(Reuters) - Ice rinks are the traditional breeding ground for Canada’s sporting heroes, not tennis courts, but times are changing.
So much so, in fact, that when Denis Shapovalov, Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger-Aliassime slide into the French Open they will be three of the most talked about players in town.
That youthful trio, inspired by the feats of trailblazers Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, are doing their best to knock hockey, almost a religion in Canada, off the back pages.
Raonic is still Canada’s top-ranked player but the 28-year-old has been overtaken in the popularity stakes by Israel-born Shapovalov who cracked the top 20 for the first time in April, just before his 20th birthday.
The left-hander of Russian parentage is being tipped for the top by none other than Roger Federer and the same can be said of all-action Auger-Aliassime, 18, who has rocketed to 28th in a breakout year in which he joined friend Shapovalov in the Miami Open semi-finals.
Andreescu, the 18-year-old with Romanian parents, trumped both her compatriots by winning the Indian Wells title as a wildcard, stunning Angelique Kerber in the final.
With their cosmopolitan appeal and eye-catching games, all three have grabbed the attention of Canada’s young generation and all will be seeded in Paris.
It does not stop there either with 16-year-old Australian Open junior runner-up Leyla Annie Fernandez recently making her Fed Cup debut and earning glowing praise.
“She’ll be top 100 before long,” team mate Rebecca Marino, one of the nations earlier tennis pioneers, told Reuters.
No wonder other nations, including southern neighbors the United States, are casting envious glances and wondering what secret tennis recipe Canada has stumbled upon.
The answer is that there probably isn’t one, rather a combination of factors which have contributed to Canada rising from tennis obscurity to major force in such quick time.
Tennis Canada invested heavily in facilities, opening a National Centre in Montreal in 2007 and hired renowned coach Louis Borfiga, the man responsible for a production line of French talent including Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, to oversee its High Performance Program.
Then there was the knock-on effect of Montenegro-born Raonic and Bouchard both acting as trailblazers by reaching Wimbledon finals in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
“Canadian players now not only believe they belong, they also believe they can win,” Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey told Reuters. “Milos and Genie started it but I believe Denis, Felix and Bianca will now inspire the next generation.
“The next decade looks fantastic.”
Downey says only 2,000 juniors are under the eye of Tennis Canada, but that the bar has been raised high with an emphasis on providing the best possible framework to develop talent.
Seven-times Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander will be running the rule over the Canadian contingent in his role as analyst for Eurosport here at Roland Garros.
“I think the common thing for all three, Felix, Denis and Bianca is that they are great tennis players but are also unbelievable athletes,” Wilander told Reuters.
“Somehow they are tapping in to getting great athletes to play the sport, getting them to choose tennis.
“And what Milos Raonic has done, from a ‘small’ tennis country is unbelievable. He’s not won a major but he’s made a bunch of semis and a Wimbledon final and his work ethic and his approach has shown people that tennis is a serious sport.”
And while the two sports could not be more different, Swede Wilander reckons some of the ‘spirit’ Canadian ice hockey has seeped into the psyche of the nations tennis players.
“They are serious fighters, those three,” he said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond