Canada set up to be big player on future Davis Cup stage

Milos Raonic talks about helping get Canada back into the World Group of the Davis Cup and doing it at home.

Where does all this go now?

We ask that on several fronts after an intriguing Davis Cup weekend in Toronto, the first time Tennis Canada ventured into the downtown core with one of its signature events. It was greeted enthusiastically in terms of noise if not overwhelmingly in terms of ticket sales, and certainly the GTA-bred members of the Canadian Davis Cup team appreciated the chance to play in their backyard (and to not have to travel too far after the U.S. Open).

Will we see the Davis Cup return to T.O.? Hard to say. Vancouver remains the country’s benchmark for this event, Ottawa did well, and Tennis Canada certainly likes to move it around. Moreover, the Davis Cup is changing dramatically, and that’s going to impact the federation’s plans. Theoretically, you could go a year or even several years without a tie being played in Canada under the new format, which will only include the traditional home-and-away tie format once a year now.

When Canada plays in the new playoff tourney in February, it could be in Canada or it could be away. If it qualifies for the 18-country final in November, 2019, it will be in either Spain or France. That’s it.

While Tennis Canada munches on those various dynamics, the team itself, a strong victor over the Dutch this weekend, is entering a period of change. The team is now dominated by singles players, with three in the top 100 – Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil – and Felix Auger-Aliassime coming fast. The retirement of 46-year-old Daniel Nestor after an extraordinary 53 ties wearing Canadian colours removes the doubles specialist Canada has counted on for two decades, and there is no certain heir apparent.

Pospisil, usually Nestor’s partner in the past eight years, would be the obvious answer. But the 28-year-old is focussing more on singles these days with no immediate plans to become a doubles specialist. He won Wimbledon with Jack Sock in 2014, but in the past two years, he’s barely played doubles at all. This year on the ATP tour, he has only played five matches, all losses, and he didn’t look particularly sharp on Saturday when he and Nestor lost convincingly to Jean-Julien Roger and Matwe Middelkoop.

Pospisil is 4-6 in his past 10 Davis Cup doubles appearances.

“I feel like I’ve underperformed in doubles. In some previous ties I’ve played great, other times I feel I could have played better,” he said.

He doesn’t necessarily see Nestor handing the baton to him.

“I’d say yes and no. I’m still so focused on singles that it’s like, yes, people could expect that of me because I’ve had good doubles results, but at the same time, it’s not my specialty or focus right now. I’m still going for singles,” said Pospisil. “Of course, now the whole dynamic will change. Daniel was the only one who was a real, just focused on doubles guy. Now, who knows who will be teaming up? Because we’re all focussed on singles now.”

After Nestor, the next highest-ranked Canadian doubles player is Peter Polansky, then Adil Shamasdin, who is currently injured.

Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, meanwhile, won a junior Grand Slam doubles title together.

Tennis Canada insiders suggest the choice will likely to come down to one of those two.

The strength of Canada’s singles players could be undermined if an effective doubles team isn’t developed, so there’s some urgency here. Even this past weekend, if Shapovalov had not engineered a remarkable comeback from down two sets to none to defeat Robin Haase of the Netherlands in a Friday night classic, Canada would have trailed 2-1 going into Sunday morning, needing to win both reverse singles matches.

However, even then, the ending would have been anti-climatic, as Haase’s right knee acted up on him and he was unable to play on Sunday. That left 206th-ranked Scott Griekspoor to face Raonic, who dismissed him 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match was that was entertaining, if never in doubt.

It was the sixth time that Raonic, who had not played for Canada since 2015, has clinched a tie for Canada. With him in the lineup, Canada could challenge to win the Davis Cup in 2019.

“We’ve got to hope we have the good fortune to have a home tie in February, then we’ll feel out this new format,” he said.

Canada made it to the Davis Cup semifinals in 2013 before losing to Serbia on the road.

“This is a different team now than it was then,” said captain Frank Dancevic. “The team is changing slowly. We have good young guns coming up, and Milos’s experience.”

We have a solid chance Canada will now get a preferred seeding in the new World Group qualifying event slated for February, a new format that has attracted a great deal of criticism, particularly from players. A victory there, and Canada will qualify for the week-long, 16-country Davis Cup final next fall.

Canada went into the weekend as a heavy favourite against the Dutch, and didn’t disappoint. On Friday, Raonic made quick work of 236th-ranked Thiemo de Bakker in three sets, one hour 39 minutes, setting the stage for Shapovalov to play Haase, a rematch of last month’s Rogers Cup third-round battle, won in two sets by Haase.

The second set of that match was one-sided in favour of Haase, and error-filled for Shapovalov, and it looked for more than two sets on Friday like it was a continuation of the Rogers Cup clash, with Haase jumping ahead two sets to none.

Shapovalov hung in there, and at 5-5 on his serve in the third, he was down 15-40. He saved those two break points, then four more to hold, and that was the turning point as he stormed back to win the final three sets and the match in spectacular fashion.

“What a fighter. What a kid,” said Dancevic. “That was a massive win.”

The doubles on Saturday was Nestor’s last professional match, win or lose. Canada won the first set 6-4, but lost the next two when Nestor was broken early in both sets. When he double-faulted to lose his serve again in the fourth, the die was cast, and the Dutch won in four sets. That gave Nestor only two wins in his final eight Davis Cup doubles matches for Canada

“I’m not happy with myself. I played like you know what,” Nestor told the crowd afterwards. “I’m sorry to let you down today.”

Nestor, inducted into the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame on Sunday, got emotional when it came to discussing the end of his 28-year pro career.

“It was a dream come true to finish here,” he said of getting to play in his hometown. “What I’m gonna miss is the camaraderie and the locker room. I’m gonna miss this for sure.”

For many years, his presence was all that kept Canada even slightly relevant as a Davis Cup competitor.

“Moving forward, we’re going to have a lot of opportuntities,” he said. “We used to be a doubles nation. Now we’re a singles nation. I wouldn’t want to be playing us in the World Group any time soon.”

Raonic emphasized that point on Sunday, moving to 16-5 all-time in Davis Cup singles competition. He is back in the top 20 worldwide, and will finish the year as Canada’s top singles player after giving way to Shapovalov for a few weeks during the summer.

Regardless of what the future of Davis Cup holds, it appears certain Canada will play a prominent part in it.

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