Sat, May 25, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Ice hockey hotbed produces tennis players to watch


Denis Shapovalov returns to Novak Djokovic at the Italian Open in Rome on May 16.

Photo: AP

It is typically Canadian that Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Bianca Andreescu are each children of immigrants.

What is not typical is that they have simultaneously broken into the world’s elite ranks of tennis players and will all be worth watching at the French Open, which is to begin tomorrow.

The 20-year-old Shapovalov burst onto the scene a couple of years ago when he upset Rafael Nadal at the Canadian Open. He is now up to No. 23 in the rankings.

Eighteen-year-old Auger-Aliassime’s breakthrough came at the start of this year when he reached the final of the clay-court Rio Open.

Then things really started heating up in March when Andreescu, who is also 18, beat five seeded players when she won the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, as a wildcard entry, while Auger-Aliassime — as a qualifier — and Shapovalov reached the semi-finals of the Miami Open.

“I grew up with Felix and Bianca and to see how far we’ve come, to see Bianca lifting up a Masters trophy, my mind is exploding,” Shapovalov said in a recent interview.

“You look at Canada and it’s like: ‘[Ice] hockey, hockey, hockey.’ And don’t get me wrong. I love hockey. I love the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it’s great to see that now people are like: ‘Oh, you can play tennis as well in Canada,’” “ Shapovalov said.

While Canada has not historically been known as a tennis hotbed, it has produced other top players in recent years. Eugenie Bouchard (2014) and Milos Raonic (2016) were the country’s first two Grand Slam finalists, each at Wimbledon. Daniel Nestor completed a career Grand Slam in doubles in 2008 and Vasek Pospisil won a doubles title at Wimbledon in 2014.

“Obviously they’ve inspired us and they’ve paved the way for us,” Shapovalov said. “I feel like every week a Canadian is making noise.”

Auger-Aliassime (No. 28) and Andreescu (No. 22) each achieved career-high rankings this week.

Shapovalov was born in Israel after his parents moved there from Russia. The family then settled in the Toronto area before Shapovalov turned one.

Auger-Aliassime’s father is from Togo and Andreescu’s parents are from Romania.

“I think the great part about Canada is everyone says the people are so nice, the people are so friendly, but I think it’s because everyone comes from somewhere. So we’re just all so accepting,” Shapovalov said. “We all ended up in the same place from different paths and different families. That whole thing as a nation is incredible. We’ve all come our way and now we’re all playing for the same country and we’re all so proud to do it. It’s an incredible story.”

Canada’s national training program has played a big role in shaping the players’ games.

“They all have their style. They all don’t strike the ball the same,” International Tennis Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri said. “And that means that it’s darn good coaching. Because you coach within the style and mentality of the player.”

Andreescu has been out due to an injured shoulder since her title in Miami, but she has been training at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Spain.

“This has been a good period for me, because I’m working a lot on my fitness, which is very important for the clay season. So I’m really looking forward to what I can do at the French Open,” she said. “Clay is one of my favorite surfaces.”

Shapovalov slept in the basement of Auger-Aliassime’s house during his run in Montreal a couple of years ago and the pair recently went out and watched the latest Avengers film during a tournament in Spain.

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