Ten years ago, André Boisclair was the leader of the Parti québécois, the three métro stations in Laval were brand new and the iPhone was making its début.
Needless to say, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge. Also a decade ago, in September 2007, Tennis Canada’s National Training Centre (NTC) was inaugurated at Uniprix Stadium—an initiative that continues to generate benefits today.
Led by world-renowned coach Louis Borfiga, who gained over 20 years’ experience at the Fédération Française de Tennis, the NTC has welcomed players from across Canada for the past ten years. Of course, some have stood out more than others.
The first to come to mind is world no.10 Milos Raonic, who joined the ranks of the NTC in its initial days and was among the earliest products of the experiment.
“What attracted me the most was that Tennis Canada executives had been able to draw international experts,” explained Raonic at a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the NTC. “It’s a shame to say but the calibre of Canadian tennis at the time was really very far from what it is today. Michael [Downey, CEO of Tennis Canada] went to get people like Louis to fill the void in Canadian tennis.”
The void Raonic is referring to is the fact that Canada had solid players from across the country who had never been in the same place, except at national competitions. When he arrived at the NTC, Borfiga wanted to change that.
“It was imperative for me to bring the best young players in the country together. Healthy competition is always important,” explained Borfiga. “Then, we had to recruit good coaches who could travel with the players. And beyond that, Tennis Canada executives and I agreed: we wanted to focus mainly on education. When I was in France, our mission was always to train men, women and sometimes champions. What goes on along with tennis is almost as important as the rest. Studies, solid guidance and host families help provide the impetus that leads to results. It’s a collective effort.”
In addition to Raonic, players including Eugenie Bouchard, Françoise Abanda, Bianca Andreescu, Vasek Pospisil and Félix Auger-Aliassime are also among the NTC players who have been successful on the pro tours. Auger-Aliassime, who was previously coached by his father, admits that he probably would not be where he is today without the centre. And he probably would not have joined if Raonic, Pospisil and Bouchard had not come before him.
“I had determination and ambition in me, so I didn’t need a lot of role models to know that it was possible. But I think that Milos, Vasek and Eugenie helped a lot of kids believe,” said the 17-year-old. “I think that the difference is that now there are many more young people who say to themselves ‘Why not?’. When I was starting out at my club in Québec, I’d tell the other kids that I wanted to be a professional tennis player and they’d say that it probably wouldn’t happen. But I’d answer that there were more and more [Canadian] players who were pros, so why couldn’t I be one of them?”
“We showed that the format worked and that it made the task less difficult for the newcomers,” added Raonic. “When you see that others did it before you, it’s easier to commit to the project.”
Borfiga and former pro Martin Laurendeau, who is now a coach at the NTC, admitted that their counterparts around the world constantly congratulate them on the quality of Canadian tennis.
“In the past few days, many coaches have been coming to see me and recognize our presence on the international stage,” affirmed Laurendeau. “I continue to believe that we have the best juniors program in the world. And our results prove it. Look at our development in the past eight or ten years. Our success rate is incredible. That’s universally recognized. Everyone knows that we are not the US or France and that we don’t have 20 000 kids who want to be professional tennis players. We only have a few. And the few who do make it.”
With five Canadians in the main draw of Rogers Cup this year, it would be a euphemism to say that Canadian tennis is alive and well with a promising future.
“Tennis careers are longer now, so Milos, Vasek and the others still have a lot of great years ahead of them,” said Borfiga. “And the new generation, like Félix, Denis, Bianca—there are so many that I forget—they could be unbelievable in four or five years. My dream is a Grand Slam final between two Canadians. And my ultimate dream is for a Canadian to win a Grand Slam.”