Credit: Kyle Clapham
The happy crew above are celebrating a milestone for the Miele Canadian Davis Cup team, a first-ever place in the World Group semi-finals of the prestigious international team competition.
It was only fitting that stalwart Milos Raonic clinched a 3-1 quarter-final victory versus Italy with a 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 win over Andreas Seppi on Sunday afternoon in Vancouver.
Raonic broke Seppi in the very first game and then struck a 234 km/hr (145 mph) fault with his service effort, followed by a second-serve ace!
That set the tone for a masterful serving display – 35 aces and just one of his 20 service games lost.
“There’s a lot of tension,” Seppi would say later about facing Raonic’s signature stroke. “You know if you choke one game on your serve then maybe the set can be over and this is always in the mind.”
Seppi stepped up his play in the third and fourth sets, but the above-mentioned pressure final got to him in the very last game of the match when two forehand and one backhand unforced errors – together with a screaming backhand service return winner by Raonic – resulted in the 22-year-old Canadian’s third and ultimate service break.
Credit: Bo Mon Kwan
Soon Raonic (above) was hopping in a circle as he and his mates reveled in a victory that capped off an almost three-year campaign that has seen them rise from the obscurity of Americas Group I to a place in the World Group semi-finals from September 13-15 in Serbia against the 2010 champions and their leader, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
“Milos, three years ago, saved match points against a guy (30-year-old, world No. 257 Victor Estrella) from the Dominican Republic in Toronto,” captain Martin Laurendeau marveled. “And now we’re in the final four. There are a lot of countries in this competition – over a hundred – and we’re down to the last four. It’s a great honour.”
There were fewer than 50 people at the Raonic–Estrella match on that chilly Friday in September, 2010, on the Grandstand Court at the Rexall Centre. That was just about month away from Raonic’s big breakthrough at Asian ATP tournaments in Kuala Lumpur (qualified and reached quarter-finals) and Tokyo (qualified and reached round-of-16 before losing to Rafael Nadal).
The Canadian team’s 3-0 victory over the Dominican Republic that weekend prevented it from tumbling into Zonal Group II – two levels below the World Group.
In early 2011, Raonic arrived for real, reaching the Australian Open round-of-16 and then winning his first title in San Jose. By the time the Canadian Davis Cup team got to Mexico City for a Group I match-up with the Mexicans in March, Raonic, 20, was widely viewed as a future superstar. He won all three of his matches and was mobbed by fans eager to see the next big thing in tennis. The picture below is of him waiting for transportation back to the hotel, finally with some refuge after Canada had wrapped up a 3-1 victory.
In July of 2011, Canada travelled to Guayaquil, Ecuador, without Raonic who had injured his hip at Wimbledon and undergone surgery. There, it was a combination of Vasek Pospisil winning the doubles (with Daniel Nestor) and the first of the reverse singles to bring Canada back to 2-2 after losses in both opening-day singles. In the fifth and deciding match, it was Philip Bester who won 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-4 over Ivan Endara to keep alive Canada’s hopes of escaping Zonal competition. Unlike the locker room pictured at the top of this blog, in Guayaquil there was a smaller group but the post-match heartfelt hug between Bester (back to camera below) and Pospisil – with Nestor and Laurendeau observing – was full of the satisfaction of overcoming a 0-2 deficit to advance to the World Group Playoffs in September in Ramat Hasharon, Israel. Bester had played with a stress fracture in his hand that subsequently kept him off the tour for more than six months.
Raonic, bothered by a stomach virus and still not ready after his hip surgery, played the opening day singles in Israel, his first outing in three months. But he was beaten by little-known Amir Weintraub in four sets. To the rescue came Vasek Pospisil, who won both his singles and the doubles (with Nestor) to almost single-handedly propel Canada into the 2012 World Group. It was a heroic effort in stifling hot conditions in front of a hostile crowd, but Pospisil was bull strong and came through.
By all rights he should have been exhausted and on an IV, but just an hour after his heroic win over Weintraub he was as cool as a cucumber in the hotel lobby (below).
“Vasek was 98 per cent fit to play the match today, and that’s after 10 hours of tennis (five sets vs. Seppi on Friday and five sets vs. the Italians in doubles on Saturday),” Laurendeau said Sunday about Pospisil being ready for the fifth match if Seppi had beaten Raonic. “Vasek is a workhorse, his resiliency is incredible. Our physio couldn’t believe how his body was ready to go today. That allows him to play a lot of tennis, a lot of tournaments. It’s a great attribute.”
