Tennis Canada looks to Serbia for inspiration

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Predictably for a country obsessed by hockey, Canada’s win over Italy in the Davis Cup tennis quarter-finals drew all sorts of parallels and comparisons to the national pastime.

Tennis Canada president Michael Downey believes that all the breakthroughs of the past 12 months - Wimbledon junior championships on both the boys’ and girls’ side, Milos Raonic’s presence in the ATP Tour top 20, plus an unexpected and unprecedented berth in the Davis Cup semi-finals - may generate even greater interest in a sport that has been never been better positioned to grow and prosper in Canada. And for proof, he invokes hockey.

“Hockey’s continued success is rooted in global success,” said Downey Monday, in a e-mail message. “When you are the best at something, others want to join the club. There is a successful pro hockey player in every small and large market across Canada - providing proof to the next generation of aspiring kids that they too can succeed and make it to the NHL. It’s a neverending cycle - and tennis is no different.”

One day earlier, Downey was courtside cheering as Canada, behind Milos Raonic’s singles victory over Italy’s Andreas Seppi won the day and set up a semi-final meeting with powerful Serbia, away, in mid-September. Serbia has two top-10 players, Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic, along with No. 44 Viktor Troicki plus a top doubles player in Nenad Zimonjic (Daniel Nestor’s former partner). Downey believes if Serbia can rise to the top of the tennis ladder, so can Canada.

“Djokovic’s success has driven the growth of tennis to another level in Serbia,” said Downey. “That small nation has now developed so many top players and without significant tennis resources that richer nations have to apply. And Novak’s celebrity in Serbia reached a new height when he led his country to Davis Cup success two years ago. There are thousands of young Novaks hitting the ball throughout Serbia. And look at [Sunday] - he won the decisive point over the USA basically on one leg. He was carrying the hopes of his country on his back.”

Downey’s reference was to how Djokovic turned his ankle in the second set of Sunday’s reverse singles against American Sam Querrey and for a time, looked as if he might have to withdraw. But Djokovic pressed on, loosened up and eventually won the fourth set 6-0, thus eliminating the Americans.

The Serbs played without the injured Tipsarevic (who was tweeting messages of support for his countrymen) and full strength, will pose a major challenge for the Canadians. But as Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau noted post-match Sunday, lots can change in the next five months before the competition resumes. Between now and then, the final three majors of the 2013 season will have been played, along with the spring clay-court season and the summer hard-court season. If Djokovic gets to the final of the U.S. Open - to be played on a Monday this year - he would have just four days to get home and get ready to play Davis Cup. Under those circumstances, there is a chance the Serbs could hold Djokovic out of the first singles rubber and save him for Sunday’s reverse singles, if needed.

Circumstances can affect Davis Cup competition that way - not dissimilar to NHL playoffs, where an upset or two along the way, plus a favourable schedule, can aid a team’s progress. Canada has now played four consecutive ties at home, a significant advantage considering how they were able to tailor the court conditions to their own specific wishes.

The Serbs will need to notify the Canadians within the next 20 days if they’ll opt to play on clay, or perhaps choose a slower hard court that would play to Djokovic’s greatest strength - his ability to return serve.

The 22-year-old Raonic has never played Djokovic, but their paths could cross this summer. Depending upon how the draws set up, the No. 16-ranked Raonic could meet Djokovic in the round of 16 at any of the three remaining majors.

Vasek Pospisil, also 22, continues to show signs of improvement, but Raonic is on a seven-match winning streak in Davis Cup competition and remains the face of Canadian tennis. Despite his limited experience, Nestor this weekend called Raonic the best player ever developed in Canada, an endorsement seconded by Downey.

“Milos has and will continue to be a on- and off-court role model for aspiring Canadian kids who want a reason to give tennis a chance,” said Downey, who noted that Canada’s “ever-changing demographics” and “world-leading multiculturalism will spur on kids coast to coast because tennis is truly a global sport.

“Nearly 130 countries compete in Davis Cup. A very limited number of sports can boast of that level of global presence. Our sports participation is over-indexed against visible minorities because tennis is a leading sport in their birth country.”

For Laurendeau, the visibility that comes from increased television exposure and front-page newspaper coverage enhances interest in the sport. It also helps attract sponsors, according to Downey, who was especially pleased with how the last two Davis Cup wins reached the front pages of newspapers in February and April, which he called “the heat of the traditional hockey season.”

Downey spent part of the weekend courting new corporate sponsors and said that Canada’s continuing success helps the cause because “smart sponsors want to latch on to a sport with true momentum - and very few sports can claim the rate of participation and fan growth that tennis is witnessing in Canada. We track the numbers - and the growth has been consistent for many years.”

And just for good measure, Downey said he got an unexpected assist this weekend from Raonic’s father, Dusan. Once the semis had been set, some of the prospective sponsors already wanted to book tickets for the tie in Serbia.

“Many were personally invited by Milos’s father to take a short vacation in beautiful Montenegro, which is a short 40-minute flight from Belgrade,” Downey said. “How good is that? Unsolicited stewardship from our star player’s father? Unreal.”

Eric Duhatschek - The Globe and Mail

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