Where are Canuck contenders?

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

The report card on Canadian tennis at the international level is full of failing grades.

Leafing through international tennis results over the past decade, we can easily conclude that Canadian tennis is behind, say, Upper Slobovia.

Perhaps, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but we are certainly behind such small countries as Serbia, Croatia, Switzerland and Belgium, let alone behind much bigger countries like the USA, Russia, Australia, France and, as demonstrated at the current Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre -- China.

Why is it that Canada, a rich, well-to-do country trails nations which cannot boast such wealth? Worse still, how is that countries which trailed Canada in tennis 20 years ago have easily surpassed us?

I spoke yesterday with Tony Eames, the newly elected chairman of the board of Tennis Canada and former boss of Coca Cola Canada, who tried to set me straight.

"The situation is not as grim as some people would want to believe" Eames said. "No fewer than 1.8 million Canadians play tennis at least once a month. That is an 18% increase over the past three years.

"Moreover, the budget of Tennis Canada used to be $1 million, but now is $ 6.5 million. That, of course, doesn't match the $50 million they spend on tennis development in France and similar amounts in the U.S. and Australia. Now our aim is to increase our budget on player development to $15 million, an effort that will rest on the shoulders of Tennis Canada president Michael Downey."

Eames and I watched two Chinese girls play against top opposition two days ago and again yesterday. Wednesday, Zi Yan destroyed No. 4 seed and defending champion Ana Ivanovic and yesterday Sjuai Peng gave the world's No. 1, Justine Henin, all she could handle.

But why can't we have players such as Czech-American Martina Navratilova or Ivan Lendl, both world Nos. 1 for some time, as well as Belgians Henin and her former sidekick Kim Clijsters (1-2 at one time), or Russia's Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, for example?

"We have a plan," said the eminent chairman of the board of Tennis Canada. " We can't say that in two years we will have two men and two women in the Top-10. But I will say that in six to seven years we should have two men and two women in the Top-50. That is doable."

He also explained that the reason European players develop faster is not only the coaching, but also the attitude of the parents and the desire of young kids to follow the examples of their heroes.

"You have to start them at a young age," said Eames. "I believe in supporting Under-12 players. I contributed $100,000 to the development of these youngsters because I believe passionately in the future of Canadian tennis.

"We will continue bringing in the best coaches from overseas to work with the kids, but also to work with Canadian coaches, because you cannot carry on ad infinitum with imported coaches. We have to have commitment from the kids and the Canadian coaches."

The 63-year-old who still plays tennis at the club level three or four times a week chuckled when he added: "We suggested a commitment even to the staff of Tennis Canada that they reach club level play and Michael (Downey) accepted the challenge of playing at least once a week. But when we tested him, we had to give him an F."

However, when it comes to fund-raising and marketing, they'd have to give him an A. And if he ever can help create a program that produces two Canadians in the Top-10 for men and women, Downey might be presented with a lot more than a great report card.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Julie Staples. Canadian women's Under-40 champion, was named director of tennis development ... Emirates Airlines will support the development of junior tennis in Canada by establishing the Emirates Airlines Award. The award will consist of a $25,000 cheque for the junior women's Fed Cup team in 2007 and junior Davis Cup team in 2008 ... A number of years ago, Tom Riley, then Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the City of Etobicoke, approached Bob Labbett and Colin Lorimer, urging them to put together a group of friends and build a golf facility in Etobicoke. Last week the Centennial Golf Centre celebrated 20 years of providing affordable golf in the city.


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