October 24, 2021

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Tennis Canada cancels three remaining Challengers – with unvaccinated players a factor

The grassroots tennis scene in Canada the last 18 months has been decimated.

The pandemic and the resultant financial challenges faced by Tennis Canada have basically eliminated any pro competition, with one notable exception this summer.

The situation has been *somewhat* better in recent months, especially in Quebec. Still, Tennis Canada has been forced to cancel the three remaining Challenger-level events on the 2021 calendar.

The Saguenay National Bank Challenger – a great event scheduled for Oct. 18-24 – will not happen. And the Tevlin Challenger in Toronto the following week also will not happen.

As well, the men’s Challenger in Drummondville, cancelled in March 2020 and March 2021, but aspirationally postponed to November, is cancelled.

Unvaccinated player group a significant factor

Bianca Andreescu, then ranked No. 325, beat Gabriela Dabrowski in three sets in the first round of the 2016 Tevlin Challenger, then defeated Françoise Abanda – pictured – in three sets in the second round before losing to Raveena Kingsley in the quarters.

The quote from Eugene Lapierre, senior VP of pro tennis in Quebec, is telling.

“While the situation is far better than it was at the beginning of the year, the pandemic is not over and it generates a lot of challenges for these tournaments. The latest provincial rule making vaccination mandatory for anyone to play indoor tennis in Quebec would prohibit participation by some international athletes because, elsewhere in the world, vaccination is simply not at the level that we have reached in Quebec and Canada,” is the statement.

It’s one of the first visible signs of fallout from lack of buy-in on vaccination by the professional tennis players.

The strict, onerous protocols in place for the Canadian Tour events this summer were also, in part, because of that very thing.

Those protocols affected the players but also – notably – the fans, who were restricted to the main stadiums in reduced numbers.

The total of ITF men’s events held in Canada from March 1, 2020 through the end of 2021 will be … zero.

A tough 18 months for Canadian tennis

While the national federation was able to hold the National Bank Open/Omnium Banque Nationale in 2021, after having to cancel them in 2020, it was not easy.

Final confirmation from the authorities came very late in the game. The players and many of the tournament staff and volunteers had to be in a strict and very costly bubble.

Even the Hawkeye Live system, installed to reduce the personnel on site, cost some $300.000 for just four match courts in Montreal, Lapierre said in August.

But even with reduced attendance, it went ahead. And it helped assuage the big financial hole Tennis Canada found itself in after the 2020 cancellations.

But below that top level, it has been carnage.

The Saguenay Challenger has been a launching pad for many aspiring pros – not just Canadians.

This is not to lay blame on Tennis Canada, which is being prudent and also must abide by the regulations and protocols set out by each province.

But it hurts. How it will affect the growth of the pro game in Canada in the long term is impossible to quantify. But it’s real.

The current successes at the top level have created a wave that needs to be capitalized on. And the lack of playing opportunities to gain valuable experience directly affects the next generation. And even the current one.

Invaluable developmental tool stopped in its tracks

The latest cancellation bring the total number of Challenger-level tournaments on the men’s side, and high-level ITF events on the women’s side, that have not been held since the start of the pandemic to 17.

That’s … all of them. And in a landscape where it’s challenging enough to travel, especially without the help most young and aspiring players have counted on from Tennis Canada over the years, it has pushed a huge stake through the heart of tennis development in the country.

At 14, 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez had an opportunity to play top-ranked competition at a high-level ITF in Granby. That opportunity has gone missing for the next generation over the last two years.

These are tournaments that. players like Rebecca Marino, Carol Zhao and Françoise Abanda would have been able to play. Whether they wanted to build on their current efforts like Marino, continue a scattered comeback effort like Zhao, or resurrect a once-promising career like Abanda – that opportunity is gone.

If they want to find places to play, they’ll have to travel and spend more money, with all the resultant consequences of both those things.

At 14, Félix Auger-Aliassime announced his arrival by going from the qualifying to the quarters at a Challenger in Granby.

Other countries carrying on, somehow

In contrast to Canada, things are rather better in Europe.

There have been or will be 20 Challengers in Italy this season. Earlier this year, four of them were held indoors.

There have been about a dozen in France. And four of those, with big prize money, are being held this fall – the first one this week in Rennes.

By the end of the year, a newly-added Challenger in Las Vegas will be the 10th Challenger held in that country in 2021. All but the first one, back in March, were outdoors.

In 2017, 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov went from No. 250 to inside the top 200 by winning the Gatineau $25K in March, then the Drummondville Challenger a few weeks later. By that summer at the Rogers Cup, we saw how that experience paid off as he upset Rafael Nadal.

There have been, or will be, 27 ITF tournaments for women (at various levels) in the U.S. in 2021.

In France, where the tournaments were played indoors last winter and again now, in the fall, there will have been 20 women’s events by year’s end.

Canada will have had none.

Each country, of course, has different rules and protocols.

Competition for late-season spots fierce

The crowds at the Gatineau 25K ITF in 2017 enjoyed watching up-and-coming Canadians Denis Shapovalov (who won) and Félix Auger-Aliassime (who lost to Shapovalov in the semis).

The ITF women’s events in Saguenay and Toronto have always come up against similar ($80,000 US) tournaments in Macon, GA and Tyler, TX during this part of the season.

But there were enough players to populate both. 

Now, that same player pool will have compete to get into those U.S. events. And there won’t be enough room for everyone, so the cutoffs should be fierce.

And, unlike the Canadian tournaments, there is no possibility of giving the wild cards to the young Canadian aspiring pros.

Top Canadian junior Annabelle Xu, the only Canadian to make it to the main draw in the US Open juniors, will find competitive opportunities limited this fall – as will many of her young Canadian colleagues.

Notably, there were four young women in the qualifying for the US Open juniors. Only one made it through (Annabelle Xu). But they, and other young players, have already struggled to find competitive playing opportunities through the key 18 months of their development.

It not only hurts their prospects overall, it also is the time period where they can make noise in the junior rankings. And it’s also the time they aim to set themselves up for U.S. scholarships – which is the route almost all of them take.

Those opportunities are now compromised for an entire group of young players.

It’s tough out there.

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