Canada has not been historically known as a powerhouse tennis nation, but if Abbotsford phenoms Riaan du Toit and Rosie Johanson are looking for domestic role models, they’re suddenly in abundant supply.
Indeed, it’s an exciting time for the sport in Canada, as a crop of talented young up-and-comers is boosting our country’s profile on the international tennis stage like never before.
Budding superstar Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont. has risen to No. 28 in the ATP rankings, becoming the highest ranked Canadian men’s singles player ever in the process.
Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino has climbed as high as No. 58 in the world in women’s singles, and other rising talents from B.C. include Vernon’s Vasek Pospisil and North Vancouver’s Philip Bester.
“More people are recognizing Canada (for tennis) and it’s exciting seeing those players on TV,” said Johanson, age 12. “Seeing how they do it makes me want to be there with them.”
Johanson and fellow Abbotsford resident du Toit, 17, have already started down that path.
Johanson, a student at W.A. Fraser Middle School, finished second at under-12 girls nationals last year. She moved up to the U14 ranks this season, and finished in the top 16 at the recent indoor nationals.
She originally hails from Berkshire, England, and moved to Abbotsford with her family in 2007.
“I’ve gotten more consistent with my shots,” Johanson said, reflecting on the growth of her game with the move up in age classes. “I’m starting to hit a lot harder, and I’m playing against people who hit a lot harder.”
Du Toit (pictured left) comes by his tennis talent honestly – his father Andre used to run a tennis academy in South Africa, and older siblings Charles and Trudie had highly decorated junior careers. Trudie, 21, is currently on a tennis scholarship at the University of Oregon.
Riaan is carving out a name for himself on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior circuit. He’s No. 703 in the junior boys rankings, and his goal is to crack the top 400 this season.
He’s played in tournaments in California, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in recent years, and made it to the semifinals of an event in Burlington, Ont. last week.
In addition to the frequent travel, du Toit’s busy schedule includes three hours of practice most days. To allow for more flexibility, the Grade 11 student homeschools through Fraser Valley Distance Education.
“If I was at a regular school, I’d likely fall behind in my homework and I’d have to come back and write all these tests I wouldn’t be quite prepared for,” explained du Toit, who finished fifth at U16 nationals last year and is already fielding scholarship offers from NCAA Division 1 schools. “Homeschooling, you can take everything with you.
“In a way, I like it like that, and I love the touring. But do obviously miss my friends, PE and playing different sports.”
Adrian Oziewicz, the head tennis pro at Abbotsford’s Great West Fitness and Tennis Club, said that the common denominator between Johanson and du Toit is their love of the game, which breeds a strong work ethic.
“It can be a bit of an isolationist sport,” Oziewicz pointed out. “You have to be passionate about it. It’s like a job some times, the dedication they have to put in. Not every day do you feel like going to work, and it’s the same way with tennis. Some days you’re sore, stiff, tired. You have to love doing it.”
If the love of the game continues to burn brightly for Johanson and du Toit, perhaps they could be following in the footsteps of Marino and Raonic.
• Great West Fitness is currently running spring tennis programs for juniors and adults, and is gearing up for the summer season. For more information, call the club at 604-854-3284.