Canada’s tennis success story continues to add chapters at breakneck pace with Felix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Fernandez having advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time in their short careers.
Auger-Aliassime, 21, and Fernandez, 19, are part of a new wave of Canadian tennis stars who are changing the image of the game in their country, reflecting its increased diversity.
Their breakthrough in New York marks the first time Canada has had two singles semifinalists at the U.S. Open. It comes after other Canadian success at Grand Slams: Bianca Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open women’s singles title and Denis Shapovalov reached the men’s semifinals at Wimbledon this year.
It remains a surprising tale. Canada, with its famously rugged winters, has a shortage of indoor courts and a dearth of junior players compared with more established tennis nations like the United States, France and Germany. Canada’s best athletes still tend to gravitate to ice hockey, soccer and other activities.
The four young Canadian tennis stars all have at least one immigrant parent. Auger-Aliassime and Fernandez were born and raised in Montreal.
“It’s great for Canada, great for Quebec,” Auger-Aliassime said on Tuesday. “I never thought a day like this would come: a little girl and a little boy from Montreal both at the same time in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. It’s special for us. I hope the people back home appreciate the moment also. We do a lot.”
Auger-Aliassime is biracial. His mother, Marie Auger, is French Canadian, and his father, Sam Aliassime, immigrated to Canada from Togo. Fernandez’s mother, Irene, was born in Toronto to parents originally from the Philippines. Fernandez’s father and coach, Jorge, immigrated to Canada from Ecuador at age 4 with his family.
Andreescu, born near Toronto, is the only child of Romanian immigrants. Shapovalov, born in Tel Aviv, is the son of a Russian father and Ukrainian mother.
“I think we all share that immigrant story,” Andreescu said in a recent interview. “I can definitely relate to a lot of people in Canada, because I think it’s very multicultural, and I think we can all be an inspiration that way.”
Sports remain an on-ramp to success in many cultures for immigrant families, and professional tennis is full of examples. The retired American star Andre Agassi is the son of an Iranian Olympic boxer; Michael Chang, another retired American star, is the son of immigrants from Taiwan. Alexander Zverev, a semifinalist at this year’s U.S. Open, was born in Germany to Russian parents.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all,” Jorge Fernandez said in an interview on Wednesday. “Immigrant families bring a lot of hard work with them to the court. They bring a lot of toughness and willingness to sacrifice. They may not know anything about the sport, but they know what it means to work hard.”
Jorge Fernandez was a professional soccer player, not a competitive tennis player, and has taught himself about the game, much like Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus Williams. Auger-Aliassime’s father is a tennis coach who has an academy in Quebec City.
Jorge Fernandez said he and Sam Aliassime would compare notes and exchange ideas as they watched their children practice and compete in Montreal.
“We would share our experiences, our hopes and frustrations,” Fernandez said. “I think both being immigrants, we have a lot in common.”
But while Jorge Fernandez has remained his daughter’s primary coach, moving the family to Florida for training purposes, Sam Aliassime ceded the coaching role to others. Auger-Aliassime has trained since his early teens with Tennis Canada, the sport’s national governing body. His coaches were former professionals like Frédéric Niemeyer and the Frenchmen Guillaume Marx and Frédéric Fontang.
Fontang remains his primary coach, and in December, Auger-Aliassime also began working with Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and former coach. Toni Nadal has been in Auger-Aliassime’s corner and player box in New York as a coaching consultant.
“I think he’s helped me improve maybe the consistency of my game, the quality of my movement, my focus,” said Auger-Aliassime, who will face No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev on Friday. “On one part you have Frédéric, my main coach, who has been with me since I’m very young and that knows every aspect of myself and my game. He has the long-term vision for me. You have Toni that has been in the places that we want to go one day, winning these big tournaments, being No. 1 in the world. I think he brings that belief that this is something doable.”
Canadian players also have been showing each other what is possible. Eugenie Bouchard was ranked as high as No. 5 in 2014, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and French Open and the final of Wimbledon. Big-serving Milos Raonic, born in Montenegro to immigrant parents, was ranked as high as No. 3 in 2016, defeating Roger Federer at Wimbledon before losing in the final to Andy Murray.
“I think they’re all pushing each other, and I think that’s part of it,” said Sylvain Bruneau, the former coach of Bouchard and Andreescu, who is the director of women’s professional tennis at Tennis Canada. “I think Genie helped Bianca to do well by doing what she did and showing that you can be Canadian and be at a national tennis center and develop your game there and have some success. And I think Bianca has done that for Leylah. And I know there is this feeling that everything can be achieved. Fifteen years ago, we wanted to become a tennis nation and to get really serious about development. Big resources were put in place, and I think we are now seeing the benefits.”
Tennis Canada has not helped all the players to the same degree. Shapovalov and Fernandez have often worked independently, but Michael Downey, the president of Tennis Canada, said the federation has provided some level of support — be it financial or in the form of wild cards and training opportunities — to all four of its young stars.
“I think all this just reinforces that there is no one way for a great player to be developed,” Downey said in an interview on Wednesday. “As a federation we are there as a facilitator whether that’s developing hands-on with Felix or helping in other ways.”
The pandemic has been a challenge. The National Bank Open tennis tournament remains Tennis Canada’s major source of funding, and the men’s and women’s events were both canceled last year, leading to a deficit of 8 million Canadian dollars, according to Downey.
“That is a lot of money to a small federation,” Downey said. “We didn’t have the kind of reserves to manage us through that kind of loss.”
There were layoffs and major cutbacks in the player development program, and the federation took out a loan of 20 million Canadian dollars. But the National Bank Open was staged this year with limited attendance, and Downey said Tennis Canada will make a profit this year.
“That will make it an easier road for us to 2022 and 2023,” he said. “But at the end of the day, part of the reason we’re doing better financially is we haven’t been investing in tennis development. We’re only spending at 40 percent of what we normally spend, and we really want to ratchet it back up.”
Downey, like the Canadian players, is well aware that this is a breakthrough moment for tennis in Canada, one that it is important not to squander.
A sign of the times is that while this is the first year that Canada has had two U.S. Open singles semifinalists, this is the first time that the United States, the traditional tennis powerhouse, did not even have a quarterfinalist in singles.
“Who could ever have imagined that?” Bruneau said.
David Waldstein and Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting