The new face of Canadian tennis


I never had the privilege of watching Wayne Gretzky play live.

I’ve seen Pavel Bure play live; my father used to work for the Vancouver Canucks, operating the scoreboard at the Pacific Coliseum during the early 1990s. I would sit on the first step of the box that he worked in and watch those great Canucks teams fly around the ice in their far-from-great jerseys.

No Canuck flew around the ice like Bure. He was a marvel unlike anything the NHL had ever seen or is likely to ever see.

It was can’t-miss sports when Bure played, the closest thing, my dad says, to watching Gretzky play.

Gretzky of course does not need much more written on him than already has been.

Much has been written about “The Trade,” which saw the most richly-talented player in the NHL traded to the most barren of hockey markets; Los Angeles.

He cried. Oilers fans cried. Canadians cried. Californians shrugged.

How a national treasure could be traded to a place where Baywatch and high-waisted bikinis were national treasures was beyond comprehension for most.

And yet, looking back on Gretzky’s move to California, it is not difficult to comprehend that the move has been fantastic for the NHL.

The Kings never won a Stanley Cup but the benefits of Gretzky’s trade have been far more wide-ranging than winning a trophy could hope to accomplish.

Toronto sports writer Damien Cox coined this benefit as the “Gretzky Effect” wherein participation in hockey in California saw a meteoric rise in the years following the trade. Simply put, when a star breaks onto the scene of a sport not appreciated, in a place not appreciated; that sport takes off at the grassroots level and beyond.

Gretzky in the Southern US, Pele in Brazil, and now, perhaps, Raonic in Canada.

Don’t be surprised if tennis, yes, THAT sport, sees a rapid climb to the top of the running order of most sports highlights shows when Milos Raonic is playing.

Raonic, a 21-year-old from Thornhill, Ontario is already the most successful single’s player in Canadian history.

Raonic has made it to the third round at the Australian Open this week, the Grand Slam in which he got through four rounds last year as a rookie and the first qualifier to do so in 12 years.

He’s got the skill (already ranked number 25 in the world), he’s got the tools (one of the fastest and most accurate serves on the tour), he’s got the looks (the guy’s 6’5” and looks like the kid you used to babysit) and the personality of a star (check out his interviews on YouTube).

He has everything you would want as an athlete and celebrity. He’s imposing on the court and charming off of it; a combination Canadians buy into.

Moreover, that’s a combination that makes a historically undervalued sport in Canada more attractive to youth.

They’ll continue to play baseball and road hockey, but tennis will appeal to enough and that early exposure to the game is all that’s needed to start and maintain a solid base of platers and fans to the singles sport.

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