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Monday, April 8, 2013
Rapid rise of the Canadians

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

The matchups for the Davis Cup semifinals are set, and North America will be one of the three continents represented in the September ties. Its presence won't be anything unusual. After all, the United States is the most successful nation in Davis Cup history, having won the Cup more than 30 times.

Only this time, it's not the Americans in the final four. It's Canada, which reached the semifinals for the first time in a century. And to boot, the Canadians returned to world group play only last year after eight years in the wilderness of zonal competition.

This turn of events had a lot to do with the draw. The slumping Americans were always going to face an uphill battle against the Novak Djokovic-led team from Serbia, while Canada overcame a solid Italian team to go through.

Milos Raonic
It was a historic Davis Cup win, and with it people are now paying attention to Canadian tennis.
But it serves to spotlight Canada's rapid rise up the tennis ranks over the past few years, led by the emergence of Milos Raonic. A big server in the mold of his idol, Pete Sampras, the 22-year-old broke through by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier in 2011. Ever since then, he has been seen as one of the tour's brightest prospects and currently is by far the most advanced in his group of up-and-comers.

Having a player like that come along is a shot in the arm for any nation, giving it instant visibility and potential.

And in Raonic, Canada had itself a player who not only had the ability to change tennis in the country but also planned to do so. Like his playing style, he wanted to step up and deliver.

"I think I've always been the type of person naturally that wants to take control of things," Raonic told ESPN.com. "I don't like standing around waiting for things to happen too much. I think I've seen what can happen in Canadian tennis, but also I've seen what sort of lacks.

"And I think if my voice can be heard enough around Canada, I think it can make a big enough effect -- and not just my voice but my tennis and my successes. I think it will want to make kids want to pick up a racket a few more times."

It was an impressive undertaking for a young player who might be expected to focus all his attention on his own progress. Born in Montenegro, Raonic moved with his family to Canada at age 3 and cites the help he received with his career as a big reason he represents his adopted nation.

But sustained success, in Davis Cup and elsewhere, requires more than one serendipitous sensation. The other significant aspect of Canada's rise has been reaching what could be a critical mass of pro players. It has long had a handful of players regularly around the top 100 as well as a number of top men's doubles players and a couple of top-10 WTA players, but a greater proportion now seem to be moving up the ranks.

Raonic stands the highest-ranked male ever from Canada, and both of last year's Wimbledon junior champions, Filip Peliwo and Eugenie Bouchard, are Canadian. Bouchard made the quarterfinals at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston last week, breaking into the top 100. Among the women are other junior prospects like Francoise Abanda and six players in the top 300, including former No. 21 Aleksandra Wozniak, who is sidelined with injury. Until recently, that also included Rebecca Marino -- the former No. 38 who took a break from the game because of what she later revealed to be depression and then announced her retirement at 22 years old last month.

Another new face is Vasek Pospisil, who is about 6 months older than Raonic and broke into the top 100 last year. He was off the tour with mono at the beginning of the season but, after playing five sets in singles and five sets in doubles at Davis Cup last weekend, looks to be fairly recovered.

Tennis Canada restructured its development program in 2007, putting in an extra $1 million a year and building a national training center in Montreal, similar to the national and regional centers established by the USTA and the LTA in Britain and following the practices of France and Spain. Raonic, Marino, Peliwo and Bouchard all attended the Montreal center. The federation also provides funding and access to coaches for tour players who remain within the system.

Although they might have been able to make it anyway, the players are generally positive about the effect of the federation's programs.

"It's been really great to have more and more Canadians on tour. It keeps growing," Wozniak said in a recent interview, saying the funding was the biggest source of the improvement.

"That made a big difference for everyone, which is allowing us to compete on the tour and other events. It starts from juniors, the support, and then you make your transitions. They've been a big part of the career of every player from Canada."

"I think the Canadian system, what they did really well the last few years is they did create a national tennis center," Raonic said, comparing it to his later experiences training in Spain. "Because also of the scarceness of top tennis players in Canada, it's very important for Canada to put a lot of players together in the same place.

"In Spain, I think the competitiveness is the biggest thing, but that's also a lot of top players being in the same place. Each guy wants to win, each guy wants to be better than the rest. And I think this teaches them how to compete and to be fighters and not be fragile mentally from an early age."

"It's definitely played a big part in my development, with Tennis Canada supporting me and the National Centre and providing the training and the funding, all that," Peliwo said after winning the U.S. Open juniors, after which he planned to play more events on the men's circuit. "I think that having one more year with Tennis Canada is going to be good, because they have the experience to make the big decisions and which tournaments to play, when to take my time off and to train."

Davis Cup has been the showcase, featuring a multigenerational team that has combined to win six of seven ties -- 40-year-old Daniel Nestor, still on the team 21 years after he pulled off a famous Davis Cup upset of Stefan Edberg; 28-year-old Frank Dancevic, who upset Marcel Granollers to become a hero of the first-round tie against Spain; 25-year-old Jesse Levine, the newest member of the team after switching back from American citizenship last year, and 22-year-olds Raonic and Pospisil. Contributing along the way were 24-year-olds Peter Polansky and Philip Bester, and 19-year-old Peliwo awaits his turn on the bench as well.

Saturday's doubles thriller and the clinching singles Sunday were both shown on a main sports network, with the doubles stretching into the prime-time highlights show.

Raonic was pleased by the attention the tie drew, and the other players there to share it.

"Success is the best way to promote the sport. If I do personally well, week out, week in on the tour, it's a great thing, and I think it will help and it will get kids wanting to play tennis," Raonic said during the past weekend. "But I think if you can show we have four, five, six that can win on an international stage, it makes it a bit more convincing, not only to the kids but to the families, to the parents.

"The same kind of belief there is in the work we put towards hockey and many winter sports."

Hockey references? Snowy pastimes? The "North" in North American tennis is making its presence felt.