TEBBUTT: FRANKIE EN FUEGO
Canadian tennis fans have long been spoiled by the beautiful tennis game of Frank Dancevic – even if at different times they would liked to have been even more spoiled. On Friday, in an opening round World Group Davis Cup tie in Tokyo, they were again treated to Frankie at his finest as he won the second opening-day match, beating Go Soeda 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-1.
That drew Canada level at 1-1 after Japan’s No. 1 Kei Nishikori had defeated Peter Polansky 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
The latter result was something of a formality, with world No. 18 Nishikori a strong favourite over the No. 135-ranked Polansky, a former doubles partner of the Japanese from their junior days (2006 Australian Open semi-finalists) and a late substitute by the Canadian team after Milos Raonic withdrew with an ankle injury.
Dancevic knew when he took to the court in the Ariake Coliseum, with its 10,000 seats about two thirds full, that a loss would pretty well end any Canadian hopes of winning the tie because Nishikori is close to a lock to give Japan another point in the reverse singles on Sunday.
Things did not look promising when Soeda broke Dancevic’s second service game of the match and soon led 4-1. The wiry, wispy Soeda was feeding off the Dancevic pace and putting on a spectacular display of flashy shotmaking. But Dancevic subtly changed tactics, hitting more rounded, off-paced ground strokes and mixing in low slices to break up Soeda’s rhythm.
It gradually began to work – combined with effective kick serves high to the backhand – as Soeda cooled off and Dancevic assumed the ascendency. From 4-1 down, he won five straight games – turning around the set and wrapping it up in 38 minutes.
The second set was close – with Dancevic saving a break point with an ace when he trailed 3-2. It then went to a tiebreak which Dancevic broke open with a huge backhand-down-the-line winner to get the mini-break to 3-1. That was accompanied by a loud, celebratory shout of “c’mon” from the 29-year-old from Niagara Falls.
Soeda took a break and left the court at the end of the second set. But it didn’t really help as Dancevic saved two break points in the opening game of the third set and then broke Soeda’s serve in the second.
He looked to be tiring a bit, so his service hold – from love-40 – at 3-1 was big. After Soeda missed a forehand on the first break point, fabulous Frank proceeded to hit consecutive aces of 202 km/hr, 203 km/hr and 206 km/hr. But he still had to save a fourth break point, which Soeda failed to convert when he missed wide with a passing shot. After that, Dancevic was home free, not losing another game.
It was a thoroughly professional effort by Dancevic. He maintained his cool despite Soeda’s hot start and used a mixture of tactical savvy and timely execution to get the win – one that bore similarities (although with not quite the sustained excellence) to his 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Marcel Granollers in Vancouver in the opening round of Davis Cup a year ago.
“It’s funny, because Marty (captain Laurendeau) was trying to keep me in that zone,” Dancevic said referring to the Granollers masterpiece, “trying to just keep me calm and remember what I did well in that match last year – to stay aggressive. And to just stay focused and not think too far ahead. As soon as I slipped a little bit in the match, he (Soeda) was playing well.
“It was close – like in the third set at 3-1. That was a key game going love-40 on my serve. It was a coin toss, that game could have gone either way. I thought we both played at a really high level and fortunately I won it and went up 4-1 and kept the momentum on my side.”
For some Canadian fans, the day began with a pep rally (above) and, their enthusiasm raised, they did not let up once they arrived in Ariake and were positioned just a few rows up from the Canadian bench.
Part of their energy may have been fueled by certain libations, but they were never really out of control while maintaining a loud, constant, Canadian partisan presence in the arena.
I had been told on Friday morning that a Japanese crowd was once reprimanded in an arena for not cheering enough for the opposition.
On this day, the sustained support from the Canadian fans – only a few times – seemed to get to the super-polite and restrained Japanese spectators. And either there would be a rare reaction from someone in the crowd, or everyone would just try to cheer a little louder with their ITF-provided cheer sticks.
During the Polansky match, the Canadian supporters – with Tom Pospisil (brother of Vasek) as a drum major and one of the leaders – would chant “Pirate Pete,” adding a gruff, cantankerous Pirate’s “arrugh” at the end.
My favourite cheer was:
“We’re totally dynamite
During the Dancevic match, a new chant began along the lines of “Frankie, Frankie you’re so fine, you blow my mind.”
The first time that one came out in a women’s voice, Dancevic heard it and smiled. Later he would laugh and say, “I was hearing those chants, it put a smile on my face. It actually kept me pretty relaxed through the match.
“The Canadian crew that was there, the fans were unbelievable. They got me motivated and kept me in the zone. And the bench was unbelievable too. I felt like the guys, the team really got behind me in the match. Sometimes you need that because one point can change everything. Just that little extra motivation to get fired up to get going again makes a big difference in Davis Cup.”
In the first match between Polansky and Nishikori, there were a few critical points when Polansky might have been able to press the issue and unsettle his opponent.
After falling behind 0-2 right off the start in the first set, Polansky broke twice and led 4-2. But two winners by Nishikori and two UEs by Polansky and Nishikori got the break back. Nishikori righted himself and soon took the set.
Something similar happened in the second set when Polansky had a break point for a 3-1 lead. But he ended up missing long with a forehand after an extended rally.
In the third set, Polansky made a comeback from 5-2 down to 5-4 before Nishikori, who is a superb mover and knows how to hold his ground at the baseline, closed out the match in two hours and 20 minutes.
“I think he just played a little bit better and that’s why I came up a little bit short,” Polansky said.
“I had a lot of fun out there today – for me it was a great match, good experience.”
He may need that experience because the tie could come down to him against Soeda – or Yuichi Sugita – in the fifth match on Sunday.
“It’s 1-all, both No. 1’s won their matches and did their jobs well,” Laurendeau said summing up. “I thought Nishikori was playing very, very good tennis and so was Frank – that was a great match. Frank has not played Davis Cup in one year and his last match against with Granollers was a great match. This one was a very, very good one as well.
“It’s a big point for us – after we lost Milos we took a bit of a hit but we have good depth and we showed it today. So it’s 1-all – a good score.”
Laurendeau would not say specifically, but it appears unlikely Vasek Pospisil, still bothered by a back issue, will play Saturday’s doubles. He sat courtside through both singles matches on Friday – something that he likely would not have done if he was playing doubles on Saturday. Normally, he would have been undergoing physio or other rehab rather sitting courtside for about five hours.
So, it appears Dancevic will partner Daniel Nestor. The last time the two played together was in a straight-sets victory over the lowly Dominican Republic in Toronto in September, 2010.
Nishikori was nowhere near the Japanese bench during Soeda’s second match, leading to speculation that he could have been preparing for another appearance on court in the doubles on Saturday – possibly alongside Soeda.
As one Tennis Canada official noted – the 1-1 result on Friday was probably the same as it would have been if Raonic had been able to play.
Still, it was tough to see him and Pospisl (either side of Adil Shamasdin in the picture above), Canada’s two best singles players, having to sit on the sidelines and watch.
It appears it will be like that for the rest of weekend, leaving an opening for others to be heroes of this first Canadian Davis Cup foray of 2014.