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A Tebbutt farewell

Feb 04, 2021
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

There comes a time – and the time is now for yours truly to step away from his regular Tebbutt Tuesday and tournament contributions to this website.

I started the blog at TennisCanada.com 10 years ago in January 2011, and that followed 20 years – 1990-2010 – as a tennis writer and columnist at The Globe and Mail. Now that feels like full circle – twice.

A lot has changed in Canadian tennis since the first Tebbutt Tuesday. A decade ago there was just one Canadian ranked in the ATP top 200 – 20-year-old Milos Raonic at No. 156.

Among the women, there was nobody in the WTA top 100. Rebecca Marino was No. 104, Aleksandra Wozniak No. 125, Stéphanie Dubois No. 158 and Heidi El Tabakh No. 199. Now, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu at No. 8, and 2019 French Open junior champion Leylah Annie Fernandez No. 89, are in the top 100. Genie Bouchard, No. 141, is the other player in the top 200.

Photo: Paul Des Ormeaux

Things are more dynamic on the men’s side with four players in the top 100 – Denis Shapovalov at No. 12, Raonic No. 15, Félix Auger-Aliassime No. 21 and Vasek Pospisil No. 61.

Those numbers would once have been unimaginable. It all began with Raonic in the 2011 Australian Open qualifying. In the final round he beat No. 177-ranked Andrej Martin. I was there and felt sorry for the 21-year-old Slovak. He won the first set and was up a break in the second doing everything right until an antsy, short-fused Raonic managed to get the set to a tiebreak. He won that tiebreak 7-0 and in the third set totally outclassed his opponent to win 4-6, 7-6(0), 6-2. All of a sudden, Martin simply had zero chance. Raonic had elevated to a superior level, a level that would soon take him to the highest ranks of the game.

In the main draw, he went on to beat No. 85-ranked Bjorn Phau, No. 24 Michael Llodra and No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny before losing in four sets to No. 7 David Ferrer in the round-of-16.

Raonic and Dennis Novak at 2018 Wimbledon (Photo: Mauricio Paiz)

Raonic ended 2011 at No. 31 and 2012 at No. 13, on his way in 2016 to a Wimbledon final and a career-high No. 3 ranking.

That same year Bouchard made the semi-finals of the Australian and French Opens and the final of Wimbledon, reaching a career-best No. 5 in the fall.

Canadian tennis fans know what eventually happened following those Raonic and Bouchard breakthroughs – see photo below.

This observer has had the good fortune to witness the remarkable advances made by Canadians – from Raonic right up to the 18-year-old Fernandez today. He has also travelled with the Canadian Davis Cup team to ties in Mexico, Ecuador, Israel, Serbia, Japan, Belgium, Croatia, Slovakia and Madrid. And with the Canadian Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) team to the Netherlands in 2019 and Switzerland in 2020.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

For a freelancer who used to stay in dingy hotels like the two-star in Paris that had a parrot named Oscar in the lobby trilling the first few bars of the Marseillaise, or semi-fleabag motels in Bayside, Queens, New York, travelling abroad with the Davis Cup team was a major upgrade. One thing I learned during those trips was that breakfast buffets are virtually the same in the best hotels all over the world. Whether it’s Guayaquil or Tokyo, Tel Aviv or Belgrade, there’s always a fresh and plentiful array of morning fare.

Still, I wouldn’t trade the mornings I had during Roland Garros going out to a patisserie for a fresh croissant au beurre to bring back to have with my orange juice while reading L’Equipe.

Davis Cup highlights included being in Toluca, Mexico, in 2011 when the fast-rising Raonic was treated like a superstar, Guayaquil where Philip Bester gutted out a crucial fifth-match win to keep Canada’s hopes alive for a spot in the World Group, as well as Ramat Hasharon, Israel, and Pospisil courageously putting the Canadian team on his back (two singles and a doubles victory in a hostile environment) to lift Canada into the World Group, a status it would maintain for nine years from 2012 to 2020.

Today, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime have continued on that path, highlighted by Canada’s runner-up finish in the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid in November, 2019.

On the Fed Cup side, I didn’t travel with the team nearly as much but was in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in 2019 to watch Andreescu. She was impressive. Observing her from a vantage point right behind the court, it was uncanny how she always seemed to make the right choice of shot.

There was heightened security when Canada played Davis Cup in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 2011 – with a strong military presence in the hotel and machine gun-toting policemen to accompany the team on its daily trips to the tie site. We were all warned not to stray more than 10 metres from the front entrance to the host club, which was located on a busy, main artery leading directly back to the hotel. At one point during the matches, gunshots involving rival gangs, were heard from near the entrance.

