ONcourt Interviews the Bear
***Let us be very clear: The Bear is very Canadian. He loves everything Canadian, especially Canadian tennis players and coaches. He has been part of Canadian tennis history; he has lived the life of having his teams in the World Group; he has seen his players play on centre court at the majors; his players contributed to the only World Junior team Championship for Canada [Sunshine Cup]; he had a player that beat the #1 player in the WORLD in the greatest Davis Cup upset of all time. He believes that Michael Downey is a great corporate leader, he also believes that Louis Borfiga and Bob Brett are great coaches (Foreign) who have a place in Canadian tennis. So why when Peliwo and Bouchard win Wimbledon, and when Raonic is the toast of the Pro game – why does he still think there are better ways to accomplish the dream we all have for Canadian tennis? ***
ONcourt: So Bear, don’t you think Canadian tennis is on the rise?
The Bear: The recent junior results, especially the Wimbledon titles are something to be very proud of. All of us, Canadians, including Tennis Canada, should be very proud of these accomplishments. For someone like me, who has a lot of respect for national titles, an international one at a Grand Slam is unbelievable. I remember the euphoria created in 1989 when Canada won the Sunshine Cup, the World Team Championship Under 18. That marked an important moment in Canadian tennis development. I had just started being involved with Tennis Canada and we achieved this result simply by having a paradigm shift in Tennis Canada’s thinking and developing a true partnership between the private and public sector.
It was a remarkable success based on maximizing the resources at our disposal, which were very limited. What was interesting was that the major players in this scenario came from three different camps: the Lemaire camp from Montreal provided Sebastien Lareau [ATP singles 76, doubles 4, Gold Medal] and Sebastien Leblanc [All-American UCLA]. The All-Canadian [ACE] group had Daniel Nestor [ATP singles 58, doubles 1, Gold Medal] and Robert Janecek [All-American UCLA]. Finally, rounding out the group was the Greg Rusedski [ATP singles 4, doubles 63] clan led by his father and a group of coaches, including Louis Cayer. What we showed the world was that the cooperation between the private sector [three very different partners] and the national body was possible. We provided the flexibility for each camp to follow the route they thought was best for their players. We, at Tennis Canada, provided support, financial and human resources.
ONcourt: So Bear, move on, what is your problem?
The Bear: My problem is the way Tennis Canada positions these results in a way to justify their present vision which saw the creation of the National Centre in Montreal, the leadership of Canadian tennis by foreign coaches and the creation of policies which created division and animosity with the most important partners in the development chain: the players, coaches, clubs and academies.
First and foremost, when it comes to Peliwo and Bouchard, and Peliwo is the only true National Center product, their success at Wimbledon was accomplished at an exorbitant cost. Consider all the money that was spent on the National Centre project in the last six years. Junior titles are great but do not guarantee future success. You just have to look at the names of former Junior Wimbledon winners in the last 20 years who never made it: Florin Mergea, Roman Valent, Scott Humphries, Wesley Whitehouse, David Skoch and Razvan Sabau. What Peliwo has is a talent [see ONcourt article here] and a great support system from Tennis Canada. But do not forget that in recent years we have had two Canadians, Peter Polanski [ATP best 156] and Philip Bester [ATP best 229], who got to the finals of the Junior Singles Grand Slam events in 2006. They were developed without a National Center and eventually were integrated into the Tennis Canada system with the same leadership as now, without the success of a Raonic. So for someone to claim that the success of Peliwo, Bouchard and Raonic are due to the National Centre policy and the leadership of Louis Borfiga is a red herring. Please do not get me wrong, Louis Borfiga is a great guy and a great coach, the National Centre is a good idea [in certain ways], but they are not the reason for the success of our two juniors and Raonic.
One of the reasons for success is that much has been sacrificed. Look at the list of bodies from the National Center program who have received $80,000 yearly [Tennis Canada amount] without significant Open results [this is the goal of Tennis Canada, not juniors]. The other reason is that Tennis Canada feels it is imperative to justify their vision by having results at any cost. If you look at the development of many professional players, juniors are only a stepping stone in the equation to achieve success. You get the feeling that the future of some of these juniors is being jeopardized by scheduling which emphasizes short-term results rather than long-term success. Take the time to look at what was really accomplished at the National Centre, look at the cost, look at the casualties, discard the self-serving promotions, look at the realities of how certain players get what they want because they are so essential to the image of the program, and then see if there is any better way to utilise all that money that the present leadership of Tennis Canada is generating for tennis development.
