O Canada: Hockey hotbed now produces tennis players, too
ROME (AP) — It’s typically Canadian that Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Bianca Andreescu are each children of immigrants.
What’s not typical is that they have simultaneously broken into the world’s elite ranks of tennis players — and will all be worth watching when the French Open begins Sunday.
The 20-year-old Shapovalov burst onto the scene a couple of years ago when he upset Rafael Nadal at the Canadian Open. He is now up to No. 23 in the rankings.
The 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime’s breakthrough came at the start of this year when he reached the final of the clay-court Rio Open.
Then things really started heating up in March when Andreescu, who is also 18, beat five seeded players when she won the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California , as a wild card entry; and Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime — as a qualifier — both reached the semifinals of the Miami Open.
“I grew up with Felix and Bianca and to see how far we’ve come, to see Bianca lifting up a Masters trophy, my mind is exploding,” Shapovalov said in a recent interview.
“You look at Canada and it’s like, ‘Hockey, hockey, hockey.’ And don’t get me wrong. I love hockey. I love the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Shapovalov said. “But it’s great to see that now people are like, ‘Oh, you can play tennis as well in Canada.’”
While Canada has not historically been known as a tennis hotbed, it has produced other top players in recent years. Eugenie Bouchard (2014) and Milos Raonic (2016) were the country’s first two Grand Slam finalists, each at Wimbledon. Daniel Nestor completed a career Grand Slam in doubles in 2008 and Vasek Pospisil won a doubles title at Wimbledon in 2014.
“Obviously they’ve inspired us and they’ve paved the way for us,” Shapovalov said. “I feel like every week a Canadian is making noise.”
Auger-Aliassime (No. 28) and Andreescu (No. 22) each achieved career-high rankings this week.
Shapovalov was born in Israel after his parents moved there from Russia. The family then settled in the Toronto area before Shapovalov turned 1.
Auger-Aliassime’s father is from Togo and Andreescu’s parents are from Romania.
“I think the great part about Canada is everyone says the people are so nice, the people are so friendly. But I think it’s because everyone comes from somewhere. So we’re just all so accepting,” Shapovalov said.
“We all ended up in the same place from different paths and different families. That whole thing as a nation is incredible. We’ve all come our way and now we’re all playing for the same country and we’re all so proud to do it. It’s an incredible story.”
Canada’s national training program has played a big role in shaping the players’ games.
“They all have their style. They all don’t strike the ball the same,” International Tennis Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri said. “And that means that it’s darn good coaching. Because you coach within the style and mentality of the player.”
Andreescu has been out due to an injured shoulder since her title in Miami. But she’s been training at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Spain.
“This has been a good period for me because I’m working a lot on my fitness, which is very important for the clay season. So I’m really looking forward to what I can do at the French Open,” she said. “Clay is one of my favorite surfaces.”
Shapovalov slept in the basement of Auger-Aliassime’s house during his run in Montreal a couple of years ago and the pair recently went out and watched the latest Avengers film during a tournament in Spain.
“We try to hang out as much as possible,” Shapovalov said. “We understand each other so well.”
Hockey, however, remains a divisive issue for the pair. That’s because Shapovalov is a Maple Leafs fan while Auger-Aliassime supports the rival Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s tough because he’s a Habs fan,” Shapovalov said. “At least we got basketball in common. We got one team in Canada. We’re both Raptors fans.”
One more thing all the young Canadians have in common: increasing success on the tennis court.
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf