Written by: Pierre ‘The Bear’ Lamarche
***Pierre Lamarche has been an outspoken proponent of Canadian tennis and how the sport should have a major place in the Canadian sport landscape. He believes this lofty ambition can only be achieved through the combination of success on the international professional competitive scene, with the required domestic infrastructure and a true partnership between Tennis Canada and the tennis private sector.***
Canadian tennis is at an all-time high in terms of international performance and public perception of the popularity and growth of the sport. Tennis Canada’s strategy to develop world class players has had resounding success:
-Milos Raonic is a force and closing in on his personal objective of being a potential world #1
-Vasek Pospisil has moved from a low 100 to a top 35 ATP ranking
-Daniel Nestor keeps the Canadian flag on the world’s double scene
-Eugenie Bouchard is a certified top 10 player in the making
-Filip Peliwo and Braydon Schnurr are a few years away from being a force
-The Davis Cup team just had an unbelievable run to the semi-finals
-The Fed Cup Team has now qualified for the World Group
So why have any concerns? This situation has occurred before. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Canadian tennis looked like this:
-8 Male players who flirted, or were in the top 100 ATP: Pridham, Laurendeau, Sznajder,
Michibata, Wostenholme, Nestor, Lareau and Connell
-Rusedski as well until he bolted for Great Britain and he reached #4 on the ATP rankings
-Top 100 female players Kelesi, Hy-Boulais, Jeyaseelan, Simpson
-Various Canadian players who won Grand Slam doubles crowns
-The #1 ranked player in doubles on the ATP and WTA tour
-Canada’s U18 Sunshine Cup Team who won the World Championships
-The Davis Cup team who qualified for the first time, twice for the World Group
-The Fed Cup Team who maintained its position in the World Group
And then what happened?
A series of events occurred which made the designed Tennis Canada plan impossible to continue. The result of these events was a serious financial downturn in Tennis Canada operations which of course was/is responsible for the majority of funding for tennis development opportunities. These events were:
-The legislation against tobacco company sponsorship, which were Tennis Canada’s biggest supporters
-Reorganization of the ATP circuit which resulted in increased prize money and operation costs associated with the new ATP tournament structure
-The major capital expenditure required to develop an acceptable facility at York University
-The lack of reserve funds to deal with these immediate demands
So what occurred?
-Budgets for development were slashed
-Programs and player support were rolled back
-Downsizing occurred in the staffing of the development department
-Simply, at a time where more money was required to ride the wave of success and continue to develop the proper infrastructure, cutbacks occurred and eventually Canada’s enviable position on the world scene became a distant memory.
What are the issues now?
-The present scenario created by our players and teams are the result of a good long term vision, very similar to the one from yesteryears, supported by substantial financial contributions from the Opens (Rogers Cup) and fund raising initiatives. The present leadership of Tennis Canada is undergoing major changes. Certainly the intent is to continue this successful ascension of the sport in the public eye and on the national and international scene. We should be aware that new leadership, more often than not, results in different visions and strategies.
-There is a new Chairman of the Board of Tennis Canada, John LeBoutillier who replaced Roger Martin this past summer. John LeBoutillier is from Quebec and Roger Martin from Ontario. Both are experienced leaders with great track records, but whenever the board Chairman changes from or to Quebec there is a major possibility of a change in the interpretation of the vision; this is the reality of the politics in this country
-Maybe you do not believe me, but then how do you explain Bob Brett’s departure from Tennis Canada? Bob Brett’s departure has been kept under the radar, because there are internal pressures going on and nobody really wants to discuss these. Bob Brett, who once and for all I do like, was Michael Downey’s tennis go to person.
-Louis Borfiga, [who I also respect] is now the uncontested development leader in this country. Brett’s removal and the consecrating of Borfiga’s leadership are definitely tied into the changes at the Board level. Borfiga’s power base is Quebec, the national centre in Montreal, the Quebec media and the board. Rightly so, because he has done a great job in ensuring that our really gifted players access the financial and human resources required for the transition to the top echelons
-Derek Strang, the man nobody knows outside of Tennis Canada has been the backbone of Tennis Canada operations for over 20 years. The CFO is now retiring to go into private business although he will stay on as a consultant to Tennis Canada in the area of facility development.
-Michael Downey, Tennis Canada’s CEO, and the guiding light over the last years, is exiting in December and moving on to England to lead their tennis development fortunes [they have real money to play with]
Besides the changes in Tennis Canada’s leadership there are other issues which create concerns and that will certainly require creative solutions:
-The amalgamation of the two opens in a one week window has magnified the financial difficulties associated with the women’s event and as such financial cutbacks will probably be instituted
-The present Rexall Center is barely acceptable as a proper ATP tournament centre. The reality is that it probably should be reorganized into a better venue for events. This certainly might affect the required needs for a real National Training Center for Ontario. The site is not big or good enough to operate a proper tournament, a real National Tennis Centre and meet York University’s needs
-Tennis popularity might be growing, especially in the viewing and youth entry levels portion of the game, but there is really a huge lack of facilities across the country
-Tennis in Quebec was reputed in the late 1980’s as having the largest per capita number of indoor tennis courts in the world. This situation has changed dramatically with the closing of over a half dozen indoor clubs and at least 60 courts. This has resulted in the weakening of the Quebec competitive infrastructure and seriously affects their overall development of players
-Tennis in Ontario has not had the same drastic drop but many clubs have closed and as of today at least five existing facilities with over 30 courts are being eyed by developers
-The rest of the country is struggling as well. Year round facilities are the partners that provide tournaments, performance player development and year round training programs. Without them the game cannot grow. Presently, performance tennis is basically Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Yes, we have a new facility in Halifax and proposed ones in Alberta and BC but we need a lot more to have a significant impact
-The present policies of Tennis Canada in player development, as it relates to regrouping and player support create a negative feeling in one of our most important sectors of player development: the year round programs and their coaches
-The Ontario [where the game is the strongest] player development situation, as it relates to its partnership with Tennis Canada is not efficient, practical or conducive to developing harmonious relationships with the private sector coaches. As a result the maximizing of Ontario players potential is not achieved
Does this mean that we, because we are all part of Tennis Canada, should worry about our future and our goal of making tennis a major sport in our Canadian landscape?
-We are definitively at the crossroads. We have received great leadership and greater financial support than ever before, but changes bring about changes
-The intent of the new leadership of Tennis Canada will be consistent with doing what is right to grow the game but it is not that simple
-Growing the game is different than creating performance and requires sizeable financial strategies to develop community facilities across the country
-The financial demands for new projects, facilities and existing plans will be greatly taxed, especially if new solutions are not found for improving the financial performance of the Opens
I have confidence that solutions will be found. However, I cannot forget how many of our hearts were broken in the early 1990’s when we saw a great plan which was cost effective and supported by great people and results to be pushed aside due to financial constraints and changes in overall direction.
Let’s pray history does not repeat itself, this Canadian success is too much fun. Good luck Tennis Canada. May you find the people required to develop the future vision of the sport, supported by the proper financial resources in a harmonious environment. It is a great opportunity; the acceptance of the inevitability of change can give us hope for a dynamic balance between opposite views and the evolution of a new age for Canadian Tennis.
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