Future bright for Canuck tennis

Canadian Heidi El Tabakh returns against Sania Mirza during the final day of qualifying at the...

Canadian Heidi El Tabakh returns against Sania Mirza during the final day of qualifying at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on Sunday. (Sun Media/Dave Abel)

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:46 AM ET

It is slightly more than a decade ago that Medhat El Tabakh left Egypt in search of a brighter future for his family.

Yesterday, his daughter Heidi got a taste of that future when she won a spot in the main draw of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament at York University's Rexall Centre.

"It feels great. I did a lot better than I thought I would coming into the tournament. I didn't think I'd win the first match," said Heidi, who eliminated top-seeded qualifier Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Saturday.

Yesterday she slapped an exclamation point on the weekend's work with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 gut-check win against Sania Mirza, who has been ranked as high as No. 27 in the world. "I'm very satisfied. My opponents were better ranked than I was, so I didn't have anything to lose. I just went for it."

Just like her pops, a mechanical engineer, went for it in 1996.

Born in Alexandria, Heidi played tennis for Egypt but by age 10 she already was living and training in Burlington and Tampa. "I was very young when we moved. I think he just felt (in Canada) there would be a better future."

And that future has started to unfold nicely. Still just 22, Heidi has moved up in the world rankings this year, from No. 347 to No. 195, giving Canada six players ranked in the top 200 for the first time.

Last month she won an International Tennis Federation singles event and she's reached at least the semi-finals or better in three other events. She looked good yesterday -- and it wasn't just the lime green top and spiffy shorts either.

"I always knew my level was as good as these top players. To finally prove it is a great feeling," said Heidi, who had it on cruise control through the first set, but looked completely out of sync in losing the second. "(Mirza) played better and I made a few unforced errors that were very close. I thought that made a difference. But I got my focus back in the third set."

The turning point came when she broke Mirza to go up 4-2. "I knew if I did my job I'd win," Heidi said.

That win is the latest baby step in a renaissance for Canadian tennis. Although Sharon Fichman of Toronto failed to qualify yesterday, losing 6-3, 6-2 to Yanina Wickmayer, it still leaves the Rogers Cup with four Canadians.

"This is as good as Canadian tennis has been in the last 20 years," tournament director Karl Hale said.

No. 39 Aleksandra Wozniak, No. 104 Stephanie Dubois, and No. 162 Valerie Tetreault, all playing in this event, are half of the six Canadians ranked within the top 200. That, coupled with the recent improved performances on the men's side by Frank Dancevic, Peter Polansky and Milos Raonic and, says Hale, "growing confidence and optimism" has Canadian tennis harkening back to its golden age in the 1970s.

Raonic, an 18-year-old from Oakville, qualified as a longshot last week in Montreal, much like Heidi did yesterday. Moreso, for the first time in many years, Canadians here appear to be more than draw fillers.

GOOD DRAW

Things haven't been this good since Carling Bassett, Glenn Michibata and Helen Kelesi hobnobbed among the world elite.

Wozniak won her first tour event last year and has been ranked as high as 21 in the world. She is capable of beating first-round opponent Alisa Kleybanova, of Russia, and matches up evenly with potential second-round opponents Sara Errani or Dominika Cibulkova before conceivably running up against a brick wall known as No. 1 seed Dinara Safina.

"Wozniak has a good draw. This is a good opportunity for her to make some headway. There's a good possibility she could get to the third round," Hale said. "Let's just say that it wouldn't be a shock."


Videos

Photos