TORONTO — Canada entered its Davis Cup tie-break this weekend versus the Netherlands with a distinct advantage when it came to singles.
The primary reason for that is Canada boasting Milos Raonic, at 20th in the world, the top-ranked player competing at Coca Cola Coliseum in downtown Toronto. Raonic drew 256th-ranked Thiemo de Bakker in the first of five matches scheduled across three days, making him a significant favourite over the Dutch veteran.
The other reason is Canada’s other singles representative is Denis Shapovalov, the 19-year-old sensation who has toppled icons of the tennis world en route to capturing the hearts of Canadian tennis fans, and entered the Davis Cup ranked 34th.
It’s the best singles duo Canada has ever trotted out in Davis Cup competition, the kind of boost the team could use facing the possibility of relegation from the World Group for the first time in seven years with a loss this weekend.
There was a fairly sparse crowd on hand early on, with more blue — the colour of the arena seats — than red in the stands as Raonic took the court in the first match of the night. There was the small gathering of Dutch fans clad head-to-toe in orange who had plenty to cheer about despite losing to Canada 2-0.
Raonic did his part, dismantling de Bakker in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. The Canadian star, coming off a fourth-round appearance at the U.S. Open, typically leaned on his bombing serve in the victory, registering a whopping 23 aces. But he also showed nice touch at the net, and nailed a deft drop shot to seal the first set and bring the fans to their feet.
Despite its stature, the crowd — which included one fan that brought a drum kit with enough pieces to make Neil Peart jealous — was rowdy enough to warrant numerous requests from the umpire to keep it down during points.
After exchanging breaks early on, @milosraonic manages to pull ahead (thanks to a delicate drop-shot return!) — and serves out the set 6-3 after just over half an hour of play. pic.twitter.com/IdypQVkfiL
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) September 14, 2018
Raonic was far from perfect — he double-faulted five times — but he did his job to give Canada the early 1-0 lead. His opponent, de Bakker, played admirably, but failed to hold serve, winning just 36 of his 73 service points, which he called his fatal flaw after the match after greeting the media saying: “No questions? Good.”
“I think constantly applying that pressure on him worked well,” Raonic said following the match, adding that he was he was happy with his steady — dare I say flat-lining — play on Friday.
With 46-year-old Daniel Nestor set to play the final match of his career on Saturday, there’s been a lot of reflection going on around the event, and Raonic took time to reflect on his own changing role on Canada’s team, where he’s now an experienced leader on a team with two players — Shapovalov and 18-year-old Felix Auger-Alliasime — born after the Spice Girls last had a hit song on the radio.
“The first time around you end up being the quintessential water boy,” Raonic said. “You do whatever anybody needs from you. Now I know myself better, and I know what I need to do to get a better level of tennis out of myself.”
Like Nestor before him, Raonic, 27, sets an example for his younger teammates to follow, although because of their respective schedules, he says the lead-up to this weekend’s event has been his first chance to spend quality time with the teenagers, who he acknowledges have been doing just fine without his leadership up until now.
Raonic called both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime “much better players” at their age than he was, both physically and mentally, adding that no words of wisdom on his part will aid them as they look to follow in his footsteps.
“As much advice as you can give,” he said, “a lot of the things you face on the tennis court you have to go through yourself to learn.”
Enter: Shapovalov, who drew a decidedly tougher opponent in 31-year-old Robin Haase, the Dutch’s top player at No. 44 in the world. Ranked just ten spots below Shapovalov, Haase is a proven player with more than 200 victories under his belt — including a win against the Canadian teen earlier in the summer at the Rogers Cup.
Like in that match, Haase seemed confident toying with Shapovalov on Friday night, using his experience to bait his opponent into tough situations. He drew him to the net and created put-away shots out of Shapovalov’s reach, played heavily to his sweeping backhand, and ran him around the court like a gym teacher. The Canadian seemed rattled, hitting shots out of the court and struggling to control his shots.
Haase stormed out to a two-set lead and the best-of-five match looked like a done deal.
But one of Shapovalov’s defining traits is that he’s a fighter — a tired trope that happens to be absolutely true in this case — and that tenacity was on full display during a gripping third set in which he battled back to take it 7-5, pumping his fist and strutting off the court with supreme confidence.
HE DOES IT!
On the brink of defeat, Denis Shapovalov breaks Robin Haase to claim the third set 7-5 after nearly two hours of #DavisCup play.
Get ready for a fourth set, Canada. Denis is here to FIGHT pic.twitter.com/h5Vsv9lcUK
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) September 15, 2018
He took the first game of the fourth set thanks to an ace and kept the momentum going, gaining steam as the set wore on, ultimately taking it 6-3 to send the match to a fifth and deciding set.
The two continued to put on a show as the match surpassed the three-hour mark. Haase took an early 3-1 lead until Shapovalov stormed back to tie it 3-3, both players exchanging long rallies and seemingly taking turns pulling off stunning winners. At 4-4, Shapovalov broke Haase and overcame a tough deuce on serve to win the match and bring Canada to 2-0 on the day.
In the process, he showed off the intangibles and on-court skills that have helped his star rise so high over the past year. “This is all pretty cool for me,” he told the crowd before leaving the court.
After the match, Dutch captain Paul Haarhuis took issue with the chair umpire who he says didn’t do enough to silence the crowd — a complaint he made throughout the match. “The referee didn’t do jack s***,” said Haarhuis. Haase, shaking his head, stood behind the podium but did not speak to the media.
Controversies — perceived or otherwise — aside, Canada’s big first day sets up a fascinating match on Saturday between Nestor, doubles partner Vasek Pospisil and the Dutch doubles team of Jean-Julien Rojer and Matwe Middelkoop, ranked 20th and 33rd in the world, respectively.
A win would secure Canada’s place in the World Group, and takes a ton of pressure off both Raonic and Shapovalov, who are both scheduled to play again on Sunday afternoon (not that Shapovalov has a problem playing under pressure, clearly).
Given what’s on the line, Nestor’s swan song on Saturday, could also be one of the most important of his career.