VANCOUVER — When Canada learned it would face the world’s top-ranked tennis team in the first round of the 2013 Davis Cup World Group, there weren’t many observers who felt captain Martin Laurendeau’s team stood much of a chance.
The Spaniards were fresh off a defeat in the final of the 2012 tournament, and were winners of three of the last five Davis Cup competitions.
Led by world No. 4 and 5, David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal, with No. 11 Nicolas Almagro providing another quality option for captain Alex Corretja, it looked as if Spain would dominate the singles side of the tie — with No. 15 Milos Raonic providing the only real threat.
And the lopsided nature of the matchup didn’t stop there — on the doubles side the pairing of Marc Lopez (No. 3) and Marcel Granollers (No. 5) looking like clear favourites over Canada.
Programming alert: Coverage of the Davis Cup begins Friday, Feb.1 at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT on Sportsnet Ontario, West and Pacific. | TV schedule
While 40-year-old Daniel Nestor remains one of the world’s top doubles players, there’s no elite doubles specialist on the Canadian roster to truly complement him.
But things have changed since that draw in September, in a big way.
When Canada squares up with Spain on Friday for the three-day, best-of-five tie, they’ll still be playing the No. 1 international team — but many of the players who helped that country reach those heights won’t be there to compete.
Ferrer has elected to give the event a pass after a long run at the Australian Open, and a potential replacement in Fernando Verdasco has also opted out.
Nadal has chosen to make his singles comeback on Feb. 4 at the Chile Open in Vina del Mar after being out since June with tendinitis rather than return for this tie.
And Almagro, who looked to lead Spain with Ferrer and Nadal’s absence known for some time, withdrew his availability over the weekend due a leg injury suffered during his run to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
This means Spain will be without four of its top singles players, giving them a roster of world No. 51 Albert Ramos, No. 82 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and the doubles pairing of Lopez and Granollers, the latter of whom is also a capable singles player at No. 34.
"It definitely is (an opportunity)," Laurendeau told reporters following Canada’s first practice on Monday at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre at the University of British Columbia, when asked if the Spanish absentees would help Canada’s chances. "We need all the help we can get that way, but in the end, Spain has a tremendous team, they have incredible depth.
"It’s not the way we’re going to approach this — it’s not about who’s not playing — it’s about who we’re going to face. All their guys are top 100, fierce competitors, warriors, and they know how to win.
"Spain has been in the finals four of the last five years, and we’ll have our hands full with the team they’ve sent."
Apart from Raonic and Nestor, Canada’s team comprises Frank Dancevic (No. 166) and Vasek Pospisil (No. 131).
On paper Raonic is the favourite against both Ramos and Granollers, who he will likely face in singles play on Friday and Sunday, especially given the home advantage aspect and because this tie will be played on the hard surface, which will favour the 22-year-old’s powerful serve.
"On hard court, in general, I feel quite confident, no matter who I’m playing," Raonic said Monday, before playing down whether he was the focal point for Canada’s chances. "Hopefully I’m playing really well, that helps. If not, I’m going to be giving everything I’ve got to win. Hopefully that sort of carries on, and I think the rest of the team has that same type of mentality and approach."
So two of the five rubbers in this tie appear winnable for Canada — but the question is where that decisive third rubber win is going to come from.
It’s difficult to imagine two elite doubles players in Lopez and Granollers falling to Nestor and whoever his partner will be, so most likely one of Dancevic or Pospisil will need to pull an upset over Ramos or Granollers in order for Canada to shock the tennis world and advance to the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup World Group.
Laurendeau knows despite the Spanish omissions, the players they have sent are capable of seeing Spain through to the next round.
"Their players are great players," Laurendeau said. "They’re ranked ahead of us and they have a lot of experience themselves, great captain, and these guys are all about winning.
"Whether it’s Ferrer or not, or whoever’s out there, we have to win. It’s three out of five, it’s a long weekend, and we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do."