Canada’s Davis Cup prospects never better as controversial changes loom

Canada's Milos Raonic, left, and Daniel Nestor celebrate a point while playing France's Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra during the first set of a Davis Cup tennis doubles match in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, February 11, 2012. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

One more time for old time’s sake.

For a country that hasn’t exactly been a tennis power over the past century, Canada has its fair share of happy, or at least interesting, Davis Cup memories. Daniel Nestor beating Stefan Edberg. Grant Connell’s one-man show against the Dutch in 1990. Vasek Pospisil’s triumph in Tel Aviv. The stirring run to the semifinals in 2013 only to be stopped by Novak Djokovic and Serbia.

To some degree, that all comes to an end this weekend on the Exhibition Grounds down by Lake Ontario when, in the last round of Davis Cup competition before the competition undergoes a facelift next year, Canada again faces the Netherlands.

To that, you may say amen. Never understood Davis Cup in the first place, when it started or when it ended or whether we were playing for this year or for next year, in World Group or zone play or whatever. That, and the fact that the stars of the game refused to come out to play on an increasing basis in recent years, meant Davis Cup had to change, had to modernize, had to find a way to please sponsors, federations, tennis bureaucrats, fans and, of course players.

And by the way, most of the players hate the changes. Or at least, they feel insulted by the way they’ve been instituted.

“An absolute disgrace,” said Dutch star Robin Haase, who leads his underdog country into this weekend against arguably the best Canadian Davis Cup team ever assembled since the country began participating in the competition back in 1913.

And is that ironic? Canada finally builds a talent base to actually challenge to win the Davis Cup, finally gets all the players to play at the same time, and now they’re changing the system. Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Pospisil are all ready to play and healthy, as is 46-year-old Nestor, who will be playing in his 53rd and final Davis Cup tie. Nestor first appeared in Canadian colours back in 1992 – Raonic was a two-year-old toddler – and has been there through the good (occasional) and difficult (most of it) ever since.

“One of my big goals when I started to play was to play Davis Cup doubles with Daniel,” said Pospisil. “Now, we’re good friends. It means a lot to me to be the last one to play with him.”

That’s on Saturday, when the Nestor/Pospisil combination faces Jean-Julien Rojer and Matwe Middelkoop, although don’t be surprised if Haase, the Dutch workhorse, is substituted for Middelkoop at the last minute.

“I’ve definitely got mixed emotions about this,” said Nestor on Thursday at the draw ceremony. “There are a lot of special memories, and I’m going to try and soak up the moment over the next few days. And I hope to play a good match.”

For the first time in a long time, Nestor is almost an afterthought after years of being Canada’s Davis Cup foundation, the one player you could count on year after year to show up and usually play well. Instead, this is now all about the strong foursome of singles players under the age of 30 Canada can now trot out, including Raonic (back up to No. 20 in the world), Shapovalov (No. 34), Pospisil (No. 85) and upcoming Felix Auger-Aliassime (No. 136).

“We’ve added two young guys since I last played,” said Raonic, who has a 16-6 Davis Cup singles record but hasn’t suited up for his country since 2015. “We’re all excited for this.”

Raonic will kick it all off against Thiemo de Bakker Friday at 4 p.m., followed by Shapovalov against Haase, a rematch of their Rogers Cup tussle last month, won by Haase in straight sets in just 76 minutes. Shapovalov was broken four times, and double-faulted six times. The 31-year-old Haase just kept the ball in play against his younger Canadian opponent.

“I think that was a match where he had a little bit of an off-day,” said Haase. “He missed a lot of shots. I played well under the circumstances. But (Friday) is going to be totally different. There’s going to be a coach on court, and the coach can help you adjust your game, help you see it in a different way than when you’re all alone on court. This time the balls and the court are totally different. I would say it benefits him more.”

Auger-Aliassime will be held in reserve, probably used only in a “dead” rubber on Sunday if the tie is already decided. Pospisil, a stalwart in singles and doubles for Canada for the last eight years, suddenly has to take a back seat to Raonic and Shapovalov and will only play doubles.

“It’s very odd,” said Pospisil. “It’s the first time since 2010 that I haven’t been scheduled to play singles. I’m still very happy to contribute to the team. I have to earn my spot, and I’m number three right now. I’d love to be playing singles, but we have Milos and Denis, who are playing amazing tennis. At least it gives me more time to focus on doubles, to prepare.”

While this is officially a World Group playoff, neither country is going to be eliminated from the top echelon of Davis Cup when the competition changes next year. This is about where each country will be seeded in February when a new Davis Cup era begins.

Under the old format, teams would play home and away ties as many as four times a year. That was too much for the stars of the game, already shouldering a heavy ATP workload. In August, the International Tennis Federation approved a new system in which 24 countries will compete in the traditional home-and-home format, with the 12 winners to advance along with the four semifinalists from the previous year to a 16-country, week-long competition to decide the Davis Cup in November. This will also be the last year when singles and doubles are played under a best-of-five sets format.

Canada’s Vasek Pospisil. (Justin Tang/CP)

There’s less work and more money for the players, more money for the federations, and a promise that the best players will play more often. Or, as one cynic put it, they’ll have to say “no” to their federations only once or twice a year, instead of four times.

“I’ve always played Davis Cup. I’ve only missed one tie in my career,” said Haase. “It has given me a lot to be with this team and have that Davis Cup feeling. Just simple financials, it costs me a lot, because I usually play three matches and so the week after Davis Cup I usually can’t play. Physically, it’s really tough. But all these things don’t add up to more than I get out of being part of this team.

“I would have never changed anything. I think best-of-five sets and the atmosphere and everything is great. Of course, if the federations are losing money and the sponsors aren’t there anymore, we need to make some changes, and that’s fine. Tennis evolves. The biggest issue I had with the new format is the communication. And the process. How it has been done is an absolute disgrace. I’m really open to making adjustments, but the way it happened was just unacceptable.”

Pospisil, who rocketed to national attention in 2011 by winning both of his singles matches and the doubles match against Israel to push Canada into the World Group for the first time in years, also criticized the manner in which changes were made.

“It had to change. It had to improve, because big players weren’t playing. You need to have the top players playing to have the best success and exposure,” he said. “But I’m not a fan of the way it’s been done. I think the new format is more of a business structure, and also the players didn’t have much say in it, something we’re not very happy about it.

“It’s not an ideal situation. But you’ve got to give it a chance. It’s not the end of the world. If it’s a great success, we have nothing to complain about. Worst case scenario, we can always change back.”

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