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Pierre ‘The Bear’ Lamarche: “Davis Cup: Canada vs. France Highlights Symptoms of Poor Leadership and Vision”

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***Disclaimer: My views on Davis Cup are always quite emotional. It meant so much for me to represent my country, as it did when I led Tunisia for a two-year period. To compete in Davis Cup was a goal as a player and my major goal as a coach. As a player, my Davis Cup career was short [one doubles match]. As a coach and captain, I was in charge of our Canadian team during a special time. We were in the World Group two times.  While in charge of the Tunisian National team, Tunisia had one of their most successful Davis Cup periods. I must always temper my views with a dose of reality to try to come out with a meaningful evaluation of what occurred in a tie that recently concluded. Below are my comments after the France-Canada tie in Vancouver.***

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The vision: “You have to know what you want”

In 1988, a group of top Canadian coaches, administrators and players got together to help define the future vision for Canadian tennis through the development of a Sport Canada sponsored quadrennial plan. The longest and most intense discussion revolved around the overall objective for our sport system. It was finally agreed, after two days of deliberation, that the goal would be:

  1. To develop Canadian teams capable of competing at the highest level of Davis Cup and Fed Cup competition [we had never been in the World Group]
  2. To develop players capable of winning Olympic Gold [tennis was in the Olympics finally]

In those days all development decisions were influenced by these overall objectives. Doubles became a priority in our system as we realized that 80% of the teams that won the doubles match in Davis Cup on the heels of a 1-1 result in singles on the first day would go on to win the tie. Canada’s emphasis on doubles with Grand Slam winners, Olympic Gold medalists and top ranked players such as Connell, Michibata, Lareau, Nestor and Hetherington was not a coincidence. We were known as the team who would win on Saturday. Montrealer Louis Cayer, now special coach to the English Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams, became known as a doubles guru.

Why is this important in evaluating this recent tie? Simply because the doubles match was pivotal in Canada’s defeat. Canada’s new vision is to develop Grand Slam Champions and top ten players; nothing wrong with that, but it completely changes the logistics and what is emphasized in the development system. We do not have that same Davis Cup priority in the system, therefore, doubles has not been a priority. 20 years later, after our two World Group visits of the early 1990’s, we have gotten rid of a coach, Cayer, recognized worldwide for his doubles knowledge and the only Canadian doubles player in the top 50 ATP is venerable 39 year old Daniel Nestor, a remnant from the past. The next top Canadian is Adil Shamasdin [top 60 best ATP], developed through his coach Dave Ochatta and then the NCAA system. Shamasdin has never been part of our Canadian team.

The team philosophy used to be “we split singles the first day, win the doubles and go for it on the last day.” In fact, captain Marty Laurendeau, part of the old team, mentioned that view after the first day. The only problem is the system did not provide him with the required tools for the Saturday doubles. Yes, Nestor and anybody is one of the world’s best doubles team, but when you play two world-class doubles players [Llodra and Benneteau], you better have another world-class doubles player playing with Daniel. Pospisil might become that player and he certainly is a solid doubles player [top150] with good Davis Cup results, although not of the quality of the French. I am not sure how the decision to replace Pospisil with Raonic went down. Certainly, Nestor required to have the strongest say followed by captain Laurendeau. I believe that putting Raonic in was a good decision. Raonic’s serve certainly is a world-class weapon in doubles. The thought process must have been, “we win our service games, go for it on their serves, and go after them in the tiebreaker”. Canada got to the tiebreaker in both the first two sets so winning the service games was accomplished. Going for it on the French’s serves was not as well implemented, as Raonic should have blasted the net player more often with his returns. Finally, in the breakers, Benneteau especially should have been set up with wide serves leading to the breaker [which he was], but should have never been given the opportunity to swing at his returns at that crucial time of the match. The up your nose spin serve and in your midsection slices should have been used exclusively.

It’s hard to fault the team. Canada’s second best doubles player was not there, our Canadian system is no longer developing doubles players, our doubles master mind, Cayer, was with the British Davis Cup team, who upset Slovakia [3-2] on the same day we lost to France by splitting the singles the first day, winning the doubles on Saturday and winning the fifth match in five sets on the last day. Of interest, the British team had two singles players ranked 156 and 273 versus a Slovak team with players ranked 67 and 119 ATP.

Davis Cup is a sophisticated war, which requires a clear vision and the required resources for a wide range of battles. The past Canadian system understood the constraints found in this country and opted for Davis Cup glory. This ensured an emphasis on doubles, Canadian players competing with top players in Grand Slam and ATP competitions and building confidence that has never been seen within Canadian players. We wanted many players in the big show in both singles and doubles [Connell, Michibata, Lareau, Sznajder, Laurendeau, Wostenholme, Pridham, Nestor, and Rusedski]. We had nine players who played Grand Slam main draws. How many do we have now? Whatever they say at Tennis Canada, Davis Cup is not as important now as finding the player who they believe will change the sport around in this country, as world champion Jacques Villeneuve did with Formula 1 racing in this country! Raonic is their answer, but they are not prepared for the reality of dealing with a superstar whose agenda is not the same as theirs.    Davis Cup is like the World Cup in most countries, but here it is not even the top objective anymore. You reap what you sow, so don’t blame the team, the captain or the players. Blame the vision and the leadership.  This is Canada, minimum assets and major constraints. The approach has to be more guerrilla warfare than the straight up battle. Anybody interested should read Sun Tzu.