Credit: Bo Mon Kwan
Pospisil also received praise from Raonic for his part in the inspirational 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 15-13 doubles win with Nestor over the Italians Daniele Bracciali and Fabio Fognini on Saturday.
“The way they put it together – Danny helped, and not taking anything away from him – but I think the way Vasek stepped up was pretty special,” Raonic said. “That stood out to me more and that’s a good sign for many things to come.”
In 2012, Canada lost 3-1 to France in Vancouver in February but preserved its World Group status with a 3-1 win over South Africa in September in Montreal thanks to a pair of singles wins by the reliable Raonic and one by Pospisil.
Earlier this year, it was Dancevic (below) who scored a sensational win over No. 1 Spaniard Marcel Granollers, combined again with two wins by Raonic, to advance Canada to its first ever World Group quarter-final.
Credit: Peter Figura
So a combination of players have risen to the occasion and allowed Canada to, in the space of three years by the time the semi-final rolls around in September, gain a spot in the elite four of the tennis world in 2013.
Raonic has been the key, winning ten of his last 11 Davis Cup matches since that perilous encounter in Toronto with the lowly Estrella – with the only loss coming to Weintraub when he was really not physically ready to return to competition.
It was great to see the joy Raonic expressed after clinching the tie with his win over Seppi on Sunday. He ran around the net with the Canadian flag before deciding to lay it carefully on the court (above) with his shirt placed behind it.
Later, he offered no explanation for the gesture but did explain why he dashed away from his coach Galo Blanco (partially seen on left in picture below) when the latter chased him, trying to spray him with champagne. Why was he afraid to get wet? “I don’t drink,” Raonic deadpanned to reporters at his media conference.
Credit: Kyle Clapham
Over the past 14 months, Canada has won two of three ties against the most prominent Latin countries in Europe – France, Spain and Italy – countries that count multiple Grand Slam champions in their tennis history. All three ties were played in Vancouver at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sorts Centre and the crowd support has been vital to the home team performing well, especially against Spain and Italy.
Attendance had been a bit disappointing on Friday and Saturday this time, but Sunday’s crowd (see below) was impressive and enthusiastic as it anticipated an historic Canadian victory.
In that crowd was a particularly enthusiastic bunch that included one of Vancouver boy Vasek Pospisil’s brothers. They were creative and constant in their support, including using cut-outs of the Canadian players to get people revved up.
When all was said and done after Raonic’s win on Sunday, all five members of the Canadian squad had their cut-outs (below) on display at once.
Credit: Bo Mon Kwan
Tennis Canada will hope that the Davis Cup success will spur more interest in people following the sport and playing it. Captain Martin Laurendeau repeated more than once the importance on Davis Cup getting national coverage on Sportsnet, something that is now a regular occurrence with Canada in the World Group, but something that almost never happened in the past.
As for tennis maybe attracting more players, Raonic said about the team’s success, “it should also make a difference to the parents, when you think about what you can sign your kid up for. I don’t think you should shy away from tennis. I think we’re showing that you can succeed in tennis as a Canadian. That’s pretty special to be a part of.”
So, it’s on to Serbia in September, a place that is close to the hearts and the ancestries of three of Canada’s five squad members. Raonic, originally from Montenegro, Dancevic with a Serbian heritage father and the Belgrade-born Nestor with Serbian-Canadian parents, all have a strong connection – with Raonic and Dancevic both fluent Serbo-Croatian speakers.
About how that could factor into the tie in September, Raonic said, “stuff is going to be easy there, it’s not like we’re going to South America and nobody speaks Spanish. I think it’s going to be a comfortable situation for us – but obviously not too comfortable. And I think there will be, for that reason, a bit more support than you would imagine for us. I look forward to playing there.”
As captain Martin Laurendeau pointed out, there’s a lot of tennis still to be played – three Grand Slams and five Masters 1000s – before the Davis Cup semi-final, which begins four days after the US Open final.
Going forward, it is clear that Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil will be key to the future success of the team. As a parting image from the World Group quarter-final against Italy, here are the two embracing after a most memorable weekend in Vancouver.
Credit: Bo Mon Kwan
On a walk along the seawall around Stanley Park near the Lion’s Gate Bridge last week, I came upon a woman staring out across English Bay toward the Pacific Ocean.
It was early in the evening and, when I subsequently walked past her, she eerily remained frozen in exactly the same spot gazing out over the water.