In his 26th year of Davis Cup, Daniel Nestor played for nearly three sets on Saturday against the Croats in Osijek like it was maybe just his 10th or 15th time in the competition.
To use a pop culture reference, he was volleying, half-volleying, returning and angling shots like it was 1999 – right up to 6-2, 6-3, 4-1 alongside partner Vasek Pospisil against Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig on the red clay at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena.
A victory, particularly playing at a remarkable career highlight-reel level, would have been a storybook finish for Nestor in his sayonara season on the tour. But it didn’t quite happen as Cilic and Dodig rallied for a 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 win. Afterward, the 45-year-old Nestor wasn’t about to mince words, brutally critiquing himself. “You have to put top players away when you have a chance,” he said, “otherwise it’s going to come back to haunt you.”
The haunting began for Nestor when he served at 4-2 in the third set and was broken on four straight points – a hard blast by Cilic at Pospisil that he volleyed into the net, a gorgeous inside/out forehand diagonal lob winner by Dodig, a screaming forehand winner through the middle by Cilic and a high backhand volley that Nestor popped well long.
It was then 4-3 on serve and, after facing just one break point in their first 11 service games, Nestor and Pospisil faced them in two straight games, losing them both. The second was at 4-all when Pospisil missed a backhand volley into the net.
Dodig followed that by serving out the set on four quick points – for effect finishing with an ace.
Nestor and Pospisil took a comfort break and did a good job of re-setting as Nestor held serve to start the fourth set.
There was a little extracurricular activity in the third game with Pospisil serving. Having had a warning, the Canadians were docked a first serve for a time violation as Pospisil served down break point. He was incensed because the crowd was roaring and he had trouble communicating with Nestor. Captain Frank Dancevic and he gave umpire John Blom of Australia the business (see above). Fortunately Pospisil and Nestor won that game so Blom’s dubious decision didn’t really affect the outcome – and might even have fired up the Canadians.
But the tide had turned and eventually the improved play by the Croats got its reward – a break of the Pospisil serve in the 11th game when he seemed to have a kill forehand volley at the net but muffed it into the net.
For the second set in a row, Dodig served it out on four points and the fifth set began with a definite sense of the inevitability – the Croats eventually breaking Pospisil for a 3-2 lead and then Nestor at 4-2 to virtually seal the victory.
It was a decidedly glum Nestor and Pospisil (above) who met the media post-match. “Things kind of changed in the third set,” Nestor said. “They played a pretty good game to break (at 4-2) but the game before I felt maybe we could have put a little more pressure on Dodig’s serve. I think he was a little dejected at that point and I don’t really remember the game that well but I do remember missing a shot at 40-15 that I shouldn’t have missed. Maybe it would have prolonged the game and then who knows what would have happened.”
As for Pospisil, he had a similar perspective, saying, “we had the upper hand – we were the better team the first part of the match. Then there was a little momentum shift in the third set and obviously the crowd really got into it and elevated their games. That was kind of the turning point. It was tough to get anything going after that third set.”
Captain Dancevic was both eloquent and insightful – channeling his inner (former captain) Martin Laurendeau? – in the way he assessed an eventful match and its participants, especially his two players. “I knew Cilic coming from the final of a Grand Slam and being a top-five player in the world, he can raise his game at any time,” Dancevic said. “Our guys came out firing from the first ball but momentum shifted in the third set. A match like this against those two guys – one of the best doubles teams in Davis Cup – they can play at a very high level. That’s what happened in the third set, they raised their game. Cilic played an unbelievable game at 4-2 – hit the hardest forehands he had hit yet in the match. He laced them and got the crowd into it. It became a whole different animal after that. Even though we were up two sets and on serve, those guys were putting a lot of pressure on us. And they didn’t really give us many opportunities after that. I thought it was an incredible turnaround on their part. My guys…they left their hearts out on the court.”
“I thought it was an incredible battle to take those guys to five sets. To get so close to winning the match – that’s all I can ask as a captain. For my players to do what they did on court, I thought they did an amazing job.”
With Dancevic’s men every step of the way was a hardy group of Canadian supporters, led by the drum-beating of Pospisil’s brother Petr. Before the match, on a snowy afternoon, some were interviewed (above) by Davis Cup television for an amusing tennis trivia Q&A.
At times the cheer squad seemed to put almost as much relentless effort into chanting and singing for the red maple leaf as the players did on the court.
Down on the court, Petr’s brother Vasek later claimed to have come out of the three hour and 20-minute match in better shape than on Friday when he lost in four sets in singles to Borna Coric.
“It was fine,” Pospisil said about the physical toll of the match, “a little bit heavy legs at the end but spending three hours on the court, it doesn’t matter if it’s singles or doubles, your legs are going to get a little tired.”
“I didn’t have the best preparation coming in here. I came in a little bit tired myself so that didn’t help. Today was okay, not nearly as bad as yesterday.”
That should mean Pospisil could go in a fifth match if Denis Shapovalov is able to beat Coric in the fourth match beginning at 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET in Canada) on Sunday. It’s believed Cilic is available to be subbed into the reverse singles. But it wouldn’t make sense to play him against Shapovalov because then Coric would be done. With the advantage of a 2-1 lead, it’s seems likely is that Coric will play Shapovalov and then Cilic would be available to take the place of Viktor Galovic in the fifth match if Coric were to lose and the tie be deadlocked at two matches apiece.
“We approach it the best we can,” Dancevic said about his team moving on from Saturday’s tough loss. “We have to reassess again tonight and see how everybody is feeling – see how the players are feeling. Denis is playing the first match on Sunday and he played really well on Friday. So we’re going to start with that and see how it goes.”
Peter Polansky would be available to play the fifth match on Sunday in place of Pospisil for Canada if for some reason he wasn’t ready to go.
Nestor, above leaving the court on Saturday, could have played his last Davis Cup match (49 in doubles and 26 in singles) for Canada. But it’s more likely that swansong will come in Canada’s World Group Playoff round from September 14-16.
On Saturday Nestor, despite being the first star for the first three sets of the doubles, was unable to get past the disappointment of the result.
“I played well,” he said. “Am I satisfied? ‘no’ because we didn’t win. We had an opportunity to go up 2-1 and have our top player (Shapovalov) maybe finish it. Now we don’t have that opportunity so we have to start all over down 2-1.”
No doubt the situation is bleak for the visitors but it is not for lack of effort as Dancevic pointed out. In a tie where there have been several plot twists and surprises, the Canadians have to hope that there can be one last one that goes in their favour.
Times change in Osijek, Croatia – as these before and after photos show. Taken from the tallest building in the fourth largest city in Croatia, the left one is of a local yacht club and the Drava River on Tuesday of this week – on the right it’s the same scene Saturday morning with a fresh blanket of snow on the ground.