You could see what Davis Cup meant to the French, from their singing the national anthem, arms around each other, unified behind the bench, a team which would not be denied and used every opportunity to create the energy and synergy required for the victory, regardless of the opponent. That positive feeling, that belief, that vision was not apparent on the Canadian team or bench. Simply, tradition must be cultivated and it seems to have disappeared somewhere. Vision and leadership again is the answer.

Raonic’s singles performance against Benneteau was outstanding against an unbelievably tenacious player. He is a true star. His doubles performance certainly showed areas that need to be improved and which certainly will be addressed. He is still basically a kid. His handling and the teams handling of his injury was a public relations nightmare. It did not look good on anybody and I felt for Marty trying to explain a situation he did not feel comfortable with. Louis Borfiga, or a Tennis Canada PR person should have dealt with that sensitive situation. At the worst the team doctor should have been present. Maybe there was more behind the scenes going on that we know, again it seems like poor leadership.

Finally, what I personally found aggravating was the two self-serving Tennis Canada promotions that we were subjected to on an ongoing basis. It went something like this:

  1. “Hi, I am Bob Brett, former coach of Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, in charge of the development of the under 12 players in Canada.”  Now what is Tennis Canada trying to justify here, or promote here? That it is great to be paying some foreign coach a major six figures salary for part time work in managing a few players under 12 for 5 years in an area which he is not an expert in? I’ll bet you he never coached Becker, Ivanisevic or any of the great players he has coached when they were 12 years old. He is the same coach who has not even seen the top ranked U 12 female player in Canada play, and then agrees to send to Europe two other girls ranked behind her who are also a year older and who competed in the last two tournaments she won. Again it sounds like the entertainment arm of Tennis Canada making a decision, which makes them look good and provides the ability to raise money while not doing what is right for the game. Are you telling me we do not have the ability to find someone in Canada who could work full time at ensuring that the under 12 game can be grown across the country? The advertising spots should have been about promoting progressive tennis, a great concept that is being promoted worldwide [The USTA had The First Lady acting as a ball person in their promotion.] Ah, but it is true, Bob Brett is not a proponent of progressive tennis. Tennis Canada does not even have its own house in order….great leadership, no wonder there is major dissension out there.
  2. The second promotion went like this “Hi, we are two national players playing at the wonderful Jarry Park indoor clay courts at the National Centre. The green clay court is the same as the red. It’s great to know that we train where Raonic and Marino were developed” and “Hi, I’m Bob Brett, the National Center in Montreal is a success with the development of players like Raonic and Marino”.

What we need is red clay courts across the country as identified six years ago by Tennis Canada. Not four green clay courts in Montreal [I guess players from across Canada can travel to Montreal to live the experience]. Anyone who believes the green stuff is the same as the red clay must think that green hard courts and grass are the same as well. The building of those four clay courts in Montreal [at exorbitant costs] and the stated $80,000 cost per player per year for being at the center in Montreal certainly does not seem to be good financial use of the limited resources that we have in Canadian Tennis. Basically, Tennis Canada is running “L’Academie de Tennis de Tennis Canada” in Montreal and Toronto, competing against the private sector academies, which develop the players in the first place. Sport Canada, donations, raised funds, and events profits are used to compete against the private sector.

The maximising of human and financial resources should be a leading principle for any country facing opponents with greater resources [Sun Tzu]. The way we have wasted money in pursuing the dream of a top ten player, we could surmise that we must be the owners of a Grand Slam event to be able to waste so much money on so few. Again, you must question the development department’s vision and leadership, or maybe it’s the entertainments vision and leadership?

Tennis Canada leadership cannot be so naive to believe their own spin stories, including the insinuations of being so responsible for the development of Raonic and Marino. The Davis Cup communication fiasco, the lack of understanding of what is required to have a competitive Davis Cup Team, and the promotional misinformation seen during that weekend are just three more symptoms of poor leadership and vision. Tennis Canada had its first taste of the reality of dealing with a mega star at the recent Davis Cup. Milos’ coach and agent will not disappear. Milos must worry about his career and his family, the same as Rusedski did.

Who created this development vision and who is responsible for its ongoing non-correction? The tennis public is not fooled, the Academies of the private sector are disheartened, and Canadian coaches feel that they have been abandoned. Those that receive financial benefits from the system do not dare say anything, while others just whisper in fear of hurting any chance they might have at future Tennis Canada money. What a shame, at least we can experience what being in a Communist system was like. Tennis Canada is more worried about its image than tennis in the country. And then the wall came tumbling down…it’s only a matter of time.

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