Raonic ready to lead Canadian tennis in Nestor’s absence

Milos Raonic beat Tallon Griekspoor in straight sets to get Canada the Davis Cup win over the Netherlands.

TORONTO — The stakes were clear entering the first match of Sunday’s double-header at the Davis Cup tie-break between Canada and the Netherlands.

Already with a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of singles wins on Friday night courtesy of Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov — the latter a thrilling five-set comeback over the top Dutch player, Robin Haase — Raonic took the court with a chance to win the event and cement Canada’s place in the qualifying round of the tourney’s upcoming new format. The loser of the weekend’s best-of-five contest would be relegated to zonal group play, signalling a long uphill climb back to the Davis Cup’s top tier.

The opener was scheduled to be a barnburner against Haase, pitting the team’s two best players against one another with a ton on the line.

A loss would have set up Shapovalov versus Thiemo de Bakker, who bowed out to Raonic in straight sets on Friday — a favourable matchup for Canada but the kind of do-or-die scenario that it would likely rather avoid.

But less than an hour before the match it was learned that Haase would be sitting out. The world’s 44th ranked singles player is dealing with a long-standing knee issue that reportedly became problematic during the third set of his match on Friday, one that left him visibly fatigued as it wore on and surpassed the three-hour mark.

It was a big loss for the Netherlands, who trotted out 27-year-old Scott Griekspoor in his place. This was Griekspoor’s first Davis Cup appearance after reaching a career-high 205th spot in the rankings in July earlier this year.

About 40 minutes before the match was scheduled to being, Raonic went onto YouTube for a quick scouting report on his new opponent.

The relatively unknown Dutch journeyman came out of the gates playing with purpose as Netherlands took a surprising 3-1 lead, Griekspoor breaking Raonic’s serve in the fourth game by jamming him with a dipping two-handed backhand that caught his opponent by surprise at the net.

Griekspoor did a good job of keeping Raonic on the move as the Canadian struggled with control and consistency early on. But his serve was typically reliable and bailed him out of what could have easily been an opening set loss.

The first set went to a tie-break that Raonic won with an ace, his ninth. From there he seemed to settle in, taking the second set 6-3 before a re-energized Griekspoor put up a fight with the match on the line in the third set, but was unable to slow Roanic’s momentum by then. The Canadian star showed elements of an improving game, including deft touch from the net and a more deliberate return game.

“There’s a lot on the line which excites me, gets me going,” Raonic said of the high-pressure environment following the match. “It brings out good tennis in me.”

“He’s got a big game,” Griekspoor, who learned he’d be taking Haase’s place earlier Sunday morning, said. “Big serve. Big forehand.”

Following Friday’s contentious five-setter between Shapovalov and Haase, which led to the Netherlands team trashing the umpiring and perturbed at the noise coming from the crowd throughout the match, there was a bit more controversy in this one when Griekspoor took issue with what he thought was an errant call from the line judge. Following the match, the Dutch captain could be seen in a heated discussion with the head umpire.

But there were no arguing the results, which saw Raonic & Co. take care of business and capitalize on Canada’s newfound strength and depth in singles tennis.

The stands at Coca Cola Coliseum were noticeably more filled on Sunday after disappointing showings the previous two days. For the third consecutive day, attendance was still disappointing. The crowd, engaged and enthused as they were, filled maybe two-thirds of the arena seats, and all but one of the box seats in the upper deck sat empty.

Whether it was the traffic congestion headed to and from the arena by Toronto’s busy waterfront, the mid-summer weather in the city, a lack of effective promotion, or simply unfortunate timing amid a fairly hectic sports weekend, events like this should be packed to the brim.

After all, Canada’s two best players — Raonic and Shapovalov — grew up in the city and, warm homecomings aside, happen to be two of the best tennis players on Earth, and the cozy confines of the Coca Cola Coliseum offered a thrilling view of the action from any seat in the building.

Evidently none of that was enough to bring in capacity crowds, which is a shame given this weekend marked Nestor’s final match of his storied career, a chance to see a rising star Shapovalov up close, and the return of Raonic playing for his country.

This was Raonic’s first Davis Cup appearance since 2015, missing out the last two years due to varius injuries. In his absence Canada lost both first round matchups they competed in, versus number-one ranked France in 2016 and Great Britain in 2017.

With the win, he brings his Davis Cup record to 12-1 when playing on home soil — which now includes six event-sealing victories against Mexico, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Colombia, and now the Netherlands.

The torch was passed a long time ago, but now that Daniel Nestor, the stalwart of Canada’s tennis program for the better part of two and a half decades, has officially retired from competition, the spotlight shines even greater on the 27-year-old Canadian who responded with the straight-sets victory on Sunday.

When asked if he expected to graduate into a greater leadership role on the Canadian team, Raonic didn’t shy away from the responsiblity. “I would like to,” he said. “Even over the years, just by being the number one on the team, you always fall into [the role]. But Daniel was still there, and he lightens things up. I tend to take a different approach. I stay quieter than he does…I just try to go about things and lead by example.”

Nestor may be the winningest Canadian of all-time — and with 91 titles to his name will remain that way for a long, long time — but Raonic firmly remains the best player the country has produced to date. And while there’s a ton of reason to be excited about the next wave like Shapovalov and 18 year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, who have crashed onto the shores like a category five hurricane, Raonic’s perch atop Canada’s singles ladder is undisputed.

With Roanic at the helm, Canada will always have a fighting chance versus virtually any nation. As the up-and-coming singles stars Canada is producing continue to rise, there’s no reason why the country shouldn’t be setting it’s Davis Cup hopes higher than ever.

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