When Canadian doubles tennis star Daniel Nestor was playing in the U.S. Open last week, his daughter Tiana was back home in Toronto attending her first day of kindergarten.
Like they do almost every day of the 35 weeks Nestor is on the road, the concerned dad and his daughter shared the details of their days via Skype.
“(Tiana) is very shy,” Nestor said from Belgrade, where Canada will battle Serbia this weekend in an historic Davis Cup semifinal.
“She’s one of those kids who, if she’s somewhere for three hours, the last hour she comes into her own. The first two hours she’s not being herself. She definitely needs some pushing and motivation to open up. Hopefully she comes around because I was like that too. If she’s as shy as I was growing up, it will be tough for her.
“But she’s a lot better looking than I am, so that should help her,” he added with a laugh.
Modern technology, Nestor said, has made travelling easier. It’s helped the father of two daughters — Tiana will turn five in December, Bianca is six months old — remain on the ATP tour, where he’s claimed 81 men’s doubles titles, including eight Grand Slams, in a pro career that has spanned more than two decades.
The Toronto native is the oldest regular player on the tour, having turned 41 last week during his 21st consecutive U.S. Open appearance. (No, he didn’t celebrate. “There is nothing about turning 41 worth celebrating,” he joked.)
Nestor, however, doesn’t plan on walking away from the game just yet. And why would he when there are still so many reasons to play, including Canada’s unprecedented recent performances on the international stage.
“People ask me how long I’m going to play. When you have a talented (Canadian) team and potential to play in these types of matches in years to come, that’s what keeps me going still,” he said ahead of Friday’s opening matches on the clay of Belgrade Arena.
“If we’re able to win this, it will definitely be a top moment (in my career),” added Nestor, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2000. “Even being in this situation is a top moment.”
Canada has never made it this far in the event that begins each year with 130 countries and sees only 16 teams qualify for the World Cup. This weekend’s winner moves onto the final in November against the winner of the other semifinal between Argentina and Czech Republic.
Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., will lead the Canadians versus world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Serbia in the semi that is expected to draw 15,000 fans each day.
Nestor, who was born in Belgrade, will team up again with 23-year-old Vasek Pospisil. The two recorded a dramatic 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 15-13 win in Canada’s Davis Cup quarter-final victory over Italy last spring, a marathon thriller that lasted an exhausting four-and-a-half hours and set the stage for Raonic’s singles win that ensured Canada’s advancement.
Despite the near two-decades age difference — or perhaps partly because of it — the two complement each other well. Pospisil is the more energetic and emotional of the two, who reached the third round of last week’s U.S. Open in their first Grand Slam together, while Nestor is the calming influence.
“Vasek right now is really confident, he’s playing great tennis in singles and he’s always had great doubles instincts,” Nestor said. “He’s serving great. Big first serve and second serve, he’s a big hitter from the baseline, and very capable at the net too. It’s always nice playing with a young guy that’s explosive and eager.”
By comparison, Nestor described himself as a “perfectionist,” and “someone who’s able to do all things fairly well, but I won’t say I’m the best at anything.”
Pospisil, a Vernon, B.C., native who now calls Vancouver home, considers himself lucky to play alongside the veteran who secured the world No. 1 men’s double ranking for more than 100 weeks.
“(Nestor) is a legend and someone I looked up to for many years growing up,” Pospisil said. “So obviously playing with him the first few time was nerve wracking. I feel much more comfortable now a year or two later and I’m really able to appreciate it.
“Having experience like that on the court beside me is extremely valuable not just to our partnership but also to me as a young player on the Tour.”
Nestor hopes to play through 2014, and turn around what hasn’t been the greatest 2013.
He’s changed partners a handful of times this season, most recently parting ways with Swede Robert Lindstedt, saying “We were getting on each other’s nerves a little bit too much… We just decided it was time to move on.”
His world doubles ranking has plummeted — he’s currently No. 13.
So before the curtain comes down on his career, he’d love to claim a couple more Grand Slam titles and see his ranking climb back to the top.
He said his body, remarkably, feels a lot better than it did back in the early days during his injury-plagued singles career.
He travels with his own physiotherapist now. He draws inspiration from older athletes such as Niklas Lidstrom, the former Detroit Red Wings defenceman and seven-time Norris Trophy winner who retired at the age of 42.
“There are a lot of athletes who have endured,” Nestor said. “I think a lot of it is that people retire because they’re fed up or sick of it. Yes, it is very tough not being with my family all the time. But from what I’ve heard from people who’ve retired, they all say ‘This is the best it is.’ So I’ll make the most of it and then move on.”
As his career winds down, he said he appreciates being in the moment more. He and wife Natasha make a point of sightseeing when she travels with him. He hopes to bring his family to the Australian Open in January — Tiana made the trip to Melbourne once before, but it was when she was too young to remember.
“Definitely the life and the camaraderie with the other players is something I appreciate a lot more now. I was very shy when I was younger, and didn’t always enjoy the lifestyle,” Nestor said.
“For sure I do appreciate it more. I know the days are numbered, so I really try and soak it up as much as I can until the day is done.”
Serbia, meanwhile, earned its spot in the Davis Cup’s final four with a win over the United States, a performance that saw Nestor’s former partner Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac upset the legendary Bryan brothers — Mike and Bob — in men’s doubles.