Tennis development in Toronto is driving Canada to becoming a tennis powerhouse.
Before competing in Grand Slams and winning World titles, Canadian greats Daniel Nestor and Milos Raonic were developing their skills at local and regional tennis facilities in the Greater Toronto Area. Their successes are paving the way for young Canadian players to achieve their dreams of competing at the tournament level.
“Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard invited a breakthrough in singles and certainly Daniel Nestor and others,” said Hatem McDadi, senior vice president for high performance development at Tennis Canada. “Milos and Genie making the finals in Wimbledon helped break barriers of belief.”
As a child, Denis Shapovalov trained at Richmond Hill Country Club before striving at the junior level, and then cracking the top 10 in the Association of Tennis Professionals’ rankings. The left-hander reached the semi-finals of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships and is also an accomplished doubles player.
Mississauga-native Bianca Andreescu arose to superstardom in 2019, winning the Indian Wells Open, Toronto’s Rogers Cup, and the US Open where she defeated icon Serena Williams. At just 19, Andreescu became the first tennis player to be awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete of the year.
Their dominance at the world-stage is inspiring junior Canadians to pick up a tennis racket and take their development to newer levels.
Victoria Mboko, 17, found inspiration in the recent success of young Canadian players and hopes to join them in the near future.
“There is plenty of motivation close to home with the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Leylah Annie Fernandez, and Denis Shapovalov all young Canadians making their mark on the world stage,” Mboko told Tennis Canada. “I also really look up to Bianca Andreescu, who won the US Open in 2019. Knowing she once trained in Toronto and at the NTC, like me, is very inspiring and makes me believe it’s possible for me too.”
The tennis landscape in Toronto and across the country continues to shift as Canada’s top players continue making headway in big tournaments. A year after the Men’s National team won their first-ever Davis Cup title, the women answered back by claiming their first national title earlier this month.
“The bar is to be among the best in the world. To contend for grand slams and have top-100 player depth. To contend for olympic and paralympic medals. To contend for the Davis and Billie Jean King Cup every year.”— Hatem McDadi, senior VP for high-performance development at Tennis Canada
Toronto’s tennis ecosystem is strong
The Greater Toronto Area boasts a plethora of tennis facilities and programs, operating as integral components to the present and future success of Canadian tennis. The time commitment and energy devoted by players at an early age wouldn’t be possible without a strong support system.
“It starts with the families, the coaches, the clubs and academies,” McDadi said. “But also, the regional and national centres that were put into place to support these athletes.”
Advanced certification courses are offered at Tennis Canada for coaches aspiring to train players in the junior and professional circuits. Bogdan Grygorenko, one of the few to complete Tennis Canada’s Coach 4 courses, served as a coach at Tennis Canada’s regional facility in Toronto for over four years.
“They’ve done a really good job in developing good coaches, that can facilitate the development of world class players,” Grygorenko said. “The coaching education in Canada is exceptional.”
Toronto is the host of the annual National Bank Open at Sobeys Stadium, where the world’s best players compete, and the ITF’s junior and professional circuits. The city has a rich history of tennis tournaments, dating back to 1881, where competitions were first held at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club.
The Ontario Tennis Association is the country’s largest provincial governing body for tennis, with 250 clubs facilitating about 65,000 male and female players. The strong competitive environment in Ontario makes Toronto an ideal location for hosting international tournaments in Canada.
“The more players you have, the tougher the competition,” says Grygorenko. “The tournament structure, at that time, allowed them to compete against one another and push themselves.”
Municipalities across the GTA are now benefitting from the Year-Round Community Tennis Courts Program, an initiative by Tennis Canada and Rogers to devote $5.6 million in funding to communities across the country to build year-round courts.
Having coached in various tennis clubs around the GTA, Grygorenko believes protecting these courts from wintery conditions and ensuring they remain active is “absolutely crucial” to growing the sport in Canada.
“As kids start from a very young age, when they perhaps get introduced into tennis at their summer club, they have a place to go in the winter,” says Grygorenko. “If they don’t have a place to grow … how can they grow their passion and love for the sport? They’re just going to do something else.”
Premier Racquet Clubs in Markham were the first to unveil a fully covered tennis facility in October 2022. According to Tennis Canada, the opening of six indoor municipal courts will see its capacity increase by roughly 4,500 additional hours per week.
Tennis Canada announced in February the project will provide funding to Philpott Children Tennis to develop an indoor facility at the Courts at San Romanoway. This project ensures children will have a safe place to play tennis all-year round.
Professional tennis players, like Andreescu, know first-hand the impact indoor courts will make for Canadians since “tennis in Canada can be very iffy” in winter.
“It will make a huge difference so the young athletes can have that continuity not only in the summer, but in the winter to be active and play the sport that they love,” Andreescu said in a video from Rogers.
Ascending talent out of the GTA
Don’t look now, but a growing crop of talent from the GTA are climbing the ranks within the ITF junior and professional circuits. A female player reaching new heights in 2023 is 18-year-old Marina Stakusic.
After missing six months of action due to injury, the Mississauga-native came back and secured three ITF titles and was selected to represent Team Canada in the recent Billie Jean King Cup tournament. Stakusic defied the odds by defeating Italian Martina Trevisan in the finals to bring the Women’s National team to make history.
Stakusic spent her junior days training at the Eglinton Flats with director of tennis Mike Thomson, who quickly realized she had enormous potential.
“Every ball was in the middle of the racket,” Thomson told the Toronto Observer.
Being chosen to represent an entire country at such a big stage could be overwhelming, especially for a young athlete. Stakusic, however, appeared composed on court and the pressure didn’t get the best of her.
“It’s one thing to play individually. In there you’re playing for your team, coach and your country,” said Thomson.
Another player who is turning heads in the ITF World Tennis Tour is Burlington’s Victoria Mboko, who currently ranks 324th in the WTA Rankings. In July, Mboko was awarded her second professional single title in Saskatoon and became the seventh player to win an ITF W60 title before turning 17.
She is coming off an impressive junior career, finishing as runner-up in doubles at both Wimbledon and Australian Open and reaching the singles semi-finals at both Wimbledon and US Open in a single calendar year.
Toronto’s Katherine Sebov is performing to her best professional season in 2023, winning a W25 title in her hometown and recently a W60 title in Saguenay. The 24-year-old made her main-draw debut at the Australian Open and also secured her first victory over a Top 50-ranked player at the Miami Open, defeating Czechia’s Linda Fruhvirtova in the first round.
Future’s looking bright
Witnessing both the mens and womens national teams make history, the standards for Canadian tennis have never been higher than right now.
“The bar is high. The expectations are certainly there. They’re legitimate,” McDadi said.
“The bar is to be among the best in the world,” he said. “To contend for grand slams and have top-100 player depth. To contend for olympic and paralympic medals. To contend for the Davis and Billie Jean King Cup every year.”