After Canada lost the two opening singles on the Friday night, I was in the sombre locker room at about 11 p.m. when Daniel Nestor, ever the jokester, motioned for me to go over and speak with him. He then said to the 65-year-old me, “Tom, the team is really down and discouraged after those losses and needs some inspiration – why don’t you walk back to the hotel tonight by yourself?” I could only smile, and graciously decline. But Canada still managed to come back to win 3-2 and advance to the World Group Playoff round.

There have been lots of personal highlights at events like the Rogers Cups – now the National Bank Opens – and other tournaments, as well as at Grand Slam events all over the world.

Apropos of the latter, I have attended 140 in more than 45 years covering the sport. A couple of years ago I got to 92 in a row but never believed I would make it to 100. Incredibly, No. 100 came at the 2020 Australian Open – 1995 Roland Garros to 2020 Australian Open. Who could have thought then that, a few months later, a worldwide pandemic would end any consecutive streaks when the French Open was moved to the fall and Wimbledon was cancelled?

On the subject of Grand Slams, it has been a privilege to observe three giants (pictured below) of the sport over the past two decades, especially after my early years spent witnessing the boorish antics of the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase.


Roger Federer (and Ivan Ljubicic) – 2020 Australian Open

Rafael Nadal – 2013 Roland Garros (Photo: Mauricio Paiz)

Novak Djokovic – 2014 Wimbledon (Photo: Mauricio Paiz)

There are many people at Tennis Canada who have been a pleasure to know and work with over the years, and foremost among them is President and CEO Michael Downey. He hired me in December, 2010, and it was perfect timing because the future of a freelance columnist at The Globe and Mail was bleak. Within a few years the other freelance columnists – covering golf and curling – were gone as budgets were cut in increasingly tough times for newspapers in this country and around the world.

I have to give a special shout out to Mauricio Paiz, the former tennis player at Florida Atlanta University, who has made sensational photo and video contributions to TennisCanada.com. He’s young, creative and knowledgeable and deserves a place among the best tennis photographers on the world stage.

It was a treat to look through Mauricio’s pictures and select some of the best ones, several of which are included in this final blog.

Gilles Simon and Raonic – 2014 Roland Garros (Photo: Mauricio Paiz)

My reincarnation as a blogger after years as a writer brought a new challenge – taking pictures, especially in the pre-Mauricio days. The photos weren’t the best but I found photography to be more enjoyable – at least in the moment – than the hard slogging of structuring and composing articles. There’s a tactile, immediate aspect to photography that’s just plain fun compared with the struggle to bring the written word to life on a computer screen.

Pictures more readily bring back memories – like this one of a remarkably composed Pospisil in a Tel Aviv hotel lobby about an hour after his heroics there in Davis Cup in 2011.

While the written word requires greater sustained, concentrated application, it remains as a more complete and lasting record of soon-to-become history.

Being a Trifluvien (originally from Trois-Rivières, Québec) and speaking French has often been an advantage in my coverage of the sport. It made me 100 per cent at home at the Coupe Rogers/Canadian Open in Montreal and similarly at ease at Roland Garros, the Grand Slam I have attended more than any other – 43 times.

And I was also able to work with the RDS network in Montreal for 25 years.

As a guy whose first Grand Slam event was the last US Open held on grass at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills in 1974, to the most recent at Melbourne Park last year, I have been very fortunate. But there were also challenging times such as being a one-man-show editor of Racquets Canada magazine (1983-84) and also of the publication On Court (1985-1991). To create the impression of a larger staff during those years, pseudonyms often appeared under the headlines of my articles. The three main ones were Patrick Tolon, my alter ego, Geoffrey Gales, my squash writer, and Mel Buckle, a nuts-and-bolts jock.

There was also a long list of other fictitious contributors on the masthead of the publications, among them Annette Ball, Sidney Vittius, Lotte Angstie and, my favourite, Les Libideau.

As I leave I’m not using the ‘R’ word, and hope to stay involved making contributions about tennis.

While more than four decades of freelance tennis writing has not been particularly lucrative, I have no complaints. It reminds me of a dubious ranking (the best writer, Philippe Bouin of L’Equipe, was not even included) of world tennis writers in the 1990s by the New York-based publication Tennis Week. I came in at No. 16 and a friend in Toronto probably had the best reaction at the time, saying, “if you’re No. 16, I’d hate to know how much money No. 17 makes.”

There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s also true that you cannot put a value on a lifetime of priceless experiences.

PARTING SHOT

St. Kilda is located by the water (Port Phillip Bay) about a 20-minute tram ride from central Melbourne. This is a park near Acland St. with a musician performing in front of a quaint gathering at this time a year ago. Oh, but wouldn’t we all like to be there right now.