Q&A: Daniel Nestor on 'gruelling' French Open, rise of Canadian tennis

The French Open is widely considered one of tennis’s toughest tests. While many things are different about this year's Grand Slam event — empty stands, COVID protocols, and the fact that it started in September instead of May — the high stakes and difficult conditions remain.

Canada's Daniel Nestor knows the tournament well. The former tennis pro holds several records at Roland Garros. His three straight French Open titles (with Nenad Zimonjic in 2010, and Max Mirnyi in 2011 and 2012) is a record for most consecutive doubles wins at the tournament since 1967. His four total doubles victories (his first title came in 2007 with Mark Knowles) gives him the most French Open men’s doubles victories — a record he shares with Mirnyi.

Now retired, Nestor is watching the French Open from home, savouring retired life with his family and at peace with a career that spanned almost three decades.

“I used to really dread leaving family or leaving loved ones to go play,” he told Sportsnet during a phone interview. “I kind of have these thoughts like, ‘Do I have to travel soon?’ so now I’m almost more thankful that I don’t.

“I played a long time, and I think at the end I wasn’t really that competitive anymore. Everyone has a time — my time was up.”

Nestor spoke with Sportsnet from his home in Toronto, and talked about the difficulty of playing on clay, the mental part of the game, and what it's been like to experience and watch the rise of Canadian tennis.

SPORTSNET: The French is known as the most gruelling of the Grand Slams. What makes it so tough?

DANIEL NESTOR: Clay is much slower. So that means you have to work the point — hit a few extra shots every point. So, physically, you have to be good — especially in singles. You have to be patient and willing to play smart. You can obviously still have an aggressive mindset, but you have to be a little more selective as to when you’re going to be attacking in a point as opposed to just attacking it right away, like you might on a faster surface.

So, in that sense, a guy like [Canada’s] Denis [Shapovalov] — generally someone who’s full-attack all the time like he is, because he’s such an amazing ball striker — I think [clay] wouldn’t be his favourite surface to play. But he is so talented…. Another way to look at it is he does have more time to set up for his shot, but he’s just not going to create as advantageous a position in the point as he would if he hit a big shot on a faster court where it’s much more difficult for your opponent to get the ball back. The game is very defensive mindset nowadays more so than ever.

I don’t think it necessarily caters to our (Canadian) players as much.... Most of our players have a more aggressive mindset, growing up in Canada and playing a lot of indoor tennis, which isn’t necessarily what wins on clay.

What is it about clay that makes it so much more difficult than other surfaces?

You’re not getting many free points, you have to work every point, and you have to be patient. You have to know how to move on clay, too, because it’s a little bit different than the other surfaces — there’s a lot of sliding.

Twenty-five years ago, the difference between clay and grass was significant. Now, the difference between clay and grass isn’t that significant — you still have longer rallies than ever on every surface, but it still is different in the sense that, on grass, you’ve got lower bounces, the ball does kind of slide more and with a good slider-type serve you can really open up the court and have a huge advantage through that. Generally, the ball is still moving through the court a little bit faster on grass.

Doubles is different. It’s definitely a little more gruelling and takes a little more patience and you definitely have to take a few extra shots, but it’s not the same kind of difference as singles.

Based on your success at Roland Garros, I would have thought it might be your favourite event but ... is it anyone’s favourite?

Well, it’s [Rafael] Nadal’s favourite event because he just wins it all the time.

I don’t know how he does it. He seems to be able to play five hours and then come back two days later and play another five hours. He works so hard.

I never really liked the prospects of playing on clay, but for some reason I played well on clay. But, if you asked me what my favourite tournament was, I wouldn’t say the French Open. I would always say I did my best at the French Open, (but) it wasn’t my favourite tournament. Probably Wimbledon, or the Australian Open.

So, is Nadal your predicted French Open champ on the men’s side this year?

With the way the U.S. Open unfolded, I think [Novak] Djokovic is going to be more motivated than ever.

But Nadal is the king of clay, so … I would say Djokovic has a 51 [per cent chance] versus 49 percent change for Nadal. I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t the final.

They’re the two best defenders, by far, and with the court conditions being so slow and heavy I just think it’s so difficult to beat them in those conditions.

