Serving up record numbers Rise of Canadian tennis spikes surge in interest, turnout in Manitoba

When Mark Arndt took the job as Tennis Manitoba's executive director in 2012, the sport was far from booming in the province, or the country for that matter.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/07/2019 (1351 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Mark Arndt took the job as Tennis Manitoba’s executive director in 2012, the sport was far from booming in the province, or the country for that matter.

Arndt still remembers the first junior tournament he ran. It was in May 2013 at the Kildonan Tennis Club and only 16 kids signed up across all age categories.

“At that point, I’m like ‘Oh my. What have I gotten myself into? These are low numbers. We’ll have to cancel the tournament,”’ Arndt told the Free Press on Friday before the quarterfinals began at the Winnipeg National Bank Challenger. “Because you have two in one category, two in another, and there goes your 16 very quickly.”

Fast forward to today and that’s no longer a problem. Instead, there’s a new issue according to Jared Connell, Tennis Manitoba’s director of development.

“This last junior tournament that we had, we had some great representation from other provinces, which is great for our kids. But I believe we had over 120 entries, which made it really hard to manage schedule-wise, in a good way. We’re getting issues like that now that we didn’t get before.”

Those numbers weren’t a fluke.

“Each tournament now consistently has 60 or 70 kids,” Arndt said.

So what’s changed? Surely, the recent boom of professional Canadian talent hasn’t hurt. For years, outside of the success of Daniel Nestor in doubles action during the early 2000s, there were no Canadians competing for Grand Slam titles. But in this past decade, we’ve seen Milos Raonic break onto the scene with his strong serve, making it all the way to the Wimbledon final in 2016. And before Raonic’s run at the All England Club, Eugenie Bouchard became a star when she reached the women’s Wimbledon final in 2014. Raonic and Bouchard started the movement, but now we’re seeing a trio of under-20 players that will be the faces of Canadian tennis moving forward — Denis Shapovalov, Bianca Andreescu and Félix Auger-Aliassime.

Although none of those pros are Manitoban, their success has been felt in the Prairies. This year was the first time Tennis Manitoba required a tryout for their provincial program, as 31 kids came out with hopes of making the team. Players in the five-month program were split into three different skill levels to include as many players as possible.

“The most telling thing to me if you go out in the summer in Manitoba, all of our public courts are packed. There’s people waiting everywhere. And we’ve redone and resurfaced a ton of those courts, so that’s helped,” said Connell, who’s been coaching tennis for 25 years.

“There’s interest in the sport and we’re feeding off of it a little bit. I think in a lot of ways, it’s just a casual fan or casual sports fans that see Canadians are doing well, so they’re out there playing. I do think we’re improving and it’s a moment we have to grasp, too, because these windows don’t last forever. It’s a big time for us to get more numbers in our sport.”

The rise of Canadian tennis also has a lot to do with the country’s National Tennis Centre in Montreal, which was built 12 years ago. The home of Tennis Canada’s high-performance program, it’s where the players you see on TV today worked on their games from the ages of 13 to 17.

For a Manitoban to join names such as Raonic and Andreescu on tour, they’ll likely have to go that route as well. Arndt said it’s Tennis Manitoba’s goal to give the young kids the tools to be successful at an early age, so when they’re old enough to move to Montreal or to a regional training centre in Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, they’ll have the skills to make it.

“The way we look at it is if we can get a player on the path of being on a national team by the age of 12 or 13, then we’ve done our job,” Arndt said.

“To be a great player like that, an international player, you have to be in that environment every day. You have to be rubbing shoulders with your peers, waking up and going to school with them, being on the court training with them. You wake up in the morning with an edge if you’re living and training in Toronto or Montreal. It’s a different mindset. If you’re here in Winnipeg, you get complacent because there’s nobody to really push you until we get more of those players that can train with you every day.”

With the National Bank Challenger in town this week at the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club, it’s a perfect time to introduce more young eyes to the sport. There are roughly 50 ball kids who’ve been taking turns working the matches this week and interacting with the pros. Tennis Canada coach Martin Laurendeau, who’s in Winnipeg for the tournament, said having professional tournaments like this one can have a huge effect on a local tennis scene.

“(Rafael) Nadal, (Roger) Federer, (Novak) Djokovic, so many players got the bug from this sport when they were a ball boy or ball girl at an event. They got to see live play up close and maybe speak and get autographs and they got inspired,” said Laurendeau, Shapovalov’s former coach.

“I see it at all these tournaments where the kids in that town who end up being there all week, they want to play tennis. They’re trying to jump on the court here in between the pros and just try to bounce some balls and play. It has a tremendous power and for all those reasons, we need these tournaments.”

But Tennis Manitoba will likely need a new facility if they’re going to keep the National Bank Challenger for years to come. This year, they lost the women’s side of the event as the Association of Tennis Professionals now require more practice courts for tournaments — something the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club didn’t have room for. Tennis Manitoba believes they might be able to get something built in the near future; they’re in talks with the rural municipality of West St. Paul to develop a parcel of land at the Sunova Centre into an indoor and outdoor facility.

“After this tournament is done, that’s going to be our focus,” Arndt said.

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...

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