Shapovalov can’t carry Canada through Davis Cup on his own

Caroline Cameron and Robert Bettauer recap Denis Shapovalov's performance for Canada against Croatia at the Davis Cup.

It’s impossible to seriously compete in Davis Cup with one top 50 player and not a whole lot else.

Unfortunately, that’s where Canada finds itself at this precise moment, five years after shocking the tennis world by making it to the semifinals of the prestigious international team competition.

Now, let’s be clear. This can change. In theory, Canadian men’s tennis has more depth and talent than it showed while getting thrashed on the road on a makeshift clay court in Osijek, Croatia this weekend.

But that’s theory. Not reality.

Once Croatia inserted Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic into the competition for Saturday’s doubles event, Canada’s limited hopes of pulling off the World Group upset essentially evaporated. Cilic didn’t play on Friday when the two countries split the opening singles rubbers, but he joined with Ivan Dodig to register a stunning, come-from-behind doubles win over Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil on Saturday and would have been ready to finish the Canadians off on Sunday.

But he wasn’t needed. Instead, what shaped up to be an interesting singles clash between two next generation players, 21-year-old Borna Coric and 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, turned into a one-sided affair. Coric won in three sets, Shapovalov never seriously threatened and Croatia finished off the tie to advance in the World Group.

Canada, meanwhile, will have to wait until the fall to play in the playoff round to stay in the World Group, a familiar scenario since that breakthrough ’13 season.

In the ’16 Davis Cup competition , it was a shellacking at the hands of France, then a win over Chile to stay in the World Group. Last year, it was a loss to the British, then a victory over India, again to stay in the World Group. Now, after a loss to Croatia, another World Group playoff assignment is coming up.

The easy excuse for this weekend, of course, is that Milos Raonic wasn’t there and if he had been, the story would have been different against the Croats.

Except you really can’t say that.

For starters, Raonic hasn’t played Davis Cup since 2015 in a first round win over Japan. As he has climbed the ATP rankings and battled injuries, he hasn’t been willing or able to commit to Davis Cup competition after being the anchor for the Canadian team for several years.

Raonic is struggling through injury issues again after undergoing wrist surgery last fall. At the Australian Open last month, he looked nothing like what he had in his climb to the top 10 in the world, losing to journeyman Lukas Lacko in a desultory performance. He’s now fallen to No. 31 in the world, mostly through inactivity.

It’s not exactly clear where Raonic’s game is right now, or whether he would have been much use to Team Canada if he had played in Croatia. Until he’s back playing and winning regularly on the ATP tour, which has to be his priority at age 27, he’s unlikely to be a factor in Davis Cup.

Shapovalov is coming, but it may take a little longer than some had hoped after his spectacular summer last year. He oozes talent and promise, but realistically, he’s two years away from being a top 10 player if all goes perfectly and he stays healthy. His buddy Felix Auger-Aliassime may soon join him, but Auger-Aliassime is only 17.

Nestor, meanwhile, is 45 and in the last months of his sterling career. For two sets on Saturday, he turned back the clock and was playing brilliantly, showing the soft touch and left-handed creativity that once made him the No. 1 ranked doubles player in the world and helped him win 91 ATP titles, eight Grand Slam events and an Olympic gold medal.

He has served Canada in this event for a quarter-century, and served well. But that loss to the Cilic-Dodig team on Saturday probably needs to be his last Davis Cup effort, and Canada probably needs to look towards another combination. Losing on Saturday after being up two-sets-to-none was a crushing, dispiriting defeat. It would now appear that after the highs of ’13, Canada’s Davis Cup team wasted the final years of Nestor’s ability to compete at the highest levels.

The more significant problem is that the 27-year-old Pospisil, once a player who nearly singlehandedly carried Canada in Davis Cup, has fallen off badly. He’s barely hanging on to a singles ranking in the top 100, and his doubles ranking has fallen to No. 65. The days when he and Nestor were a formidable team and he won Wimbledon with American Jack Sock seem far away right now. It didn’t help that he was sick on Friday when he lost to Coric as a last minute replacement for Peter Polansky, but that’s pro tennis — the times when you’re at your physical best are few and far between.

Finally, Martin Laurendeau is no longer Canada’s captain, and has been replaced by Frank Dancevic, who had a long, up-and-down career in Davis Cup for Canada. Dancevic is a rookie at his new gig, and we’ll have to see how he does over time. He seemed like a curious choice to succeed Laurendeau.

So that’s where Canada is. Unable to challenge the top teams, with Nestor probably done, Pospisil wobbling and Raonic unavailable. Shapovalov can’t do the whole thing on his own, and against Coric on Sunday, he showed his youth in a hostile environment on the dirt, making a ton of unforced errors while being unable to generate many of his characteristic winners. He couldn’t break Coric, and struggled just to hold serve most of the match.

At the same time, a year ago Shapovalov was involved in that nasty incident with a chair umpire in a tie against Great Britain. He’s matured a lot since then, and against Coric, he demonstrated more of that maturity by continuing to battle in a match in which he was outserved and outsmarted on a surface he’s not that familiar with. No wonder Croatia picked it.

Shapovalov is the foundation of Canada’s Davis Cup program moving forward. In a perfect world, he and Raonic would make a formidable singles duo, and Pospisil would get his doubles game back to where it was with a new partner.

But in Davis Cup, few countries have all their players all the time. Croatia was missing its best doubles player, Mate Pavic, on the weekend. Generally, you just go with what you have.

Right now, what Canada has most of the time just isn’t enough.

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