Peter Burwash goes all over the world talking tennis. Name a town, he’s been there. Beijing, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Singapore-they’re all the same to him. In August he spent a week in Montreal, then a week in Toronto, as a television commentator for the women’s, then the men’s du Maurier-sponsored national open tennis championships. One thing about it, he didn’t grow hoarse describing the feats of Canadians.
Why can’t Canadians lick their lips on an international tennis court? There are tiny flurries: Patricia Hy-Boulais survived a couple of rounds last summer at Wimbledon, Grant Connell is a world-class doubles player, and one evening last month a string-bean left-hander, Daniel Nestor, actually beat the world’s No. 2 player, the spectacular Thomas Muster. But these are mere teasers, hiccups really. There are no Bobby Orrs or Wayne Gretzkys on the tennis courts.
However, there is Peter Burwash, who may be the world’s most successful noncompeting tennis player. An energetic, fast-talking native of Brockville, Ont., where his father, Stanley, was the branch manager of the local Bank of Nova Scotia, 50-year-old Peter is a founder and the president of Peter Burwash International, a Houston-based corporation that operates tennis properties for resorts and hotels in 32 countries.
Apart from this and his television commentary, Burwash manages to keep busy delivering 80 to 90 speeches annually to service clubs and business groups on health, fitness and diet. He has published five books, two on tennis instruction, has coached tennis in 134 countries, and is an instruction editor for Tennis magazine along with two former U.S. Open champions, Stan Smith and Tony Trabert, and the Florida-based instruction guru Nick Bollettieri. Oh, and as an avowed enemy of snow, when he’s home it’s Honolulu.
Accordingly, while this is not an issue to challenge the tallest foreheads at the United Nations, Peter Burwash does sound like a man to answer the puzzler: how come Canadians are next thing to hopeless on the world’s courts?
The excuse used to be that no player could prosper in a country that freezes its tennis balls in winter. But that went out the window long ago when the human iceberg Bjorn Borg emerged from snowbound Sweden. Proving it could be done, Borg soon had little Swedes hammering two-handers against the garage door dawn to dusk. Nowadays, tournaments are crawling with Swedes, guys named Enqvist, Larsson, Bjorkman, Tillstrom and a couple now fading, Edberg and Wilander, former Grand Slam champions both.
Meantime, Canada’s No. l player in 1995, Sebastien Lareau of Boucherville, Que., was ranked 138th on the final ATP Tour rankings, and the solitary Canadian singles player of any gender to qualify for the current U.S. Open was the transplanted Cambodian Patricia Hy-Boulais, who was nosed out in the first round by Gabriela Sabatini 6-1, 6-1.
“Part of the problem is the well-known Canadian mentality,” says Burwash. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Our culture is to put people down. Kids start believing it.” He cites his own experience, a letter more than 25 years ago from an executive of the old Canadian Lawn Tennis Association, now called Tennis Canada. “He told me to give up the game, that I was no good,” Burwash says. “I carried that letter around with me in my racket cover and in 1971, just before the final of the Canadian championships at the Winnipeg Canoe Club, I took it out and read it again. Then I went out and beat Jim Boyce in the final.”
What kids need is the encouragement that will produce confidence. “They need to develop creativity and individuality,” the man says. “The blanket teaching method simply doesn’t work. The idea of do-it-this-way, don’t-do-it-that-way? Forget it.”
Confidence is vital. Burwash remembers a match in New Zealand involving Rod Laver in which Laver was leading some forgotten opponent by 5-4 in the deciding set. Fellow Australians Roy Emerson, Tony Roche and John Newcombe, seated in the stands, rose and began to file out. “Where are you going; it’s not over,” protested Burwash. “It’s over,” Emerson told him. “Rod never loses when he’s leading 5-4.”
The point instantly leaped into focus the night a couple of weeks ago in du Maurier’s $2.8-million extravaganza in Toronto when Nestor whipped the blond whippet from Austria, Muster. In a post-match scrum with us unwashed newshounds, Nestor sat gloomily staring at the floor, expressing no confidence in his prospects for his next match, that one against the world’s
No. 43-ranked Todd Woodbridge. “Inconsistency has been a problem,” muttered Nestor on the night of his singular triumph. “But I’ve been working on it.” The following afternoon, sure enough, he lost in straight sets to the Australian doubles star Woodbridge.
It’s Burwash’s notion that the most positive new development he saw in Canadian tennis this year wasn’t the sudden emergence of some new phenom but the completion and opening of a new tennis centre in Montreal-“eight brightly lit indoor courts in a stunning new building that puts Montreal ahead of everybody.” There also are 12 outdoor courts at this Jarry Park Tennis Centre. By contrast, for winter tennis in Toronto a gloomy bubble stands like a grounded whale beside the main offices of Tennis Canada, the so-called National Tennis Centre in this country. The embarrassing contrast leads Burwash to suspect that Toronto tennis buffs will build a Taj Mahal of their own to keep pace. If that happens, he says, the game can only prosper in this country and Canadian tennis players who can lick their lips might finally turn up.