- Kamakshi Tandon
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Following their recent success, Canadian players find themselves under the spotlight at their national events this week, with interesting results.
It's not just tennis that is supposed to be announcing its arrival at Canada this week, but also Canada announcing its arrival in the tennis world. With the ATP and WTA tours making their annual alternating stops at Toronto and Montreal, the tournaments were meant to showcase the recent surge of Canadian players who are turning the nation into the biggest thing going in tennis.
At Wimbledon, Canadians seemed to be everywhere: Eugenie Bouchard playing in the women's final, Milos Raonic in the men's semifinal and Vasek Pospisil teaming with American Jack Sock for victory in men's doubles.
There is Canadian presence in the top 10 of both the ATP and WTA rankings, with Raonic at No. 6 and Bouchard at No. 8.
And in the week leading up to this event, Raonic and Pospisil played the first all-Canadian final in ATP history, the 23-year-old Raonic defeating 24-year-old Pospisil to win the title in Washington. A year ago, they already had provided a taste of things to come by both reaching the semifinals at Montreal.
Pospisil, a little-known player from British Columbia at that time, became one of the stories of the tournament starting with a defeat of Tomas Berdych in the second round, while Raonic overcame his compatriot to reach his first Masters series final and play Rafael Nadal. That got the pair prominently featured in the weekend headlines, but this year they've been there from the beginning of the week.
Raonic, who grew up in Toronto, is the center of attention as he returns this week, while Montreal's Bouchard was stirring up the crowds at the women's event following a breakthrough season in which she has also reached two other Grand Slam semifinals. Both were expected to have a good showing this week, further showcasing their hometown tournaments.
Having Canadians in title contention has broadened the sport's appeal in a country where tennis does not have a huge presence.
"It's the first time I've seen tennis penetrate the social fabric of our city and country," said Karl Hale, Toronto's tournament director. "The non-tennis fan is interested in coming to the Rogers Cup now. The non-tennis fan is talking tennis."
Demand is high to see Raonic, who plays his first match on Wednesday.
"Our ticket sales are tremendous in both Toronto and Montreal," Hale said. "The ticketing department is talking about all the requests Milos has for his match."
If the crowds are looking forward to seeing him, Raonic is looking forward to playing.
"It was the only tournament I went to as a spectator," Raonic said of the Toronto event, which he attended as a child. "It’s the tournament I would say I look forward to probably the most as far as atmosphere goes and probably one of the most important tournaments to me and my schedule."
But if their recent success has been a new experience for Canadian players, so are the expectations that follow. A period of adjustment may be required, as illustrated by Bouchard on Tuesday evening.
The 20-year-old took the court in front of a packed stadium, only to lose her opening match to an American qualifier, Shelby Rogers. The fluctuating scoreline of 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 indicated how much the local favorite had been affected by the occasion, as did her stunned expression during most of the match.
"I hadn’t played a match in a while and I think the pressure got me a bit," said Bouchard, who withdrew from Stanford with a knee injury.
"It's good position to be in," she added. "But I'll just have to deal with it better."
Pospisil, who was coming in off a tiring week in Washington, also fell in his opening match. He was affected by a leg injury while playing Richard Gasquet, who Pospisil went three tough sets with in the semifinals in Washington.
That leaves Raonic to carry the weight of national expectation on his own shoulders, though at least he is the most experienced of the emerging group at doing so.
This could be a learning experience in what is anticipated as a long run from the youthful trio of Bouchard, Raonic and Pospisil, and there was at least one more match this week that suggests there could be even more to come.
Even before Bouchard went out, locals had already found another player to cheer as Montreal local , 17-year-old Francoise Abanda, took Dominika Cibulkova to three sets on the opening night.
They might not be sticking around for too long this week, but it looks like Canadians on tour are here to stay.