It was in the midst of the Rogers Cup 10 years ago that Michael Downey, then the CEO of Tennis Canada, had a particularly bad day.
A morning trip to a doctor’s office brought news that Downey, then age 50, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Later that same day, another appointment with another specialist yielded evidence he was also suffering from colon cancer — a diagnosis that would later be pinpointed as a rectal tumour. Beset by the mother of all double faults, Downey would endure most of a year’s worth of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery before he was pronounced free of both malignant varietals.
Looking back at that year of living medically this week, Downey said there was a “silver lining” to the whole ordeal — beyond being excellent training for his next big career move, a three-year stint at the helm of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association that came with occasional surgical guttings at the expert hands of the British press. Looking into the abyss of his fragile mortality also made him examine more closely his life’s “big picture.”
Which helps explain why last month, after announcing his impending exit from Britain in January, he began his second stint as CEO of Tennis Canada after returning from his trans-Atlantic adventure.
“I’m a workaholic. That’s my fundamental problem. And I think part of the reason I came back from Britain was for a great job — this is a great job. But I also wanted to be closer to my family,” said Downey, speaking of his wife and two sons. “And I’m not sure the old Michael at 50 and 40 would have thought that way. It would have been career, career, career.”
Not that his career is suffering. Downey, a few years removed from being heralded in London-based papers as a prized catch thanks to his part in constructing the now-10-year-old developmental system that helped produce Canadian tennis stars Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, has returned to find Tennis Canada in solid enough footing.
Michael Downey, in his second stint as Tennis Canada CEO, says stars like Eugenie Bouchard are vital to the health of the sport. (MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Not that there aren’t issues, among them Raonic’s chronic injury history, Bouchard’s ongoing struggles. Still, there appears to be at least the promise of a next wave of elite talent beyond the established mainstays — including Denis Shapovalov, the second-ranked 18-year-old in the world;
Felix Auger-Aliassime, 16, the top-ranked player on the planet who has yet to turn 17; and Bianca Andreescu, who is ranked among the top few 17-year-olds in pro tennis.
“Now, it’s early. But how many nations have that kind of talent?” Downey said.
Those high-end prospects are vital to the sport’s health, Downey said, because “all sports are driven by icons.” If Raonic and Bouchard have been responsible for a participation bump — and Downey says they have been — it’s important to keep replenishing the pipeline of Canadian hopes.
“There’ll be kids wanting to be Denis today,” said Downey, speaking before Shapovalov faced Rafa Nadal on Thursday night in the Montreal side of the Rogers Cup. “They’re going to be watching him play Rafa and they’re going to say, ‘I want to go out, I want to grow my hair a little longer, and I want to be Denis.’ That’s the inspiration. Kids want role models.”
But kids also need places to play. And while Downey has only been back in his Toronto-based seat for about a month, he is already pondering ways to increase tennis’s profile at the grassroots level. Participation levels, he said, are measured during the summer — when everyone from the hard-core base to the fairweather weekend warrior can usually find a court.
“The weakness of (measuring in the summer) is you’re basically saying you’re a seasonal sport,” Downey said.
One vision, and it’s a broadly sketched, short-on-details one, is to embark on a project to increase the number of covered courts in the country. Downey figures there are about 850 in Canada as it stands, and that building a single bare-bones new one — say, one that involves throwing one of those whitle bubbles over an outdoor hardcourt — costs about $150,000 a pop.
Denis Shapovalov and young players like him are invaluable to Tennis Canada according to CEO Michael Downey, who predicted that after Thursday's Rogers Cup match where the Canadian teen downed Rafael Nadal, kids would want to grow out their hair and play like their role model. (PAUL CHIASSONTHE CANADIAN PRESS)
The idea would be to work with municipalities to slowly increase the presence of such facilities as part of some greater-good, public-health, obesity-reduction outreach.
“I don’t know what a plan could be and what it would cost, but if I think vision down the road, wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot more covered courts in this country to catch the inspiration the high-performance Canadian players are driving?” Downey said. “I like that, because it mainstreams the sport, so that everybody feels, ‘I have access to indoor courts.’ I don’t know what the plan is. But with all the hype we’re getting with the growth in the summer, it behooves us to say, ‘Don’t you want more people playing year-round, and how can we do that?’ ”
Getting more people playing is something Downey touts as a victory during his tenure in Britain, where participation numbers that had flagged by 25 per cent in the decade before his arrival swung in the positive direction by the time he left. Not that Downey didn’t have his setbacks, including the moments after a British team led by Andy Murray won the Davis Cup in 2015. Rather than strictly revel in the victory, Murray and others launched critiques of the Downey-run Lawn Tennis Association and its many perceived failures.
“Black Monday,” Downey said. “Black Monday was very tough. The country had gone 79 years without winning Davis Cup. If you’re a tennis fan in Britain, you’re euphoric. And then suddenly the press conference on Monday becomes a ‘What’s wrong with tennis in Britain and what’s wrong with the LTA?’ ”
The way Downey frames it, mind you, the players’ criticism of the system turned out to be more constructive than they might have imagined. Downey said he mobilized his staff to enlist Murray and his concerned compatriots to help promote a tennis-for-kids program that dispersed a free tennis racquet and six free tennis lessons to 10,000 youngsters around the country.
“Fifty per cent of those kids are still playing,” Downey said. “There’s a silver lining in everything. I went through cancer. There was a silver lining in that. And a silver lining came out of all that negativity around the Davis Cup. Something really great came out of that.”
Technically, Downey says he wasn't supposed to cheer when Milos Raonic, seen here at the 2017 Rogers Cup, beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon last summer, but the Tennis Canada CEO said he couldn't help himself. (PAUL CHIASSONTHE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sitting in his office at Aviva Centre, Downey walked over to a bookshelf to retrieve another memory of his time overseas: A cherished photo of a seminal moment in Canadian tennis. In the background, that’s Raonic seconds after he’d won match point from the great Roger Federer to reach the Wimbledon final last summer. And in the foreground, that’s Downey, standing in the royal box at the All England Club, his right fist raised in patriotic triumph, possibly to the chagrin of the assembled aristocracy.
“Technically, you’re not allowed to cheer in the royal box. But, man — Milos beat Federer,” Downey said. “I let it out because I’ve known Milos since he was 16 or 17 years of age. I want him to be successful. What a moment.”
Canadian tennis fans can only hope that under Downey’s watch there’ll be many like it yet to come.