VANCOUVER, B.C. – When Milos Raonic fired Canada into the Davis Cup World Group semi-final on Sunday, he did more than just book his country’s ticket to Serbia in September.
The 22-year-old showed – as he has been doing earnestly over the past couple of years – that this country can produce tennis players capable of competing against, and even taking down, the world’s elite.
That’s the legacy he’s hoping is left from Canada’s unlikely run to the final four of tennis’ elite international competition.
“Hope, belief and sights of opportunity,” Raonic summed up when asked about what this weekend’s results would mean for young Canadian tennis players. “I think us doing this as a team and having this kind of result, not only to the player, to the kid, to the junior should make a difference. It should also make a difference to the parents – when you think about what you can put your kid in, sign your kid up for, I don’t think you should shy away from tennis.
“I think we’re showing you can succeed as a Canadian in tennis, and that’s a big difference to be a part of and it’s pretty special to be a part of that.”
For captain Martin Laurendeau, who has seen the development of tennis from the fringe days of little media coverage and even less international success, it’s a welcome development for his sport.
“We had maybe two Davis Cup ties over 18 years or something on television, and now we’re playing every tie, whether it’s on the road or here, on TV and I think that makes a huge impact,” Laurendeau said. “Now we’re a lot more in the papers and a lot more on TV and it’s going to get a lot of kids excited from coast to coast.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Team Canada under Laurendeau has been making quick progress over the past couple of years, and that in turn as has attracted more media coverage.
With that coverage has come greater expectations, but rather than falling under the spotlight, this group of players has thrived and continually exceeded the hopes of Canadian tennis fans.
Yes, Canada used its home advantage to maximum effect by using a fast hard court and Yonex Tour 1 balls to make Spain and, this weekend, Italy uncomfortable, but on paper they were underdogs in both ties.
Both in February and during this tie, an underdog came through. Frank Dancevic’s once-in-a-lifetime thrashing of Marcel Granollers against Spain and this weekend’s doubles triumph are moments to relish.
Raonic, while the headliner of this group, has to endure the pressures that come with that, but he’s won all five of his singles rubbers in World Group play.
For Laurendeau, he’s hoping there’s still more to come from this group ahead of September’s semi-final.
“The whole team really came a long ways in the last couple of years,” Laurendeau said. “It’s always a challenge to bring together a lot of different guys from different backgrounds in an individual sport and bring them to do a team event for just once or twice a year – two or three times maybe.
“You’ve got to go in with a different kind of approach and it’s one thing to play the tour and it’s another thing to do team events…it’s been a work in progress and Milos leads in his own way, Daniel [Nestor] leads in his own way and everyone pretty much in the last year and a half or so got a better vision of the higher causes behind this competition and put aside a few things and said, ‘Let’s do it for Canada, let’s do it for the team.’”
And, while tennis is an individual sport, Laurendeau must be given enormous credit as well for assembling a very strong group of players and making the correct calls at the right times. On Saturday, for example, he elected to play Nestor despite his injury because he wanted Raonic to be totally fresh for Sunday.
That was a calculated risk which paid off – similarly, Laurendeau chose to nominate Vasek Pospisil for singles over the more highly ranked Jesse Levine, who only recently became eligible for Canada after previously representing the United States.
Pospisil ultimately lost that match to Fabio Fognini, but the message is clear – if you show up and perform for Canada, you get to keep your spot, regardless of your rank on the ATP Tour.