Written by: Pierre 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.
His comments are often taken as critical by those who feel targeted by his questions. His background as a player, coach, and leader [see background] in the sport and coaching industry warrants that his views, which are shared by many others, be given due process by anyone [or organization] who really wants to help Canadian Tennis achieve the proper national status it deserves in the sport community.
He now starts in ONcourt a series of editorials which specifically provides thoughts for reflection on how to make Canada a tennis superpower.***
Milos Raonic is the greatest stimulant for the development of Canadian tennis in years. But do not be fooled, this is not the first time Canadian tennis has had success on the international scene.
This is part of Canadian tennis history: in the 1980’s Tennis Canada introduced the concept of National Centers and started subsidised programs in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax through the Molson National Team program. The direct result was disastrous to the private sector [clubs and academies] and resulted in the dismantling of the one great tennis Academy in the country, All-Canadian in London. Time passed, results from the centers were poor, the costs soared and eventually through ongoing public dissatisfaction, Francois Godbout , the chairman of Tennis Canada, visited the All-Canadian Academy in London and promised that Bob Wright, the incoming chairman, would bring about changes to the system.
As a result, in 1988, Tennis Canada, Sport Canada and representatives of the private sector got together to develop a four year plan called “Baseline to Excellence” to achieve the specific goals of winning Gold at the Olympics and competing at the highest level of team competition, the Davis Cup and Fed Cup. These goals were a reflection of the criteria for funding from Sport Canada as well as a belief that team objectives provided a better chance of success, and greater promotional coverage for the sport. These objectives also helped alleviate the unhealthy pressure created on individuals that were developing in the system [very important from a development standpoint for younger players]. I was fortunate to be part of this process and after seeing the results, became a fervent believer of the plan.
Within four years, we had won the Junior World Team Championships, we had six players in the top 200 ATP and five in the top 150 WTA, we qualified twice for the World Group in Davis Cup and twice for the world Group qualifying [top 16] in Fed Cup. Two of the players that were nurtured in this program, Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau, won Olympic Gold in Australia. Another, Greg Rusedski, who opted for England, when he was 20, reached #4 ATP. It might have been coincidence but maybe not.
Then the proverbial cow manure hit the fan: The economy took a turn for the worse, the tobacco industry sponsorship was outlawed by the government, the ATP and WTA restructured by creating Super Series Events, which demanded more prize money from the organisers [Tennis Canada] and also required a certain level of physical amenities for players and fans, such as new stadiums. All of this created a huge financial burden on an organisation without a real contingency plan for such a situation. The first response, of course, was slashing of player and tennis development budgets, which resulted in the disbanding of resources brought together for the implementation of the “Baseline to Excellence” plan.
Between 1994 to 2004, while Tennis Canada fought to keep the elite status of the Canadian Open by refurbishing Montreal’s Jarry Park and building a new facility at York University, it was a dark time for tennis and player development in Canada. What is important to remember is that this dark period was not the result of poor vision, player development leadership, planning, or lack of human resources [players and coaches], but simply due to the dismantling of a proven plan due to financial constraints created by the Open. Tennis Canada’s priority, which has always been the Opens, became even more one dimensional.
Michael Downey, Tennis Canada president, who proclaimed “I know nothing about tennis, but I’m willing to learn fast,” took over the leadership of the national body in 2004. Given his limited tennis background, he adopted the tennis philosophy of “Pathway to Excellence,” a 25 year plan designed by Halifax lawyer and Tennis Canada board member, Jack Graham and the Ketchum company [a public relations firm]. Interestingly, this exercise was created without the participation of the private sector partners in tennis development [i.e. clubs, academies and coaches]. The partners in the development of this plan were Tennis Canada, the provincial tennis associations, mostly a group of well meaning volunteers with no real tennis development background, with their own personal agendas and the Ketchum group.
This is 2011. We are seven years into the plan, millions of dollars have been spent, we are told tennis is growing in this country [while indoor clubs are rapidly closing], Tennis Canada pats itself on the back for Milos Raonic, but what they did, at 50 times the cost, was nothing different than what was done for Lareau, Nestor, and Rusedski. And this was accomplished without the divisive concept of the National Tennis Center [as it is presently operated] while also providing touring opportunities to juniors based on both performance and subjective evaluation, rather than the present system which provides these opportunities basically only to players who embrace the National Center concept in Montreal.
Should there be accountability? Look at the money spent, look at the results, compare to the stated performance objectives in the plan, and see if there are better options to maximize our resources, financial and human. Who is responsible for this, Jack Graham, Michael Downey, Hatem McDadi, the board of Tennis Canada? If there is no substance to these arguments they should be easy to refute; if not, it’s time to open up the communication lines between the chiefs [Tennis Canada] and the rest of the country, especially those that put their money and career on the line, the indoor clubs, the academies and the coaches of the private sector.
In these editorials, I will propose a series of alternatives which will be based on sound scientific athletic principals, will deal with financial and human resources and constraints specific to this country, try to maximize existing financial and human resources [public and private], will provide for the recruiting of world class athletes, and provide a system for the proper development of those athletes. Many of these thoughts are the results of the research done for the 1988 Baseline To Excellence strategic plan which provided Canada with the best tennis development results in its history.
The new 25 year plan Pathway to Excellence started with the flagship National Center in Montreal as the cornerstone of its vision. Now, as years ago, we have the same divisive approach to development with the private sector, the results do not match the performance objectives of the plan, the costs are soaring [wait till we hear about the clay courts on top of the building at Jarry in Montreal] and the private sector [how many more clubs or academies must close?]. Maybe it’s time for someone from the board to ask questions. History usually repeats itself, we should all learn from it, rather than reinventing the wheel and waste the precious limited resources we have.
Anybody listening? Comment one way or another if you care about Canadian tennis.