November 26, 2023

Open Court


The Canadian women won the Billie Jean King Cup last weekend.

Much ado about that, and rightly so. Canada is now the holder of both the Davis Cup, and the BJK Cup.

But there were several more Canadian wins over the weekend worth highlighting – all of them, it’s noteworthy to mention, coming through various pathways that didn’t involve (or only partially involved) the Tennis Canada national program.

The first was Newmarket, Ont.’s Liam Draxl, a 21-year-old who completed his time at the University of Kentucky this spring, and set out on the pro circuit.

Draxl became the first Canadian to win the Calgary Challenger – by far the biggest result of his fledgling pro career, and one that brought him into the top 300. And he defeated No. 1 seed and defending champion Dominik Koepfer of Germany to do it.

Doing his own thing

We’ll have more on him this week, but Draxl wasn’t part of the Tennis Canada program as he rose to a career high of No. 9 on the ITF junior circuit in May, 2019 and qualified for the ITF world junior finals.

He did well on all surfaces – notable were wins over Holger Rune on clay in 2018, a victory at the top-level junior event in Carson, Calif. in April, 2019, and an 8-3 record on the junior grass circuit that year. He appeared in the main draw of all four junior Grand Slams in 2019.

Coached by his father Brian – an actual tennis coach, not a dad who became a coach – he was on a parallel track. We’ll always remember at Roland Garros in 2019, when Tennis Canada player Taha Baadi playing his first-round junior boys’ match against French qualifier Lilian Marmousez on Court 12.

He won in three sets, with the entire Tennis Canada crew cheering him on. Two courts away, on the bigger Court 14, Draxl – the No. 11 seed – was still battling another Frenchman, Arthur Cazaux, when it was done. But the only ones supporting were his parents and University of Kentucky head coach Cedric Kaufman, whose program Draxl would soon join – and captain.

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After four surgeries, Branstine wins in Monastir

Also a champion last weekend was 23-year-old Carson Branstine, a southern California native who, by dint of having a mother born in Toronto, “became” Canadian later in her junior career – at the end of 2016 when Tennis Canada essentially bought her out of the USTA.

Branstine’s medical file has been extensive. But now at 100 per cent, she went to Tunisia to play the entry-level $15K circuit.

And in only her second tournament back, ranked No. 1209, she won both the singles and doubles last week. And she came through the qualifying to win the singles, too – 11 matches won in a week.

On Tuesday, she gave the No. 1 seed just one game in the first round of singles, at a follow-up tournament at the same venue.

There weren’t really any other top-level junior girls in the program at the time (the boys were rich, with Félix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Ben Sigouin) to support Bianca Andreescu, on whom all hopes were based.

And if Andreescu was considered a top talent, she had a lot of injuries during the juniors.

But Branstine and Andreescu, who played together just twice, maximized. They won both the Australian Open and Roland Garros juniors together in 2017.

In Australia, the ITF still had Branstine playing for the U.S.; by Roland Garros, it was an All-Canadian duo.

On the other side of the net in Melbourne was Iga Swiatek; on the other side in Paris was Anastasia Potapova.

Branstine rose to No. 4 in the ITF rankings in 2017, partly due to her success on the doubles court with Andreescu. She also was a quarterfinalist in singles at WImbledon in 2017, and at the US Open in 2016. And she won the Roehampton tuneup and made the semifinals in the junior Wimbledon doubles in 2017 with Marta Kostyuk.

After that, she was all set to play college tennis at USC, where her older sister also played.

But because of injuries, she never played a match. And, of course, the pandemic came in there and scuttled a lot of college careers.

After that, she transferred to the University of Virginia – and never played a match. The body wasn’t cooperating.

But, third time lucky. Branstine flourished at Texas A&M, becoming a two-time all-American while earning a Bachelors Degree in Society, Ethics, and Law, with a double minor in philosophy and sports management. While also signing on with the Wilhelmina agency as a model, doing a summer intership at a law firm and dabbling in interior design.

(From Branstine’s LinkedIn page)

Branstine had her second arthroscopic hip surgery this spring – her fourth orthopedic surgery overall. She wrote that it was finally discovered that the hip issue was the root cause for all of her other injuries.

(She’s looking for sponsor, by the way. I mean, the young lady will probably end up being a lawyer and running the whole Tour, so she’s a pretty good investment as a person. But she’s got some unfinished business in pro tennis first).

Aguilar and Boulais win Calgary doubles

Juan Carlos Aguilar, 24 and Justin Boulais, a 22-year-old lefty and the son of longtime Canadian player Patricia Hy and tennis coach Yves Boulais (who worked with Alison Riske and Genie Bouchard, among others), won the Calgary Challenger doubles last weekend.

Aguilar is at a career high in doubles of No. 248 this week.

Both are products of the US college system: Boulais played No. 1 or No. 2 singles during his senior year at THE Ohio State University last year (his sister Isabelle played on the women’s team) and was first team All-Big 10.

Boulais briefly was part of the national training program in Montreal. But it didn’t last long.

Aguilar, just 5-foot-6, played at Texas A&M.

The crowning achievement of his junior career, and its swan song, was teaming up with Fernando Meligeni Alves to beat Auger-Aliassime and Sigouin in the boys’ doubles final at the 2016 US Open, where Auger-Aliassime won the singles the next day.

Born in Bolivia, Aguilar moved to Montreal with his family as a teenager in 2012. He trained with Tennis Montréal at the national centre, Stade IGA (then called Stade Uniprix). But because he wasn’t part of the program (and wasn’t Canadian then), he was kind of relegated to outsider status even if players like Auger-Aliassime and Sigouin, his peers, might well have been able to practice with him, and he with them.

But he got to know them well.

Here he is after winning the doubles – in an interview with Open Court in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt (hence the noise) with his then-coach, Quebecois former player and coach Ysade Juneau.

Even then, Aguilar’s French already put many native Canadians to shame. And he expected to have his citizenship by the end of that year.

The two exchanged glances when we asked him about playing for Canada; it was a little complex at the time, apparently. He returned to Bolivia to train, although there wasn’t much help forthcoming there, with that country’s tennis federation not a rich one.

Then, as Aguilar played his college tennis, he began representing Canada and now is trying to work his way up in the pros.

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