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Rivard: Leylah joins the big leagues

Apr 21, 2021
written by: Tennis Canada
written by: Tennis Canada

Jill Hetherington, Helen Kelesi, Aleksandra Wozniak, Eugenie Bouchard, Bianca Andreescu and now Leylah Annie Fernandez.

Each in their own time, they proved all the hopes placed on them by the coaches who guided their development were warranted and began their careers in prestigious team competitions.

Photo : Tennis Canada

First known as Federation Cup, then Fed Cup and Billie Jean King Cup since last year, the international event in which countries clash remains an unforgettable experience for many Canadian aces. In an individual sport, winning for her team and, more nobly, for her nation and countrywomen is the quintessential career achievement.

I won’t be going over Fernandez’s terrific performances or team Canada’s coup this past weekend in Serbia, since Tom Tebbutt has already done so masterfully here.

It’s always good to see a newcomer be so dominant at such a major event despite tremendous pressure. Over the past four decades, some of the women mentioned here had marvellous singles careers as members of the WTA that helped make their part in Canada’s international team tennis dream that much greater.

Photo : Tennis Canada

Leylah Annie is the latest woman to join them. Here’s hoping she and Bianca (to name only two of Canada’s most promising women’s tennis stars) will take our country all the way to the Final of Billie Jean King Cup this season and in seasons to come.

The future is bright!

WTA: Who will be the next one?

There was a time when teenagers were the talk of women’s tennis. And by teenagers, I don’t mean 18- and 19-year-olds but rather 16-, 15- and even 14-year-olds who were just emerging from girlhood.

Just as we were starting to think those days were over, two sisters from the Czech Republic have caught the tennis world’s attention: Linda Fruhvirtova, 15 years, 11 months, and her younger sister Brenda, barely 14!

Linda Hits a forehand
Photo : Volvo Car Open

It may be a tad premature to call them prodigies, but they’ve still managed to impress their fair share of experts.

At this point, many of us are getting flashbacks of mid-90s US news reports about two young girls who were poised to storm the WTA. Venus and Serena Williams would go on to become  the youngest sisters ever to make their professional débuts at just 14 years old.   

The rest, as they say, is history.

So many young teenagers have stood out for their talent but none have managed to raise such expectations as the Williams (except, perhaps, for Karolina and Krystina Pliskova).

But back to the Fruhvirtovas. On May 1, the eldest will celebrate her sweet 16.

Linda is currently No. 361 in the WTA rankings after climbing 138 spots following her clay court success in Charleston, South Carolina. There, she claimed her first WTA win when she ousted No. 59 Alizé Cornet of France who was forced to retire.

The teen then went on to topple Emma Navarro (No. 404) of the US before falling to eventual champion Astra Sharma (No. 118) of Australia. Before losing in the qualifying draw in Miami last month, Linda was 19-1 in ITF tournaments this season.

As for Brenda, she’s No. 108 in the ITF rankings and therefore still has a ways to go before she catches up to her older sister. But let’s not forget that she won the 2020 Petits As, a prestigious 14-and-under competition reserved for the world’s next tennis superstars, at the age of 12. The only other player to have prevailed at the French tournament at such a young age is none other than Martina Hingis, who triumphed at 11 and 12 years old.

Martina Hingis hits a backhand
Photo : MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

A few months after Petits As, Brenda accomplished a rare feat at an exhibition match in Prague, when she knocked out No. 54 Katerina Siniakova in just 90 minutes (7-6, 6-1).

In 2019 and 2020, she was 25-5 and 25-2, respectively.

Now that you’ve met the Fruhvirtova sisters, let’s wait and see what they’re capable of. Who will be the WTA’s next 17-year-old wunderkind?

I hear what you’re all saying: Coco Gauff. It’s true, there hasn’t been a player like her in decades. Not even Maria Sharapova, who hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish at the age of 17, at Wimbledon.

But I’m thinking of players who were even younger.

Monica Seles smiles with he arms above her head after a win
Photo : Tennis Canada

Like Tracy Austin of the US and Monica Seles of the former Yugoslavia, who won their first majors at 16 and became World No. 1 at 17. In 1991 and 1992, at the ages of 17 and 18, Seles won three of four Slams.

Or the Swiss Miss. Martina Hingis was a finalist at all four 1997 Grand Slams (and won three) and ascended to No. 1 at 16.

Or Jennifer Capriati, who was 14 when she competed in her first semis at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Serena? She was 17 when she won in the Big Apple.

It would be 20 years before a woman under 20 repeated the feat in New York: Bianca Andreescu was 19 when winning in 2019.

