Game, set and match

For the better part of the last two decades, the profile of Canadian tennis had been buoyed by the success of doubles player Daniel Nestor; winner of over 800 career ATP Tour doubles matches, including each Grand Slam event and an Olympic gold medal won with fellow countryman Sebastien Lareau at the 2000 Olympics.

Nestor remained the crown jewel of Canadian tennis during a time when there had been few notable Canadian tennis stars in the game’s marquee discipline: singles. In fact, before the U.S. Open last year, there were no Canadian men in the top 200 in the world rankings in singles tennis.

But 2011 may well be a watershed year for tennis in this country, as Canada’s prospects in the sport start to ascend the ranks and join the world’s tennis elite.

At the Australian Open in January, Toronto’s Milos Raonic’s booming serve became an overnight sensation. The 20-year-old rattled off an impressive run winning six straight matches, three in qualifying and three in the main draw, to reach the round of 16, becoming tennis’s first breakout player of 2011.Two weeks later, he had his first ATP tournament victory in San Jose, Calif. and reached the final the following week at the Memphis tournament, before losing to Andy Roddick. In those two tournaments, he defeated two former top-ten players, Fernando Verdasco and James Blake, and the current world number eight Mardy Fish.

His sudden success led to interviews on TSN, CBC and CNN and last month he was featured in Vogue magazine as part of a feature on up-and-coming tennis players.

In May, he achieved a career-high ranking of 25th, becoming Canada’s highest-ranked men’s singles player ever.

However, his play has slowed since those victories in February. He lost in the first round of the French Open and suffered a hip injury at Wimbledon that caused him to miss this year’s Rogers Cup in Montreal and the U.S. Open. But he isn’t the only Canadian player to get excited about.

Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino, also 20, was ranked number 101 at the end of 2010. She has been able to compete against the world’s best, including a forced first-set tiebreak in a second round loss to Venus Williams at the 2010 U.S Open. In this year’s Australian Open, she went the distance against 2010 French Open champ and No. 6 seed Francesca Schiavone, losing 6-3, 5-7, 9-7. She, along with Raonic and Nestor, reached the final in Memphis before retiring from the match due to injury. In July, she achieved a career-high ranking of 38th in the world in women’s singles.

Vasek Pospisil, from Vernon, B.C., will see his place in the world rankings rise after this year’s U.S. Open. The 21-year-old was the only Canadian to reach the second round in a singles draw at the event. He also beat No. 22 seed Juan Ignacio Chela at this year’s Rogers Cup. Pospisil is projected to be ranked around 130th after the U.S. Open.

Another name to watch is 17-year-old Westmount, Que. native Eugénie Bouchard. She is only ranked 347th in the world in women’s singles, but she is currently the world’s fourth-best player in junior girls’ singles. At the Australian Open, she reached the semi-finals in girls’ singles and won the Wimbledon title in girls’ doubles. This year, she’s won two low-level pro women’s tennis events.
From Sept. 14-16, Canada’s Davis Cup team will play against the hosts from Israel in the serendipitously named Canada Stadium. Should Canada win, they will advance to the top level of the Davis Cup, the World Group, for the first time since 2004. Raonic will make his return to the court and Pospisil and Nestor will join him.

If this happens, this may become a common sight: Canadians among tennis’s highest ranks on the world’s biggest stages.