Canadian contingent giving tennis a big TV bounce

·Chris Zelkovich

There's nothing like Canadian content to turn a loser into a winner in this country.

Despite its big international profile, tennis has never been a game that has got much blood flowing among Canadians. As far as TV ratings go, it has usually ranked with the likes of boxing, poker and robot fighting.

But something is changing. Ratings are up across the board and there's actually a bit of buzz in the air about the game.

The main, and possibly only, reason is the strength of Canadians on the pro tour and the impressive showing this country has made in Davis Cup play.

Fuelled mostly by Milos Raonic, and to some extent by a cadre of up-and-coming young athletes, tennis has been enjoying a television revival this year. Look at the evidence:

Sportsnet's tennis broadcasts are averaging 92,000 viewers this season, up 60 percent over last year. While 92,000 isn't the kind of audience that has advertisers licking their chops, growth like that is impressive. Davis Cup audiences have also grown, up 35 percent to an average of 126,000. That should rise further this weekend as Canada takes on Serbia in the tournament semifinals.

The Rogers Cup men's tournament, which featured great performances from Raonic and Vancouver's Vasek Pospisil, drew some of the biggest tennis audiences in years to CBC. The final between Raonic and Rafael Nadal averaged 494,000 viewers while the semifinal showdown between Raonic and Pospisil pulled in 386,000.

Those audiences aren't huge in the big scheme of things -- a Canadian Football League Labour Day game hit more than 1 million viewers -- but they have raised tennis to new heights in this country. It's still pretty much a middle-aged audience that watches tennis, but it's a well-to-do bunch of grey hairs and that has some appeal to advertisers.

And who knows? Maybe the likes of Raonic can lure a few more young viewers.

Canadians like to see themselves as big sports fans, but the fact is that we're really a nation of frontrunners when it comes to anything outside the big sports. We'll suffer with the Maple Leafs and Canucks, agonize over the Blue Jays and follow our most heartbreaking CFL teams regardless of their performances. But we tend to ignore everything else, unless a Canadian hope emerges.

That hope is Raonic, who has his own theories on the rise of tennis. When I interviewed him this summer, he talked about what a great feeling it was to be part of a wave that's engulfing all Canadian sports.

"It's belief catching up with hard work, not just in tennis but in all sports," he said. "There was a Canadian first in NBA draft (Anthony Bennett), then Andrew Wiggins being a shoe-in for the next one. And look what happened in the Olympics.

"It's a great, great time to be Canadian."

Not a bad time to be a Canadian tennis player, either.

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