You can see the problems of the present philosophy with someone like our best female player. Alex Wozniak received financing at the cost of removing her father as her coach. The changes, Tennis Canada coaches, did not work and now Daddy is back in the saddle, and Wozniak is winning again. Did her father get better as a coach during his forced sabbatical, or could all of this been alleviated through cooperation with strict parameters? Do you remember Tennis Canada’s big announcement of the new wave of women stars training out of Montreal [Tetrault, Marino, Fichman, El Tabak]. One has retired, another is M.I.A., one is in Toronto, and who knows where the other one is, not Montreal. How about Gabriela Dabrowski, who won the Orange Bowl three years ago playing in Ottawa with her father and struggling? Cooperation and teamwork is what makes it happen. Once Tennis Canada takes care of the hen [clubs, schools] that produce their golden eggs and develop a true partnership with the private sector, then we, all of us, including Tennis Canada will succeed. I have been told that Tennis Canada’s tennis development budget is over 10 million dollars a year. Should we not look at maximizing these financial resources, as well as the capital [clubs] and human [coaches] ones if we care about the game?
The President of Tennis Canada, Michael Downey, has done an unbelievable job in making Tennis Canada a financially viable operation. As a result, he and his group should be applauded for what they have accomplished. Unfortunately, Michael comes from a business background, and being the #1 tennis fan in the country does not ensure that he has the grasp of how to develop tennis in this country. For that he must rely on the advice of two foreign coaches, one who works part-time in Canada and the other that never leaves Montreal. I am not sure whatsoever that they have a grasp of the Canadian Tennis situation. Downey must also count on the leadership of his Tennis Canada development team who have been emasculated by the removing of any true Canadian identity. Finally, the provinces ratify and give credibility to the whole system when they simply do not have the experienced resources required to address these issues, and as a result are just happy with ratifying development policies in return for increased handouts from Tennis Canada.
It is amazing to me that Tennis Canada can make those claims when in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s, after the disbanding of the first series of national centres [yes, this has been tried before] through the cooperation of the private sector and Tennis Canada, we had the following players achieve their best singles results:
Andrew Sznajder, #46 ATP
Chris Pridham, #75 ATP
Grant Connell, #67 ATP, #1 in doubles
Martin Laurendeau #90 ATP
Martin Wolstenholme, #84 ATP
Glenn Michibata, #48 ATP, #5 in doubles
Sebastien Lareau, #76 ATP, 4 in doubles and a Gold Medal at the Olympics
Daniel Nestor, #58 ATP, 1 in doubles and a Gold Medal at the Olympics
Greg Rusedski, #4 ATP [played in Canada until #20, the same as Raonic]
Jill Hetherington, #64 WTA, #6 in doubles
Sonya Jeyaseelan, #48 WTA, #40 in doubles
Rene Simpson, #70 WTA, #32 in doubles
Helen Kelesi, #13 WTA, #26 doubles
Then, 13 players within the top 100 in the world coached by Canadian coaches in a hybrid cooperation between Tennis Canada and the private sector;
Now, 2 players within the top 100, one coached by a Spaniard and training in Spain, the other coached by her father in Montreal.
Conclusion: someone does not understand the Canadian tennis history. That is my point. We have been much better than now without the National Centre in Montreal and the leadership of foreign coaches. Do not forget that back then all that was accomplished with one-tenth of the present budget. At least, Tennis Canada should not mislead the young impressionable youngsters and their parents in claiming that the Montreal National Center and foreign coaches are the answer to our performance shortcomings.
So what we have is a great organization, Tennis Canada, in a great sport, in a great country, flushed with cash. But we also have a very negative situation through the following of a flawed vision tinkered by foreign coaches with good intentions and poor understanding of the realities of this country. Tennis Canada owes it to itself and all of the future young players to openly discuss their present vision, which 8 years in the making and millions spent, has very little to show for, except for a growing amount of disgruntled tennis players, parents and coaches.
That is why I am roaring: great that the kids are winning, great that Raonic has saved Tennis Canada’s bacon… But there are still better ways of doing things. You will probably discount this article, which you might read as a complete negative rant. We all know that you really care, Tennis Canada, so please, listen to what I say. Is there any truth? I just want you to make it better. Don’t be afraid – we will help. That is all we want to do. It’s our game as much as yours.
THIS IS A FACT: The bottom line is we accomplished more 20 years ago what you have accomplished now with ten times more money, and you still have an Olympic Gold medal to win. If you push the notion that your isolationist approach to partnership and your poor utilisation of resources is the key to Canada’s success, then you wake up the sleeping Bear. We should always be careful when you wake up the hibernating Bear because he wakes up hungry, and as Bob Marley said, “A hungry man is an angry man”.
Other misinformation: the $10 million dollar green clay courts in Montreal are not the same as the real red clay from Europe, whatever the commercial says.
You guys are working hard, doing great things. Start realising you could do much better, and that is all we want. Open the doors and your mind, and success will come, to say nothing about a wonderful feeling of belonging to the Canadian tennis family in a harmonious manner. I remember a leader of the development department talking about harmony. As Bob Marley says, “Stand Up”.