The first time Vasek Pospisil played in the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open, he was 18 and ranked 1,169th in the world. He lost in the first qualifying round, 6-4, 6-4, to an Italian ranked 510th.
Pospisil grew up in Vernon, B.C., before his family moved to Vancouver when he was 12. He has played the Vancouver Open four times, the last in 2011, making the semis. He is now ranked 89th in the world, was a key part of Canada's best Davis Cup team, won a round at Wimbledon, and this month reached the semis of a tournament in Bogota. He returns to Vancouver this week as a potential favourite to win.
In 2008, ranked 1,169th, Pospisil remembered "playing at a higher level than I was used to. It was nice to play at home, to play with professional players when I was a kid. I got a sniff of what the pro life was like."
To win in professional tennis, first a player loses – often. It is stages such as the Vancouver Open, which is at the top end of the ATP Challenger Tour, one level below the top rank of pro tennis, that are essential steps for younger players. Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray and Milos Raonic have all played on the Challenger Tour.
The Vancouver Open, which begins its 12th year this week, plays host to men and women, and its $200,000 prize money, split evenly, makes it the richest Challenger event in the world.
The tournament came from scrappy beginnings, when local investment broker and tennis lover Floyd Hill put up $25,000 in prize money for the 2002 edition, a women's event won by the then 15-year-old Sharapova. It was at the Jericho Tennis Club, on English Bay, where Hill was a member and tennis director. The sponsor of a tournament that had previously been staged there had pulled out, and Hill stepped in.
"A few times I said, 'What have I done?' after I put my hand up for this thing," Hill said. He is the tournament chair and underwriter, and spent part of one morning overseeing the skybox scaffolding to ensure all was correct – the signage, the banners, the height.
After the first year, more sponsorship money came in, from broker Odlum Brown, where Hill works, and from others such as the United States Tennis Association in 2005, when the tournament moved to its current location at the Hollyburn Country Club, bringing in a men's side.
The tournament is well known among players for its relative luxuries compared with other stops on the Challenger circuit. One such option for the 140 or so players is billets in the posh homes of Hollyburn members and others on the verdant North Shore, rather than yet another hotel room.
"We always run the tournament as though it's a Tour event," Hill said.
Hill believes a top-level event is in the cards for Vancouver. Timing on the crowded calendars of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women's Tennis Association is a challenge, but Vancouver has shown its affinity for the game, with raucous crowds of more than 5,000 for each day of both of Canada's big Davis Cup wins this year, and some 13,000 taking in the Vancouver Open, with all the corporate boxes sold out.
Pospisil, now based in Florida and the Bahamas, will be among the star attractions this week, though the field on both the men's and women's side features strong names. For example, among the women competitors, Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan is 41st in the world in singles and a winner at Wimbledon in doubles.
For Pospisil, his No. 89 ranking has reclaimed the ground he lost in the past dozen months, after reaching No. 85 almost a year ago. He's buoyed by recent successes.
"It hasn't been an amazing year," he says by phone from Florida, with a quick laugh. "If I was top 30, I'd say it was a crazy year, but it's been a very good year. My goal is to win the tournament. Right now, I'm in a position where I can maybe win the tournament. I could also lose in the first round. It's a deep field, but my game and ranking, it's not unreachable."