New Canadian Identity
ATPWorldTour.com talks to Milos Raonic, Daniel Nestor and Filip Peliwo to gain insight into their careers and uncover what it means to be a Canadian
Heading into the Rogers Cup in Montreal, World No. 10 Milos Raonic is primed to do something no other Canadian man has achieved: win 200 singles matches on the ATP World Tour.
The 24-year-old right-hander with the booming serve and whip-like forehand is a trailblazer in many ways for Canadian tennis, but to get a full appreciation for how far the country’s sporting landscape has changed in a quarter-century, one needs to have a chat with Daniel Nestor, the 42-year-old doubles legend making his 27th consecutive appearance at his home tournament.
Like Raonic (who was born in Podgorica, Montenegro), Nestor’s story began not in Canada, but in the former Yugoslavia.
“In the seventies, things were good in Yugoslavia. My parents had good jobs and we had a good lifestyle, but the living arrangements in Belgrade were fairly cramped. My dad’s brother had already moved to Canada, so they knew that Canada was a growing country and that it was an opportunity to have a larger home and give their kids different kinds of opportunities that they didn’t have growing up,” said Nestor, who was four when he and his parents moved to Ontario, Canada.
The additional resources available in North America allowed Nestor to participate in several different sports as a child.
“In Serbia the biggest sports were basketball and soccer. That’s what my dad knew and that’s what I played [at first],” explained Nestor. “When we arrived in Canada, it was easy to find a place to play soccer and basketball.”
Canada’s long and bitterly cold winters were even more conducive to the national pastime of ice hockey, and young Daniel gave that a shot as well.
“All my friends played hockey and it was the sport that we followed the most, so out of peer pressure I tried playing on a team for one year. But I didn’t skate as well as the kids who were born in Canada and grew up with the sport,” admitted Nestor, whose favorite team is the Montreal Canadiens despite having lived in Toronto most of his life. “I was really into hockey, but I was just better at these other sports.”
As Nestor explained, he finally chose tennis because of how well the sport meshed with his temperament.
“Being introverted and a little bit shy, I really enjoyed tennis because it was an individual sport. It was more suited to my personality. I started playing and things took off from there,” said Nestor.
Milos Raonic was two when Nestor scored his most important singles result, toppling World No. 1 Stefan Edberg in a Davis Cup match. By the time he made tennis his chosen vocation, two decades after Nestor, things had already began to change.
Progress brought new fans to the game and lit the way for youngsters such as Raonic. Any Canadian with cable TV or an internet connection could now follow the exploits of Canadian stalwarts such as Nestor, Frederic Niemeyer or Frank Dancevic in real time.
“By the time I was in high school, I was already devoting a lot of time to my tennis training. I never really felt any kind of peer pressure from friends in terms of what sports I should be playing,” said Raonic, who, during the wintertime, often practised with his father at 6AM and 9PM in order to cut down on indoor court fees. “Perhaps most of my classmates didn’t really understand how important tennis was to me already. But at that age, I was very clear about what I wanted.”
As Raonic made his mark on the ATP World Tour in 2011, winning his first title in San Jose and ending the year at No. 31 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, he realised that growing up in a multicultural environment such as Toronto had its benefits for a touring pro. That too had changed since when Nestor was a child.
“People sometimes wonder why I don’t speak my native language anymore since I moved to Canada when I was four,” said Nestor. “Growing up as a Serbian in Toronto, I was a little embarrassed when I first went to school because I couldn’t speak English. So I purposefully spoke only English once I learned it. I remember thinking that I just wanted to fit in. At that time, there weren’t that many people from that part of the world in Toronto. Now you walk around and it is totally different.”
Raonic had a significantly different experience 20 years later.
“Growing up in Canada around friends from different cultural backgrounds definitely helped me,” said Raonic, who trained in Toronto, Montreal and Barcelona, Spain at various stages of his early career. “Even in the professional ranks, some people are just uncomfortable with staying in North America too long, others with staying in Europe too long. It's never been an issue for me.
“My upbringing gave me a sense of what to expect and what to do when you're faced with something different, and that’s helpful when you’re in a different country every week,” added Raonic, who speaks English and Serbian fluently.
Raonic’s development as a junior coincided with the adoption of a new development philosophy by Tennis Canada, the sport’s governing body and the organiser of the Rogers Cup. In 2007, the federation opened its National Training Centre in Montreal, which centralised promising Canadian players and gave them access to high-quality coaching and crucial financial support. Raonic was a member of the NTC’s first cohort.
In 2009, the program welcomed Vancouver, B.C.’s Filip Peliwo to the fold. Son of Polish immigrants, Peliwo was introduced to the sport at a young age by his father, an avid recreational player.
“My father Mark would often play at the local public courts with his friends and make me sit and watch because I was too young to hold a racquet,” said Peliwo. “He taught my older brother how to play so I kept begging him to let me hit balls, and eventually he did. He read everything he could about tennis so that he could teach me. For the longest time he was my only coach.”
Unlike Nestor, Peliwo never played organised hockey. Instead, he showed promise as a soccer player before devoting himself to tennis as a 14-year-old. In doing so, Peliwo followed in the footsteps of a certain Vasek Pospisil from Vernon, a town five hours north-east of British Columbia’s metropolis.
Despite a four-year age gap, both men had much in common. They shared Eastern European heritage (Pospisil’s father Milos had furtively driven his young family across the Czechoslovakian border in search for a better life), supportive parents, and athletic gifts which allowed them to excel on both the soccer pitch and on the tennis court.
“I was playing on one of the best teams in the Vancouver area, but at a certain point, I was missing too many soccer practices in order to compete at tennis tournaments. It was a difficult situation for my coaches and teammates,” said Peliwo. “I think I could have been very good at soccer, but tennis was always what I wanted to excel at.”
While Peliwo headed east in order to continue his tennis education in Montreal, Pospisil temporarily returned to the Czech Republic and cut his teeth on the European professional circuit. His decision is reflective of another characteristic of the new generation of Canadians: an eagerness to embrace outside influences and to mix new and old cultures. Though he already possessed an imposing frame and raw power, training with seasoned veterans in Prostejov, Czech Republic allowed Pospisil to develop the all-court game which propelled him to a No. 25 singles ranking and a Wimbledon title in doubles.
The All England Club was also the site of a critical breakthrough for Peliwo. His father's guidance and Tennis Canada’s support helped him put together one of the best junior campaigns ever in 2012. After reaching the Junior Boy’s final of the Australian Open and Roland Garros, he became the first Canadian male to win a Grand Slam singles title with a triumph at the Junior Wimbledon tournament. He would end his junior career three months later with a title at Flushing Meadows, becoming the first player in 28 years to reach all four Grand Slam finals in the same year and the first male since Grigor Dimitrov to win Wimbledon and US Open junior titles consecutively.
With his ranking currently at No. 526, Peliwo, who made his Davis Cup debut for Canada in July 2015, has a long way to go to challenge Raonic as his country’s go-to singles player or to equal Nestor as an all-time Canadian sporting icon. But at age 21, the Paris-based right-hander is already a citizen of the world (he speaks English, Polish, French and Spanish), and is a brilliant reflection of how far his native land has come in so little time.