every golden age of tennis has graced the Canadian courts. One would be hard-pressed to find a notable name that has not played in Toronto and/or Montreal over the course of the past 50 years. Most recently, this includes the “Big 4” on the men’s side. All of Federer (2), Djokovic (3), Murray (3) and Nadal (2) have been crowned champion more than once in recent years. Serena Williams has hoisted the trophy three times in her career as well.
The number of classic matches are too many to retell here, but the constant presence of these big-name stars ensures that Canada continues to be the centre of the tennis universe for one week of every year.
One of the many charms of the Canadian Open year after year is seeing homegrown talent take Centre Court in front of adoring fans. Not only is it special for spectators to see Canadian players succeed, but it is a rare opportunity for Canadian athletes to play in front of and interact with their Canadian fans.
There have been many Canadian moments to celebrate over the years, starting with Hellmuth winning the very first event. Canadians regularly captured the crown until 1958 when Bob Bedard became the last male to achieve the feat. Faye Urban is the last woman to do the same and the only one to win the singles title after the start of the Open Era in 1969.
Mike Belkin, who was Canada’s No. 1 player for much of the ‘60s, reached the semifinals in its first year as a pro event in 1968, recording the most significant result for a male that the event would see for decades to come. The next great achievement wasn’t until 1985 when ingénue Carling Bassett reached the quarter-finals. Helen Kelesi did the same in 1987 while Grant Connell and Andrew Sznajder followed suit in 1989 – both making the final eight that year. Patricia Hy (1992) and Aleksandra Wozniak (2012) count as the only other two women to make it that far in their home event while Frank Dancevic did it on the men’s side in 2007.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the quarter-final mark was broken by a Canadian in singles and that was accomplished by not one but TWO Canadian players. Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil both had magical runs to the semifinals where they played each other in one of the watershed moments in Canadian tennis history. Raonic defeated his fellow Canadian to reach the final – becoming the first to do so since Bedard in 1958.
In doubles, Daniel Nestor continues to reign supreme, having captured the Canadian title twice – once with fellow Canadian Sebastien Lareau.
It is just as much for these players as it is for the global stars that fans flock to Toronto and Montreal each year as nothing quite feels the same as displaying that Canadian pride.
There have been points in the history of the tournaments that the future didn’t look as bright as it does now. The only way that survival in those times was possible was due to support through corporate sponsorship.
In the first year of the pro event, Tennis Canada had $2,000 in prize money. This was enough to convince the top players to come for one year but was never going to cut it moving forward. So, in 1969 Rothman’s took a big leap of faith and became the first to come on board allowing for an extra $20,000 in prize money investment. Rothman’s stayed until 1978 and by that point had helped raise prize money to $210,000 – the fifth-largest purse on the circuit. This ensured the event remained attractive to the players.
With fears mounting that the tournament would not be able to replace that level of corporate backing, Paul Paré and Imperial Tobacco came in and saved the day. In 1979 the Player’s International was born. Imperial Tobacco was not just a title sponsor, they were committed to growing the sport across the country, a quality we still value in the corporate partners we boast today.
Once again, the purse continued to grow. It was half a million by 1986 and more than $1.5 million by 1990. Imperial Tobacco stayed on as lead sponsor for more than 20 years. The event changed from the Player’s International to the Du Maurier Open but all under the corporate backing of Paré and his successor Wilmat Tennyson.
In 2001, a new title sponsor came in as telecommunications company Rogers took over and the Rogers AT&T Cup was first played. Rogers has turned into a Canadian business giant and massive media conglomerate, but has not left tennis behind in the process. Having just signed a new deal in 2015, Rogers has committed to the currently-named Rogers Cup through 2020.
In 2015, prize money was $4.1 million for the men’s event and $2.6 million for the women’s event. The status of the events remain intact and the world-class reputation they have internationally is tremendous. Without the support of the title partners, and many others including presenting sponsor National Bank, the Canadian Open would not be the powerhouse we know it to be today.
All this may have you wondering… where do we go from here? How does Tennis Canada continue to build on what are clearly enormously successful events? The answer is simultaneously simple and complex. Be better. Be the best. Innovate while also learning from others. Never rest on your laurels as there will always be another event willing to go the extra mile if you don’t.
The focus moving forward is on improving the guest experience, making the tournaments as intimate as possible to bring fans closer to their favourite players, providing the highest level of service and hospitality to the athletes, and being the ultimate sports and entertainment destination for fans not only in Canada but worldwide.
How will we do this? You will just have to come and see for yourselves. The 2016 edition of Rogers Cup presented by National Bank will take place from July 23-31 with the men in Toronto and women in Montreal.
We’ve come a long way from the Toronto Lawn. Mr. Hellmuth would be proud.
Part three of the Tennis Canada 125 series will be a celebration of the many, many on-court achievements in Canadian tennis over the years, looking at the iconic moments created by the players and teams that have been key role models in the sport for more than a century.
To view more Canadian tennis moments, visit our 125th anniversary microsite and celebrate with us!