Canada enters this weekend’s Davis Cup tie-break against the Netherlands ranked 14th in the world, eight spots below their best-ever ranking of sixth in 2014 after a semifinal appearance in 2013.
It may not be its highest ranking, but could this be Canada’s best Davis Cup team of all-time?
For starters, the team will feature Milos Raonic, who makes his return to the event after missing the last two years due to injury. A massive boost, it was Raonic who was instrumental in Canada’s stunning rise to the semifinals in 2013, helping to lead the team to a first-round win in the World Group versus top-ranked Spain with a deciding victory over Guillermo García-López and putting away Italy’s Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi in the next round to book a ticket to the semis.
Throw in 46-year-old Daniel Nestor, unsurprisingly Canada’s winningest Davis Cup player, and Vasek Pospisil, another Davis Cup stalwart, along with two teenagers who have either captured or are in the process of capturing the tennis world by storm — that would be 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov and 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime — and there’s plenty of reason for high hopes this weekend.
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) September 13, 2018
It’s a group absolutely loaded with talent in what will be a crucial matchup that will determine which nation moves on to World Group competition in 2019, and which is relegated to regional competition. But best ever?
Let’s take a look at the candidates:
In 1991, Canada competed in it’s first World Group tie for the first time since 1921 (Fun fact: Canada reached the finals in 1913, but we’re looking specifically at the Open Era here), on a team featuring then-67th ranked Grant Connell, Martin Wostenholme, one-time 48th-ranked Glenn Michibata, and one-time 46th-ranked Andrew Sznajder, who secured Canada’s lone match win in a 4-1 loss to Spain.
But it’s the following year that stands out, with Connell and Michibata returning, alongside a newcomer and rookie, Daniel Nestor.
Canada didn’t secure a win in ’92, but came decidedly closer than the year prior with a 3-2 loss to Sweden that featured a straight-sets victory for Connell over Magnus Gustafsson, who was just one year removed from reaching a career-best ranking of 10th.
It also featured arguably the greatest — and most improbable — moment in Canada’s Davis Cup history, when Nestor stepped onto the court against then-world No. 1 Stefan Edberg and won.
In the years that followed, Canada found success in the regional Americas Zone group, but only made a couple of appearances in the World Group’s opening round, losing each time. That was until 2013, when Canada, led by a 22-year-old Raonic, pulled off the aforementioned upset over world No. 1 Spain and then beat Italy to set up a matchup with Novak Djokovic and Serbia in the semifinals.
Canada boasted Raonic, who spent that season ranked inside the top 20 and was one year away from reaching his first ever Slam semifinal, along with Frank Dancevic, the current Davis Cup captain for this weekend’s Netherlands matchup.
In the stunner over Spain, Dancevic, a journeyman player who reached a career-high rank of 65 in ’07 and made history in 2011 when he made all four Slams via qualifiers, secured a straight-sets victory in singles on the first day. Dancevic is tied with for second place in all-time Davis Cup singles wins for Canada.
During the historic 2013 run, he and Raonic were joined by Nestor and Pospisil, who narrowly lost their doubles match in five sets. Nestor at the time already had 81 of his eventual 91 doubles championships under his belt and had spent much of the past decade as a top-five ranked doubles player, reaching as high as No. 1 in the world and establishing himself as undoubtedly one of the premier players in the format.
Pospisil was making a name for himself in ’13, making a meteoric rise to crack the top 32 by year’s end and reaching a career-best 25 by the following year. A one-time fourth-ranked doubles player and the 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion, Pospisil was a legitimate threat among more established players and won doubles matches in both the quarterfinals and semifinals at the 2013 Davis Cup. With a chance to book a ticket to the World Group finals, it was Pospisil who was put on the court to represent Canada, narrowly losing a hard-fought match against Serbia’s Janko Tipsarovic.
With Raonic and Pospisil both bursting onto the scene and playing with more confidence than ever, the strong play of Dancevic, and Nestor’s perch atop the doubles world still sturdy, it’s no wonder Canada found such success.
Which brings us to this weekend’s team. Raonic remains front and centre, currently ranked 20th in the world, although a spate of injuries has resulted in a so-so 2018 season by his deservedly high standards. Raonic will be the best singles player on the court against Netherlands. Pospisil has fallen back to Earth recently, also aided by a string of injury woes, but has climbed back into the top 100 in singles play during the last half of the year and always brings it playing for his country.
Nestor, too, will be back playing alongside Pospisil and is suiting up for what is expected to be his final Davis Cup appearance. He hasn’t had a great season, and there’s an argument to be made that his spot could go to another player, but there’s no questioning the pedigree and chemistry with his teammate, and the boost Canada will get from the home crowd cheering on an icon of the sport in this country.
But what separates this Davis Cup team from those of the past and sets up their “best ever” status are the kids, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.
This isn’t a case like Canada’s men’s basketball team, which is trying to find success on the world stage without their top players on the roster. All five of this upcoming Davis Cup team recently took part in the main draw of the U.S. Open. There is little doubt it’s the best team the country could assemble amid a new golden age for the sport in Canada thanks to the recent influx of talent.
After finding major success on the junior level, both teenagers have made the leap to the pros with a bang. Shapovalov has already registered wins against an impressive list of established stars that include Rafael Nadal and Juan Martín del Potro, and reached a career-high ranking of 23 earlier this year. Auger-Aliassime has vaulted to just outside the top 100 in his first season on the ATP tour, which included a win against 18th-ranked Lucas Pouille on home soil at the Rogers Cup in August.
Neither play afraid when facing high-pressure situations like this weekend, and both offer the kind of depth and sheer level of talent that Canada simply hasn’t had before.
It doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy for Canada to advance against a Netherlands team that, on paper, hold an edge in doubles and stars veteran Robin Haase in singles action. But it does mean that expectations will be high in Toronto this weekend.
Davis Cup World Group action between Canada and the Netherlands begins on Friday at 4:00 p.m. ET/1:00 p.m. PT on Sportsnet ONE.