'There are other kids coming': How Canada is becoming a tennis power

Bianca Andreescu became the first player from Canada to win one of the WTA's talent-laden Premier Mandatory events. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

It was an extended, magical moment that may live on in the lore and legend of tennis, the moment when the nation of Canada turned into a global power.

First, Toronto native Bianca Andreescu, 18 at the time, became the only wild-card entry ever to triumph in singles at the Indian Wells combined tournament -- and thus the first player from her nation to win one of the WTA's talent-laden Premier Mandatory events. Then, less than two weeks later in late March, Andreescu's teenage compatriots Denis Shapovalov, then 19, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, slashed their way on opposite sides of the draw to the semifinals of an equally loaded event, the Miami Open.

The all-Canadian dream final never took place, thanks to Roger Federer (who took out Shapovalov) and John Isner (who eliminated FA2). But by then, the potential transformation of Canada from a tennis backwater into a significant force in the international arena was becoming the topic of the hour as tennis moved into its spring season.

"It's pretty crazy, what's happening," Auger-Aliassime said in Miami. "Everyone is super excited back home. It's great to hear all these good comments from them. It puts a lot of belief in tennis in Canada. I think all the Canadian players, from the young kids to Denis and Bianca and I, there is a lot of belief right now, so it's great to see."

Belief can be difficult to back up, though, as the young Canadians soon realized. Andreescu has played just one match since pulling out of the Miami Open with a tender right shoulder. Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime took it on the chin on clay, a combined 5-10 until FA2 popped to life and made the final on clay at Lyon -- a modest tournament that takes place the week before the French Open. A groin injury kept Auger-Aliassime out of the French Open, but he declared himself a legitimate contender at Wimbledon last week when he reached the final on Stuttgart grass.

So why Canada, and why now?

"There's such a big hockey culture that we had to build one of our own," Hatem McDadi told ESPN.com. McDadi, director of player development for Tennis Canada in the early 2000s, when the effort to improve the nation's tennis fortunes was conceived, is now senior vice president of tennis development for TC. He added, "We created that culture over time, starting at the tennis clubs. We designed programs and built a foundation. Then we hired some of the best coaches and created a pathway for action."

The coaches included veteran Bob Brett, a former mentor of, among others, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic. Also included: Louis Borfiga, a coach widely respected for his work with the French tennis federation's successful national training program. To compete for talent successfully, TC found itself emulating hockey, offering parents programs for children as young as 4 to channel them into the sport.

But none of this would matter if not for the success of Canada's players. The first role models were doubles genius Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau, who teamed to win Olympic doubles gold in 2000 in Sydney. Their success stimulated the nation at a time when TC was launching its developmental push.

In one of its first major moves, TC created four national training centers. The main one in Montreal hosts aspiring pros age 15 or older. Younger players can choose between similar centers in Vancouver, Toronto or Calgary. They also can train with TC's help and guidance among a network of private clubs that serve as launching pads. The first and still most successful star pupils in Montreal were Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic.

Bouchard, who comes from a family of means, left the center at age 12 to train privately in Florida. But she returned to Montreal three years later and soon became an international sensation. At age 20 in 2014, Bouchard played a Wimbledon final, reached the semis at two of the other three majors and rose as high in the rankings as No. 5 -- all at a time when Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov were just entering their teens.

Tom Tebbutt, a Canadian tennis journalist who has also blogged for Tennis Canada, told ESPN.com: "Bouchard's impact was huge. For years I was told that it can't be a woman who makes it happen in Canada, but she proved that false. She certainly galvanized the nation."

Bouchard, still just 25, had trouble recapturing the magic of that astonishing 2014. But Raonic picked up where she left off, reaching the final of Wimbledon in 2016. Unlike Bouchard, whose parents are native francophone Canadians, Raonic was 3 when his parents immigrated to Canada from Montenegro due to political unrest in the Balkans. He became both role model and benchmark for many naturalized and, in some cases, still resident-alien Canadians.

"Canada today is a very multicultural place," McDadi said. "And many newcomers to Canada brought along a love for tennis."

The youth at the spearpoint of the Canadian surge are mostly of immigrant stock. Auger-Aliassime's mother is French Canadian, but his father is from Togo. Shapovalov was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, to Russian parents. Andreescu is Canadian-born, but her parents are Romanian. Vasek Pospisil's parents fled communism in what once was Czechoslovakia.

"Four of us come from an Eastern European [or Russian] background [the exception is FA2], where tennis was familiar and sport is seen as a way to get yourself out of a tough situation," Raonic, 28, told ESPN.com, "We really put in the work, but there was always that kind of talent and possibility in Canada. I think Tennis Canada has really put it together."

The Montreal training facility remains the epicenter of the Canadian tennis boom, but the system isn't centralized or rigid. Shapovalov grew up alongside Andreescu in Toronto, but because of his mother's tennis coaching background, he wasn't as closely tied to the TC effort. FA2 succeeded Raonic as the star pupil in Montreal.

"We all came from slightly different ways," Shapovalov told ESPN.com. "But we've gotten to know each other well and we keep pretty close tabs on each other."

Raonic believes that TC has been successful over the past decade in "putting people together," steering players toward playing and pushing one another at the tennis center, age-group tournaments and international junior events.

"It doesn't work as well if you compete against each other just twice a year at nationals," Raonic said. "The back and forth of playing a lot, especially against each other, is very motivating. I had that with Vasek, and then Felix and Denis had it with each other."

Intense competition is especially valuable when the rivals are also friends, consciously helping lift each other by their tennis bootstraps. The camaraderie also helps young players deal with the emotional challenges of a pro's life.

"We've been able to thrive on each other's results," Shapovalov said of his relationship with Auger-Aliassime. "Every time I see him win, I'm like saying to myself, 'Come on, let's try to win as well.' It's just a healthy thing we had as juniors. Let's see how far we can climb together."

Pretty far, it seems. Shapovalov won the junior Wimbledon title in 2016. Just two months later, Auger-Aliassime triumphed in the junior division at the US Open. It was a preview of what was to come this past March in Miami, although both of them soon landed back on earth with a loud thud. No matter, Auger-Aliassime is up to No. 21 in the world and "Shapo" is close behind at No. 25.

And even in the event those two find themselves struggling long term, FA2 said Canada has little to worry about: "It isn't just me and Denis -- there are other kids coming."