Toronto's Tabilo, now representing Chile, is the one who got away in Canadian tennis

PARIS — Alejandro Tabilo, who has climbed to No. 25 in the ATP Tour rankings and looks poised to make a run at the French Open, was born and raised in Toronto — yet represents Chile.

For Canadian tennis, he’s the one who got away.

“I was a very chubby kid. I never really looked like I was going to be climbing up in the rankings. But I was No. 1 in all the (junior) categories there, and I never received a wild card for Rogers Cup or anything. So I never really felt the support,” said Tabilo, who did represent Canada as a junior but switched to his parents’ native Chile once he turned pro.

Would he still be flying the Maple Leaf, with the Summer Olympics coming up in Paris in July on his beloved clay courts — had things been a little different?

“I feel like if I would have been maybe a little bit more integrated into the whole Canadian system, or if they would have been more focused on me,” he said. “But I never really felt included. I think that's a big reason. If they would have made me feel more secure in their system, maybe I would have wanted to stay.”

It has turned out extremely well for him.

In Santiago, Tabilo found a solid training base, a professional and supportive team, support and the opportunity to represent Chile internationally.

And while it’s been a slow, gradual climb up the rankings with some notable health issues along the way, the 26-year-old stands at a career-high and is seeded 24th at the French Open, which begins Sunday.

He’s just three spots below top Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, the No. 21 seed in Paris.

Tabilo defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and top-20 player Karen Khachanov at the Italian Open last week, on his way to the semifinals where he fell to eventual champion Alexander Zverev in three sets.

He’s on a roll, playing the best tennis of his life — for Chile.

Tabilo’s tennis journey began at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga, across the street from his childhood home.

As he improved, he joined the regional program at the Tennis Canada centre in North York. But when he was 13, Tabilo relocated to L’Académie de Tennis in Boynton Beach, Fla.

The Canadian brain trust thought he was too heavy, and not talented enough.

Talent detection is an imperfect science, to be sure.

Tennis Canada also thought 2021 U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, of Laval, Que., was too small and that Montreal's Gabriel Diallo, who they let loose at age 14 when he was starting to grow into his eventual height of six-foot-eight, didn’t have the right stuff.

Diallo, now 22, qualified for his first Grand Slam tournament Thursday in Paris and will play former top-10 player Kei Nishikori in the first round.

Perhaps, on some level, it motivated these players to reach for the stars and prove the experts wrong.

Tabilo’s results certainly belied the lack of faith. After relocating to Florida, he quickly won the 14-and-under title at the prestigious Eddie Herr junior tournament in Bradenton, Fla.

That earned him a scholarship to the IMG Academy, where he spent nearly four years.

When Tabilo played the junior French Open nine years ago, he ranked among the top 30 juniors in the world. He was notably the only Canadian boy close to the top junior level.

The next year, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov both broke through.

The IMG Academy wanted him to play college tennis, but Tabilo and his family, who all still live in Toronto, decided against it. He returned to the Boynton Beach academy and, two years later moved to Santiago.

That’s when everything changed. The Canadian became a Chilean.

He also dropped the extra pounds but perhaps in too drastic a fashion.

While dealing with a back injury, Tabilo says he lost too much weight after switching to a highly restrictive high-protein, no-carb diet.

He has since found a better balance.

He makes his French Open debut as a seeded player after a couple of unsuccessful qualifying attempts, including a final-round loss in 2021 to an 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz.

On Sunday, he faces Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs in his first career main-draw match.

And he will be representing Chile

When Tabilo switched allegiances as a teenager he said he “felt more Chilean than Canadian.” Now, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, he expresses nothing but love for Toronto.

“I still feel a lot of support from my friends back there. But maybe things could have been different,” he said. “I still love Canada. I love my hometown, and always hoping for the best for them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press