Any predictions for the women’s side?

I’d say maybe [Simona] Halep versus [Elina] Svitolina. And Kiki Bertens seems to be doing well lately. Those three are my choices.

Physically, we know the French Open is tough. Mentally, it must be particularly difficult, too. Add so many pandemic protocols throughout training and travel and competition, and that’s a lot of stress for athletes today to deal with. Do you have a sense of how that mental part of things comes in?

I know that players are happy to be playing…. It’s just strange times, dealing with something that no one’s had to deal with before. It’s definitely mental — I mean, tennis is already a mental game, so I think it’s whoever’s going to deal with it best and whoever can stay the fittest and be able to mentally cope.

You can see that being played out across team sports, too. It sounds like it takes that athlete mentality — control what you can, compartmentalize what you can’t – to another level, doesn’t it?

As an athlete, that was the way it always was. I always had ambitions to try and be robotic on the court. It’s not easy — there are emotions, always. But if you can block out the things that you can’t control and just focus on what you can control, and if that’s enough to win then you feel good. If it’s not, you still feel pretty good because you did everything you could and you maximized your chances. So I think that’s going to be a factor more than ever in these times.

I’m curious about how that mental aspect of the sport plays into doubles, too. Looking back at your own career, did you find it tougher mentally playing solo or as a pair? How does the dynamic work there?

I found it more relaxing playing singles. You’re by yourself, you’re accountable for only your actions. Doubles is like any relationship — you can play well together but maybe not get along as well.

For me, I didn’t always get along with my partners — the ones I probably least got along with, I played the best with. At the end of the day, it’s just like anything in sports or in business — you don’t have to get along to work well together.

I think the most important thing is the tennis aspect of it. The rest of it is more on the individual to make an effort, because you have to work on it — just like in life, you have to understand what makes your partner tick.

What ultimately went into your decision to transition from singles to doubles?

I would get hurt a lot. The year before I made that decision I was doing well in singles and I was still doing well in doubles, so I was playing a lot of matches. I’m not a physically strong athlete – I’m a hand-eye type guy, so I had good coordination and good feel for the game but I wasn’t necessarily fast or explosive or any of that stuff. So I would compensate when I would play singles by swinging harder and trying to hit the ball hard and that would result in a lot of arm injuries. My body did break down quite a bit, and I was always better at doubles. The game came more naturally to me and it made more sense for me. It is less physical, so as I got older it just made sense to just play doubles.

[caption id="attachment_4981234" align="alignleft" width="1280"]

Canada's Milos Raonic and Daniel Nestor celebrate a point while playing a Davis Cup doubles match on Feb. 11, 2012. (Darryl Dyck/CP)[/caption]

While the French Open doesn’t play to Canadian players’ skillsets, there’s no question that overall, Canada’s young wave of tennis talent is making a big impact on the sport. How has it been to see first-hand the progression of Canada’s tennis talent?

It’s pretty amazing. When I was a kid, we didn’t have much of a culture in tennis. I remember being 16 and our coach at the time was trying to motivate us, saying, “We want to win the Davis Cup, we want to do this, we want to win.” We were kind of all laughing, like, how’s that even possible? And then fast forward 25 years — now we’re a pretty significant tennis country. So it’s truly amazing.

I think, you know, I was around for a while, and there were other guys similar to me that were decent at singles, good at doubles. Then all of a sudden Milos [Raonic] broke through, and I think that really changed a lot of things. He was able to consistently compete to win big tournaments and even Grand Slams, and that kind of changed the mentality of the sport in Canada. And then his rival, Vasek [Pospisil], going up through juniors was also very good. So these guys came along, and then Genie [Bouchard] on the women’s side, and then that kind of led us into the next generation of Denis, Felix [Auger Aliassime], and Bianca [Andreescu].

Now, both my daughters play a little bit…. I enter them in some [Ontario Tennis Association] tournaments, and it’s just amazing the amount of kids playing. I remember when I was a junior, the boys [side] was pretty competitive, but not that many girls were playing. There were maybe 10 girls in a draw. Now there’s a 32 draw with a waiting list. It’s truly remarkable how far we’ve come. It’s truly amazing.

It’s a great time for Canadian tennis, for sure.

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