Their teenage triumphs are enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Which of the Fruhvirtova sisters will be the next to win a Slam before turning 19? Or perhaps even at 17 or 18? Will it be both?

Or will it be 18-year-old Marta Kostiuk of Ukraine (No. 85) or 18-year-old Clara Tauson (No. 96) of Denmark, who fought in the final of the National Bank Canadian Junior Open Championships in Repentigny in 2018 and 2019, respectively?

And let’s not underestimate 15-year-old Alexandra Eala of the Philippines or 16-year-olds Robin Montgomery (No. 357) and Katrina Scott (No. 415) of the US.

There’s really no telling how great they’ll be.

Logically, the only emerging ace who already possesses the game, character and experience to win big is Coco. The American sensation secured her first WTA title at the age of 15 in 2019—the year she rose from No. 685 to No.68! Gauff is currently ranked No. 35. She just blew 17 candles, last march.

Challenging times for Tennis Canada’s young talents

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Tennis Canada to cancel a number of Challenger events for the second year in a row.

The decision was confirmed on April 16 to ensure compliance with pandemic-related restrictions. Still, it could spell disaster for the development of young tennis talents in Canada and around the world.

A player lifts his fist as he walks over the Calgary sign on court
Photo : Tennis Canada

Like many national tennis federations, Tennis Canada relies on the tournaments to provide its young aces with a competition structure in qualifying rounds and main draws. Now that the 2020 and 2021 matches have been cancelled, the potential damage on the players’ progress continues to increase.

“It’s a heavy blow, indeed,” affirmed veteran Tennis Canada coach Martin Laurendeau, who oversees the development of a number of emerging players at the National Tennis Centre.

Martin Laurendeau talking to a player on court
Photo : Tennis Canada

“The National Bank Open is a big tournament for established players. But for those who aren’t, the Futures and Challenger events are the most important development opportunities. That’s where our players gain experience. They need matches to advance their game and career. But vaccination provides a glimmer of hope in countries around the world, and so does the fact that fewer and fewer tournaments are being cancelled.”

Martin Laurendeau

Still, it isn’t easy for TC to find competitive events for its junior athletes.

Four young talents—16-year-old Jayden Weekes and Christophe Clément of Montréal, 16-year-old Stefan Simeunovic of Toronto and 15-year-old Stewart Aronson of Vancouver—have jetted off for a month in Israel, where they’ll play in two junior and two Futures tournaments.

Court view of the crowd at the Drummondville challenger
Photo : Tennis Canada/Sarah-Jade Champagne

Martin Laurendeau sees the quick tour as a great opportunity.

“We’re working in collaboration with Safe Sport, which is part of Sport Canada,” Laurendeau said. We can’t send our players to places that aren’t safe enough or too dangerous from a sociopolitical standpoint. We were pleased to see that Israel was pursuing its tournaments. We’re excited to watch the players in action because the circumstances were so difficult for them in terms of motivation. Junior or professional, a player trains with one thing in mind: to compete. It’s tough to stay motivated for such a long period. They were happy to go.”

This summer, with a bit of luck, they’ll also get to spar with older and more experienced players in mini-tournaments like those organized last season.

“Above all, we hope some of the more competitive junior events will be held either in America or Europe,” said the coach. “Otherwise, we’ll work on recreating a sort of league, like we did last summer, so Canadians on the NCAA circuit can play in short weekend events. For example, players like Gabriel Diallo and Alexis Galarneau were stuck here, so they joined us. This summer, it’ll depend on whether they play in Futures or other tournaments around the world.”

That’s certainly what we wish for them. Despite the global challenge and the fact that public health comes first, it’s so unfortunate to see great talents risk being limited in a critical stage in their development because of the pandemic.

Alexis Galarneau hits a backhand

Shapo’s new look

So… do you like it?

Photo : TennisTV

Those who follow Denis Shapovalov on Instagram had already noticed the new haircut.

The others found out about it while watching the Canadian playing his first match on clay, at the Barcelona Open, Tuesday, against Frenchman Jérémy Chardy. Shapo won the match, 6-3, 7-5.

Farewell to the cap, welcome to the headband.

Contrary to what one might think, it was not the first time for the lefty. He wore a headband during Davis Cup 2018. This reminder came from a tweet by this tennis afficionado, Andras Ruszanov.

While you decide which look you prefer, let’s conclude with this pic: as if the “old Shapo” (right, with cap) was staring at the “new Shapo” (left, with headband.)

Get in touch with me!

Email: privard@tenniscanada.com

Twitter: @paul6rivard

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