Serena Williams poses for a photo with the ball crew.

Photo : Peter Power/Tennis Canada

While the main draw of the National Bank Open Presented by Rogers doesn’t get underway until Monday, tennis fans won’t want to miss the best kept sporting secret in all of Toronto happening this weekend. Saturday and Sunday at Sobeys Stadium is the 407 ETR Family Weekend, showcasing the qualifying tournament and, as in previous years, it’s absolutely free to all spectators!

For those who have never attended a qualifying tournament before, it’s a smaller draw of players whose rankings are not quite high enough for direct entry into the tournament itself. Here in Toronto, there will be 32 women vying for eight spots into the main draw, including three Canadians!

Qualifying draws for WTA 1000 events like the National Bank Open could often be strong enough to be their own regular tournaments in many countries in the world. Here in Toronto this year, it’s led by No. 1 seed Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, who’s currently the 46th ranked player on tour. Toronto fans might remember Bouzkova from 2019, the last year the women played here, when she went all the way through qualifying before falling to Serena Williams in three sets in the semifinals. The 24-year-old is coming off a tournament victory in Prague last week, made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon earlier this summer and should be heavily favoured to advance to the main draw on Monday.

Photo : Peter Power/Tennis Canada

Other names that might sound familiar including former World No. 19 Donna Vekic of Croatia, recent Wimbledon semifinalist Tatjana Maria as well as Ajla Tomljanovic who made it to the quarter-finals of that same major.

In terms of Canadian content, there are three players for fans to throw their support behind. Junior Wimbledon doubles finalists Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko are both entered thanks to Tennis Canada wildcards recognizing their strong play of late and emerging talent.

Mboko is still but 15 years old but won her first professional ITF tournament last month in Saskatoon. National Bank Open tournament director Karl Hale confided in me this past week that he feels she’s a future top-20 player on the WTA. Cross has been working closely for years now with former Canadian player and established WTA coach Rob Steckley.

Kayla Cross. Photo : Gyles Diaz/Tennis Canada

Cross recently won the doubles title in Saskatoon along with our final Canadian qualifier, Marina Stakusic. Stakusic came through a pre-qualifying tournament of 12 compatriots earlier in the week to earn her spot. In the finals she defeated Bianca Jolie Fernandez – Leylah Annie’s younger sister – 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Cross was beaten in her qualifying match by the second seed Nuria Parrizas Diaz, but Stakusic advanced when her opponent retired.

Regardless of their results, this is a unique and valuable learning opportunity for our three young athletes. Being surrounded by the top tennis players in the world can only serve to further their own development on the court and help strengthen their ambition to follow in their footsteps.

As if the qualifying tournament doesn’t offer tennis fans enough of an appetizer to the main event that opens Monday, there will also be tons of big-name players practicing around the grounds as well. You might be fortunate enough to catch Serena Williams, Bianca Andreescu or even World No. 1 Iga Świątek sharpening their skills before they play their first matches this coming week. Bring your sharpie and some tennis balls or pictures as well, as many of these players are more than happy to oblige an autograph for their young (and young at heart!) fans.

Serena (left) and Venus Williams. Photo : Mike McIntyre

Let’s not forget that this weekend in particular is about the kids and offers a great opportunity to hook the next generation on the sport of tennis. There are many activities happening all weekend long designed to capture the imagination of emerging tennis fans including face painting, TV mascots from their favourite shows and even an air guitar competition for those feeling extra energetic!

There will also be WTA players signing autographs and taking pictures for the fans which is sure to create lasting memories for the little ones. I remember meeting former World No. 1 Jim Courier at a qualifying weekend when I was a kid in Montreal and that helped push me towards a lifelong love of the sport that I’m happy to share with others today.

For those feeling competitive there is also the 407 Fastest Serve Cage where you can see how your serve measures up to the best in the world. I’ll give myself a few days of practice before I share my results, but perhaps some of you can rival the 200 kph+ serves of Serena Williams or Aryna Sabalenka!

Around The Grounds

Tennis fans were spoiled on the opening day of qualifying action to say the least. Aside from the many matches that were underway, the Cynamon Family practice courts were buzzing with some of the best players in the world. At one point Saturday morning there were multiple Grand Slam champions practicing all at the same time on their respective courts including recent French Open winner and World No. 1 Iga Świątek, former Aussie Open champ Sofia Kenin and the biggest draw of them all today was seeing Serena and Venus Williams share a court to get ready for their upcoming matches on Monday.

Photo : Peter Power/Tennis Canada

Serena plays on Centre Court Monday against a qualifier and was going through an extensive pre-practice stretching routine today before hitting with Venus. After a serious hamstring injury suffered at Wimbledon in 2021, it’s obvious why the 23-time Major champion is taking extra precautions now that’s she back on Tour.

Several players were also doing pre-tournament press today including Leylah Annie Fernandez who was the most popular by far as evidenced by her over two hours of engagement with the media. I’ve been talking to Leylah Annie for many years and I’m so impressed with how little any of her success over the past year seems to have changed her outlook and attitude. Canadian tennis fans are lucky to have her representing our country on the international stage to be sure and must be thrilled that she’s healthy and ready to return to the court to kick-off the night session Monday.

From the Archives

Photo : Mike McIntyre

Here’s a shot of Bianca Andreescu and her good friend and former Junior French Open Champion doubles partner Carson Branstine who stopped by the Fastest Serve Booth to surprise fans back in 2017. You never know where you might see players pop-up around the grounds of the National Bank Open, so keep your eyes open!

Mike McIntyre (@McIntyreTennis) is the co-host of Match Point Canada, the official podcast of Tennis Canada.