American tennis greats say Canadians could benefit from a 'brotherly rivalry'
John McEnroe and Jim Courier say Raonic, Shapovalov & Auger-Aliassime could boost one another
For almost eight years, Milos Raonic stood atop the Canadian men's singles rankings — unchallenged and undisputedly the top male tennis player in the nation — until now.
Last week, rising star Denis Shapovalov defeated Raonic in their first-ever meeting, taking a 6-4, 6-4 win in the third-round of the Madrid Open. When next week's rankings come out, the 19-year-old will surpass Raonic as the top-ranked Canadian.
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John McEnroe knows both very well, having coached Raonic briefly in 2016 and selected Shapovalov for his Team World squad at the inaugural Laver Cup last September.
The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion was at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on Thursday alongside Jim Courier, James Blake, and Mark Philippoussis for the Invesco QQQ Champions Series — a competitive tennis circuit featuring many past champions.
McEnroe knows there isn't a rich history of tennis success in Canada and believes Raonic's milestones has undoubtedly spurred the current uprise north of the border.
"Milos was the first [Canadian] to ever finish [the year] No. 3 in the world and get to the finals of Wimbledon," McEnroe said. "That's definitely a shot in the arm and I'm sure it made those young kids believe and want it more. To see that someone from their neck of the woods did it — that's how it works."
But perhaps the best has yet to come.
At just 17 years of age, Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime is one of the sport's brightest prospects and the youngest to crack the ATP's top 200 since Rafael Nadal.
McEnroe, 59, is certain both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime will crack the top-10 — with the potential to reach the top-five — and sees nothing wrong with a little friendly rivalry to help them get there.
"I think it's going to be great for those two guys. I mean there was a bigger age gap with me and Jimmy [Connors]. He didn't want to give up his throne and I don't blame him. I wouldn't want to give it up," McEnroe said.
"I didn't want to lose it to the Sampras' and Agassi's — they were even a bigger age gap. But I think ultimately, [in] a great rivalry you see that both players make each other better and I suspect that's what's going to happen in the next five, 10 years with those two."
Courier agrees having been a part of the American "Big Four" — himself, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras — that ruled men's tennis in the 1990's and could see something similar with the Canadian trio.
"There is definitely something to be said about having a healthy rivalry — almost like a brotherly rivalry amongst players from the same nation that can push, inspire, and show each other the way forward," Courier recalls.
"I definitely felt that lift in the pull with my group where one would get out in front and the others would do everything they could to catch up and get past. It was just a nice scenario where we showed each other through different doors at different times."
Huge congrats to the man <a href="https://twitter.com/denis_shapo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@denis_shapo</a> on the #1 spot in🇨🇦. Enjoy the view 😉—@felixtennis
Blake can attest to the position the young Canadians are in. Ever since turning pro, he and fellow compatriot Andy Roddick were expected to fill the shoes of Courier and the previous era.
While Blake never won a Grand Slam or reached those lofty standards, the former world No. 4 knows that chasing a player of Agassi's calibre made him a better player and earning his respect meant a lot.
The Yonkers, N.Y., native recalls his 2005 U.S Open quarter-final loss against Agassi as one of the best matches he's ever played after which Agassi claimed he "wasn't the winner, tennis was."
"He was definitely a mentor ... I appreciated [and] loved playing against those guys, getting to practise with them. Those are the guys you looked up to — you had posters of them on your wall and saw them compete in such epic matches. It was a definitely a thrill and something I cherished," Blake said.
But that's not to say there was never any friction amongst their peers, it's just the reality of tennis. Although Courier and Agassi rose through the junior ranks and were roommates at the famed Bollettieri tennis academy, there was a period where they never spoke with one another.
"It was pretty cutthroat there for a while. We're much friendlier now than when we first came on the tour because we're all trying to grab the same thing. It can be a highly-intense environment," Courier said.
"Our friendship fluctuated throughout our time on tour. We'd get close during Davis Cup weeks but then we'd be back at each other's throats trying to win big titles the next week."
Despite all three players being from different generations of American tennis, they collectively agree that going through the trenches with their compatriots was a special moment in their lives.
They raised the level of play within their nation but held others to that standard as well and McEnroe sees that playing out with Raonic, Shapovalov, and Auger-Aliassime.
"I never thought I'd be sitting in Toronto saying the young Canadian players are better than the Americans, but that's the way it appears right now," said the former world No.1.
"So that should be more of an incentive for us in America to make more of a concerted effort. We got some good young players too and they have some upside. But at the moment, I don't know if they have the upside of those guys."