Outgoing Tennis Canada CEO aims to ace growth for women’s game
As he prepares to leave his post, Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey says there’s still work to be done in growing the game, especially when it comes to getting more girls and women on the court.
Sports fans want to watch women play and national organizations have a role in making sure that happens, he said.
“I think we’re seeing the cusp of a phenomenal growth of women’s sport generally,” said Downey, who announced in February he would retire at the end of 2023.
“And I think in the past, years ago, [TV] networks might have thought ‘I need to put women on because I’m supposed to do it.’ Now they’re doing it because they know the demand is there. And that’s really motivating.”
Over two tenures as CEO, Downey has overseen a major shift in Canadian tennis, with the country’s players rocketing up the world rankings since he first took over in 2004.
Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., won the U.S. Open in 2019 and Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime captured four titles on the ATP Tour last year. Canada’s men’s team won its first Davis Cup title in 2022 and, on Saturday, the women’s squad earned a berth in November’s Billie Jean King Cup finals.
“Canadian tennis is taken very seriously on the global stage,” Downey said. “I’ve had many counterparts, CEOs of other tennis federations over the years, ask what’s in the water in Canada that the country’s been able to kind of come out of nowhere and really develop some strong singles talent.
“I think the rest of world does look over and say ‘Hey, this is a winter sport nation, but they’re doing so well in tennis.’ And it’s great to see.”
Elevating game a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’
During his first term, Downey oversaw the opening of the National Tennis Centre in Montreal as well as regional training centres in Vancouver and Toronto.
Those programs not only helped develop several the Canadians currently dominating on tour, but also raised the bar for academies and coaches across the country, he said, and continuing to elevate the game will be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“I think as Milos [Raonic] and Genie [Bouchard] broke through, they inspired Leylah [Fernandez] and Denis [Shapovalov] and Bianca [Andreescu] and Felix [Auger-Aliassime]. And that’s what’s happening,” Downey said.
“There are 10- and 11- and 12-year-olds right now that believe they can make it. They’ve got to put in the hard work, but they believe they can make it and they may not have believed that a decade ago. So, success breeds success.”
Canadian players say there’s still room for growth in the game, too, especially when it comes to women’s tennis.
Equity sports goes beyond tennis and beyond Canada’s borders, said Fernandez, a 20-year-old from Laval, Que., who’s currently No. 50 in the WTA singles rankings.
“I love that there’s a lot of people in the stadium, but I know there should be more — more kids, more women — supporting us,” she said during a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier in Vancouver on Friday.
“And I think that’s the first step, encouraging women to come to WTA matches, to women’s games not just in tennis but in the WNBA, in soccer — or football, wherever you are in the world — in hockey, too. I think if we can have more women in the crowd, it’s going to attract more people and make tennis even more popular.”
Treatment of female players ‘doesn’t make sense’
Shapovalov called for equal pay in tennis last month after the native of Richmond Hill, Ont., compared his experience on the ATP Tour to that of his girlfriend Mirjam Bjorklund, a player on the WTA Tour.
“One example, in their Challenger level they don’t have tournaments with hospitality. They don’t have free accommodation, which in the men’s, it’s completely normal,” said Shapovalov, who’s ranked No. 24 on the men’s tour, in a video for the Players’ Tribune.
“Why is it different? It just doesn’t make sense.”
In March, Tennis Canada unveiled “Game. Set. Equity.” The initiative is aimed at increasing women’s participation in the sport, while making it safe and inclusive for women and advancing women’s tennis commercially.
The organization wants to see more women in coaching positions, more female officials and more girls entering — and staying in – the sport, said Downey, who’ll remain an ambassador for the program after he retires.
“We’re not doing this just because on paper it’s the right thing to do. We’re a stronger organization for it,” he said.
“And we think that will happen in tennis as we get more women, more girls playing the sport, staying in the sport, more women getting into leadership roles. It’s going to make a difference.”