Four Canadians will be part of the main draw of the Australian Open in Melbourne. Not only are they competing in the first Grand Slam of the new tennis season, but they also have aspirations of winning a few rounds and ultimately getting a shot at a spot in the second week Down Under.
After reaching the Round of 16 at the Australian Open last year, his best Grand Slam result, world no. 25 Milos Raonic is being labelled a dark horse by the experts for the title in 2012. Fresh off his second ATP World Tour title in Chennai two weeks ago, a run which included two Top 10 wins over Nicolas Almagro and Janko Tipsarevic, Raonic is poised to make another splash in Melbourne. His draw did him no favours however, as he finds himself on a potential collision course with Andy Roddick in the third round and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. Raonic will begin his Australian Open campaign on Tuesday against crafty lefty Filippo Volandri. It will be the first meeting between the two players.
On the ladies side, one year removed from a heartbreaking loss in the second round to Francesca Schiavone that finished 9-7 in the third set, Rebecca Marino returns to Melbourne a different player and ready to overcome that second round hurdle this time around. The 21-year-old will start on Tuesday against Hungarian Greta Arn. Should Marino get through that match, she would face a tough test going up against either seventeenth seed Dominika Cibulkova or Magdalena Rybarikova, who defeated her in the final at Memphis last March.
Stéphanie Dubois is back after a stress fracture in her foot put a premature end to her 2011 season. She is appearing in her fourth consecutive Australian Open main draw and is hoping to pick up her first victory when she meets Russia’s Elena Vesnina in the opening round on Tuesday. Aleksandra Wozniak rounds out the Canadian singles contingent Down Under. 2012 is a big year for Wozniak as she tries to regain her 2009 form when she reached a career-high of no. 21 on the WTA rankings. She earned a spot in the main draw following the withdrawal of Timea Bacsinszky and surprisingly, is still winless in main draw matches in Melbourne. Just getting over a bout with bronchitis, Wozniak will open on Tuesday against Shuai Zhang of China.
Australia has not been very kind to Canadians in recent years in terms of tennis results, but be on the lookout for some Canadian flags on the scoreboard during the later rounds, they certainly won’t be there by chance.
Tennis Canada handed out its annual Excellence Awards this week following a breakthrough season for Canadian tennis in 2011.
Milos Raonic won three awards including Male Player of the Year, Male Singles Player of the Year and Most Improved Male Player. The 20-year-old enjoyed the greatest year on record for a Canadian male singles player. Raonic won his first ATP title in San Jose and improved his ranking more than 100 spots, reaching a career-high mark of no. 25 on May 2.
“My goal is to continue to grow and get better and hopefully be a role model to those back home following me,” Raonic said. I’m hoping that some of my success will inspire young kids in Canada to pick up a racquet and get involved in the sport.”
Doubles legend Daniel Nestor was named Doubles Player of the Year for an eleventh consecutive year. There is little that the 39-year-old has not accomplished on a tennis court and he continued to build his Hall of Fame credentials in 2011. With his new partner Max Mirnyi, Nestor captured his seventh Grand Slam at the French Open, winning his 800th match en route, and also lifted a second consecutive and fourth overall Barclays ATP World Tour Finals championship – his 75th career title.
Rebecca Marino also notched three awards in recognition of her standout season. The 20-year-old was named Female Player of the Year for the second consecutive year after a 2011 that included reaching her maiden WTA final in Memphis, advancing to the third round at the French Open and earning her first Top 15 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. After finishing the 2010 season ranked No. 101, Marino improved by 63 spots to attain her career-high of No. 38, before ending the year at No. 64. Like Raonic, she also took home the awards for Singles Player of the Year and Most Improved Player on the women’s side.
“It was a really big year for me with a lot of firsts and a huge learning curve,” commented Marino. “I’m currently working really hard on my off-season training and am really looking forward to starting the 2012 season and hopefully building on my success from this past year.”
The Tennis Canada Excellence Awards are selected by a committee comprised of high-ranking Tennis Canada personnel and the country’s top national coaches. The remaining awards for junior, wheelchair and senior players will be announced in the New Year.
For years, Canada’s tennis accomplishments could be found in one man’s trophy case, that of doubles legend Daniel Nestor. The country’s tennis community has been starving for its first bona fide singles player since the days of Carling Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi and Canadian turned Brit Greg Rusedski.
Over the past few seasons, Canadian tennis has turned over a new leaf. The proverbial ball started rolling in 2008 when Aleksandra Wozniak became the first Canadian in 20 years to win a WTA title and reached a career-high ranking of no. 21 in June of 2009. Fast forward two years and the emergence of a trio of 20-year-olds with big serves, Milos Raonic, Rebecca Marino and Vasek Pospisil will arguably make 2011 the greatest single season in Canadian tennis history.
An unexpected run to the fourth round of the Australian Open put Raonic on the tennis map, and in a big way. He proved his performance was no fluke, backing it up with his maiden ATP title in San Jose and a finals appearance in Memphis where he lost a dramatic championship match to Andy Roddick. His breakthrough season has allowed Raonic to become the highest ranked Canadian man in history and also earned him nomination for the ATP’s Newcomer of the Year award. In the process, Raonic has become Canada’s tennis ambassador, and a very good one at that. After recovering from hip surgery this summer, the sky is the limit for Raonic in 2012.
With Raonic watching on the sidelines, Vasek Pospisil single-handedly propelled Canada into the Davis Cup World Group for the first time since 2005, winning all three of his matches against Israel including the decisive fifth rubber. Pospisil also posted the first two Top 50 wins of his career in 2011 over Juan Igancio Chela at the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank and over John Isner at the Valencia Open.
A second round showing at the Australian Open, an appearance in the final at Memphis and a run to the third round of the French Open allowed Rebecca Marino to crack the Top 40 on the WTA rankings, overtaking Wozniak as the top Canadian in the women’s game.
At the junior level, Eugenie Bouchard won the Wimbledon doubles title this season and is the no. 5 ranked junior player in the world. At no. 20, Françoise Abanda is the top ranked 14-year-old on the planet.
The establishment of three National Training Centres in Montreal, Toronto and just last week in Vancouver, as well as talent id programs, is further proof that Canada is serious about developing tennis champions and intend on starting at an early age.
For the first time in a long time, the tennis world is sitting up and taking notice of Canada as one of the fastest growing tennis nations in the world. Perhaps what is most encouraging is the fact that success is coming by committee and not just the result of one player’s exploits.