Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic are giving tennis unprecedented exposure in hockey-mad Canada.
How long it lasts remains to be seen, but the possibility of a Canadian sweep at the world’s biggest tennis tournament has created a national buzz.
Bouchard won her semifinal on Thursday to become the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam women’s singles final. Raonic has reached the final four of the men’s draw and will play his semifinal match on Friday.
The sport has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity over the last few years in this country thanks in part to the success of the two rising Canadian stars.
Raonic, from Thornhill, Ont., had a breakthrough season in 2011 and has risen to No. 9 in the world rankings. The 13th-ranked Bouchard, from Westmount, Que., broke through last year and has reached the semifinals at every Grand Slam event this season.
Bouchard’s game has caught the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Jim Parsons, star of “The Big Bang Theory,” has been a regular at her matches at the All England Club.
“Congratulations to @geniebouchard for making history,” Harper posted on Twitter Thursday. “Canada will continue to cheer you on as you head to the #Wimbledon finals.”
There hasn’t been this kind of buzz around Canadian tennis since Carling Basset, like Bouchard both talented and photogenic, advanced to the semifinal of the U.S. Open in 1984 and was ranked as the eighth best women’s tennis player in the world.
But Tom Tebbutt, who has covered Canadian tennis for 40 years, says this is bigger, particularly because it’s happening at Wimbledon. The tournament at the All England Club enjoys a bit more panache than the other Grand Slams.
“(Bassett) was 16 years old at the time, and she was a darling and everybody was infatuated ant there was TV coverage at home, so that was slightly similar,” Tebbutt said. “But this is the biggest Grand Slam of them all.”
Tebbutt said it’s hard to say whether this momentum will continue, but the establishment of a national training centre in Montreal has helped players like Bouchard, Raonic and Vasek Pospisil develop their game.
“They have a guy named Louis Borfiga who they brought in from the French tennis centre to run it, and he’s done a good job there.”
But he also said that even if Bouchard and Raonic win at Wimbledon, that doesn’t mean the sports fabric of Canada will be altered permanently. He brought up Canadian golfer Mike Weir, who won the Masters in 2003. Neither he nor any other Canadian golfer since has been able to sustain the momentum Canadian golf had after that landmark victory.
“It wears out after a while,” he said.
While the going is good, the Montreal suburb of Westmount will ride the wave. Mayor Peter Trent says he will be reissuing an invitation he sent out to Bouchard six months ago to visit city hall for a reception.
“We very, very proud of her,” he said. “The fact that she lives in Westmount, the fact that she went to school in Westmount, has become well known (and) everyone now knows great things happen in Westmount.”
Andrew Maislin, sports co-ordinator in charge of tennis for City of Westmount says there’s been a “big uptick in registration, especially young girls registering for tennis lessons,” since Bouchard started to get a lot of publicity.
That trend seems to be true across the country.
“We’ve been growing this sport sort of three per cent to five per cent a year for the last few years,” said Tennis Canada president Kelly Murumets. “That’s considered a real accomplishment. I believe after today’s match and after yesterday’s (Raonic) match, I have to believe that the trajectory is a great deal more significant even than that.”
Raonic will next take on Swiss star Roger Federer with a berth in Sunday’s men’s final on the line. Bouchard will play Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic in the final on Saturday.
Murumets feels the success and widespread interest in their results at the tournament will lead to more Canadians getting involved in tennis.
“I think that it’s extending the excitement of the sport which then inspires the next Milos Raonic and the next Eugenie Bouchard,” she said. “I think that kids in all corners of the country can think that, ‘Gosh if they can be it, maybe I could as well.'”
There are other benefits as well. A raised profile drives awareness of the sport, which in turn drives resources for more facilities and tournaments across the country, Murumets added.
Canadian tennis observers and non-sports fans alike are paying attention.
“Historically tennis has been on the sports page,” Murumets said. “We’re now on the front page of newspapers. And it’s news outlets that are speaking with us about the business of tennis. And so I think that changes the fanbase.”