Photo: Pascal Ratthé - Tennis Canada
It’s no secret that high-level tennis tournaments contested on Canadian soil are crucial to the growth of the sport in the country. For the better part of the last two decades, the Odlum Brown VanOpen, the largest and most celebrated professional tennis event in Western Canada has served as a springboard for many of the top Canadian players at the start of their pro careers.
The prestigious combined ATP Challenger Tour and WTA 125 event returned to the picturesque Hollyburn Country Club in Vancouver for the first time since 2019 last week and given its resounding success this year, tournament organizers certainly didn’t miss a beat during the COVID-19 hiatus.
“The goal was to come back with a bang, and we did that,” said VanOpen Tournament Chair, Carlota Lee. “We were sold out every day and had people outside the venue looking for tickets.”
Always Looking to Improve
Carlota Lee has served as VanOpen Tournament Chair since 2017 but has been involved with the tournament for the last 16 years. Among her many duties is managing the housing program which has become a signature of the event, especially when you consider the magnificent homes and breathtaking views that Vancouver has to offer.
Thanks to her leadership and the extensive knowledge of Tournament Director Rik De Voest, a former ATP player who was crowned champion of the VanOpen back in 2006, the event continues to get bigger year after year. Lee is looking to expand her organizing committee to include more staff in addition to the 120 loyal volunteers they rely on, many of whom have been lending a hand since day one.
In 2022, the VanOpen hosted Gilles Simon and Fernando Verdasco, two former Top 10 players, for the first time. Both were incredibly impressed with everything the tournament had to offer, especially the housing.
“They heard that Vancouver was a nice place and at the end of the week, they both said it exceeded their expectations,” said Lee.
The women’s draw was upgraded to a WTA 125 series event for the first time this year, which came with greater expectations, but also a lot of guidance from the WTA which made the transition seamless. The men’s event, which has twice been named ATP Challenger of the Year, was also moved up to a Challenger 125, the highest level for an ATP Challenger event. Both always attract a top-notch player field featuring many familiar names and champions at the highest level of the sport. And the plan is to continue growing and improving heading into 2023.
Lee is already working to get more sponsors so that they can add a second show court with electronic line calling to go alongside Centre Court which has a capacity of 1,000 spectators and debuted electronic line calling this year. The new feature was a hit with both players and fans.
“It really amplified the status of the event, making it feel like a world-class tournament,” explained De Voest.
A Pillar for Canadian Player Development
Having tournaments of the calibre of the VanOpen in Canada is vital to Tennis Canada’s competitive structure and most importantly, crucial to helping produce the next generation of Canadian champions within the pro ranks.
The VanOpen is an opportunity for the 16–18-year-old Canadian juniors to get their first taste of professional tennis, learn the ropes, and measure themselves against more experienced players while also watching how they carry themselves on and off the court.
“Having an event like this in my hometown meant that I was exposed to professional tennis from a young age and allowed me to aspire to follow in the footsteps of the professional women’s tennis players. VanOpen was both my first experience as a spectator and as a competitor in professional tennis,” said Canadian WTA player Rebecca Marino. “My first memory of VanOpen was as a spectator when I was a kid. I was able to watch Maria Sharapova before her big breakthrough, which was incredible. What I remember most was being awestruck at the level of play from all the professional women competing in the event, and it made me dream that I could make a career out of my tennis one day as well.”
That’s exactly the kind of positive experience that some of Canada’s top female juniors were treated to in Vancouver last week. Cadence Brace, Kayla Cross, Bianca Fernandez and Marina Stakusic were able to practice with tour veterans like Eugenie Bouchard, Marino, Kristina Mladenovic and Carol Zhao. Cross even had the chance to play doubles with Bouchard and win a round. It may not seem like much, but this kind of team atmosphere is important for their development at that age.
Knowing that a breakthrough result at the VanOpen could propel them to greater heights, De Voest and Lee made sure to give all their tournament wild cards to Canadians even though they could have been tempted to convince a top-ranked player to join the field. It’s a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by Sylvain Bruneau, Head Women’s National Coach at Tennis Canada.
“I am extremely happy and grateful to Carlota and Rick; they were super cooperative and ultra professional,” said Bruneau. “The girls are playing very well in Granby this week and it’s completely related to the experience they had in Vancouver.”
Lee and De Voest are hoping that the tournament crowns a fifth winner from Canada sooner rather than later to follow in the footsteps of Vancouver’s own Vasek Pospisil, Frédéric Niemeyer, Stéphanie Dubois, and Aleksandra Wozniak so it’s no wonder they want as much as Canadian content as possible. People like them, whose passion for tennis runs deep, are just as important as the events they run.
“If you’re serious about tennis development, you need a strong national competitive structure,” explained Bruneau. “We need professional tournaments in Canada to help players make the transition to the next level and Vancouver plays that role perfectly.”