Daniel Nestor has lost count, but he figures he’s had more than 40 different doubles partners over the course of his 23-year professional tennis career.
But no, he did not expect that when he and his latest partner, Radek Stepanek, paired up, they’d make the final of the Australian Open in just their second tournament together.
Nestor, 43, and Stepanek, 37, lost on Saturday to Jamie Murray (Andy’s brother) and Bruno Soares. It was the fourth time Nestor has reached the final in the season-opening Grand Slam. He won the Australian open in 2002 with former long-time partner Mark Knowles.
Sportsnet caught up with Canada’s most decorated tennis player ever to talk about the tournament, his lengthy career, and the state of the sport in Canada.
Sportsnet: Did you expect the Australian Open to go that well?
Nestor: No, I didn’t. [Laughs.] I’ve definitely become more and more realistic over the last few years. But I also know doubles is very competitive and when you do get on a roll and you start winning, a lot of the matches are very close and come down to one or two points. It feels like anything can happen, like every match I go into, it’s 50/50. If you look at the last 10 Grand Slams, they’ve all been won by different teams. It’s very competitive and there’s very little predictability.
Despite the loss, you must be pleased with how you and Radek played.
For sure. If you would have offered me that [finals appearance] before the tournament, I would have been glad to take it. At the end you feel a little bit upset considering how close you were, and the final was a very winnable match. It’s tough to swallow afterwards but I’m sure in a couple days it’ll be easier.
And you two did become the oldest team to advance to a Grand Slam final in the open era.
Oh yeah? That’s interesting. [Laughs.]
You didn’t know?
No, I didn’t. I mean, every time something happens, whether I’ve won the most or lost the most, there’s always ‘oldest’ tied to it. It’s not a surprise anymore.
How have you stayed so elite for so long? What’s your secret?
I’m pretty professional. I’m very aware when I’m not playing well and what I need to improve. I’m pretty motivated to fix things. There are guys out there who are not realistic; they don’t like to take blame for certain things they don’t do well. That’s the nature of doubles sometimes, it’s easy to find faults in your partner. I don’t think I’ve ever had that personality. I keep a journal of things I feel during matches and what I wanna focus on.
What did you write in your journal after the Australian Open final?
I wasn’t happy. I thought we started the match really well and in the second set they hung in there; they weren’t playing great. We had some mild chances to get on top of them which we didn’t really take. The opportunities when they finally evened the match wasn’t by them playing well, it was more of us kind of giving it to them and not putting them away. So that was kinda tough. We got to 5-all in the third set. It was getting to the point where physically I didn’t feel great as the match went on—I didn’t have that much left in the tank just from a long two weeks and you know, being older. Those are the things you notice about getting older. Toward the end of matches, I was hanging on—you know that feeling? In this match I felt as though my legs weren’t as good as the first set. That 5-all game when I served there was so much lack of confidence; I rushed through the game. I was quite upset with myself. I didn’t slow down. I just wanted to win the game, and it was more hope rather than properly figuring out what to do. So I was quite upset with myself after that. So something like that is what I’ll write in my journal.
If you’ve had more than 40 different partners, does that mean we’ve seen more than 40 different versions of you? Or does your partner adapt to your play?
That’s a good question. The way I’ve approached my career, I’ve always tried to be pretty good at everything. I think if you ask players about my game they would say I’m pretty good at everything, but I don’t think they’d say I’m the best at certain things. Maybe that’s my strength, not having a serious weakness or many weaknesses. I just try and be solid. I think I’ve played well with partners [who have] similar game styles; I think Radek is like that. I don’t think he’s weak anywhere. The combination of having either two guys that are solid is good, or one that’s a little more consistent and one that has a lot of firepower. Radek, he’s older too, but I’ve played with older partners the last couple years. He’s still playing singles and he’s still quite athletic. So when you say someone like him is older, I don’t think it applies to him. I think it applies more to me. [Laughs].
You’ve said this will likely be your last season as a pro. Do results like this one make you question that?
As far as playing a full schedule and trying to be ranked as high as possible, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was my last one doing that. If I have a great season I can obviously rethink that. I do notice differences in the way I’m moving and all that. That’s why I’m pretty realistic about what’s going on. I know that I can’t be the No. 1 player anymore, but with the right partner I can still do well at times, and this last tournament was no exception.
You’re moving faster as you age, right?
[Laughs.] No unfortunately, I’m not. My hands are moving fine. It’s my body that doesn’t keep up with my hands. That’s the problem.
Is Canadian tennis the best we’ve ever seen it right now?
Definitely. Milos [Raonic] is contending to win Grand Slams now. If he didn’t get injured against Murray there’s a good chance he would have been in the final. And [Eugenie] Bouchard on the women’s side has already made Grand Slam finals and she’s playing well. Vasek [Pospisil] is doing really well in singles and doubles. We have some really good juniors coming up. This is the most popular the sport’s ever been in the country, it’s on television a lot. It’s definitely peaking.
Vasek has credited you with helping him to become a better singles player.
Yeah, I mean he came on our Davis Cup team as a 16-, 17-year-old. He always had a lot of great athletic ability. Same with Milos. You don’t see the little things these guys do, they’re two of the most professional players we have. At their age, they’re so driven and motivated and very professional. I’m like that now and I’ve been like that for the last 10 years. I’ve always been fairly professional but compared to these guys when I was their age, not even close.
So to be at the top today vs. 20 years ago, you have to be more professional?
For sure. It’s definitely more competitive. There’s more money now, people are better athletes, the game has changed. It’s slowed down a little bit so that requires more ability to rally and endure longer matches. Back in the ’90s when I was starting, it’s not that it wasn’t competitive, it was just different. It seemed like guys were more talented then but not even close to the same athleticism. And now it feels like it’s a mix of tennis and a marathon or tennis and some kind of Tour de France. That’s what these tournaments feel like when you watch [Novak] Djokovic and Murray play. They seem like they can run all day. You didn’t have that feeling 20 years ago. Twenty years ago there was amazing shot-making and guys were playing great at the net. It was a very skilled sport. Now it’s skill and athleticism.
You have to keep up. Do you have a special diet you follow?
I’ve never been one to be too careful with my diet. If I really start watching what I eat, I’m already a thin guy—I just won’t have any physical strength. [Laughs.] I think I’ll disappear if I don’t eat what I need to eat or what I like to eat. Obviously at tournaments you have to be careful and I eat the right things for sure during tournaments. When I’m not at tournaments that’s another conversation.
I definitely have fast food after I lose. [Laughs.] That’s a comfort food. Not during tournaments, though. I have in the last couple years started with some nutrition guys who make some protein bars and electrolyte drinks. Stuff like that I’ll focus on. But as far as anything crazy like gluten-free, I haven’t done stuff like that.
You turned pro in 1992. What was your first memorable match as a pro?
When I was 16 I got a wild card at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. I was so focused on who I might play if I won my match—John McEnroe [laughs]—so I was so nervous about that that I didn’t even focus on who I was actually playing. I didn’t know who the guy was. Obviously he was a good pro and he was better than I was and he beat me pretty comfortably. I just remember thinking: what was I thinking? I was already thinking about my second-round match and I’d never won a pro match before, so that was kinda funny.
That would have been something; playing McEnroe at 16.
Yeah, nerve-wracking. I mean, I played McEnroe and Agassi in 1992. I think I’ve played everyone over the years, all the top players. Yeah, it’s been fun.