“A boulevard to the final” may be putting it too strongly but Canada, if it had been able to beat Belgium in its Davis Cup World Group quarter-final last weekend, had an excellent shot at playing for Dwight Davis’ silver salad bowl later this year. And the way things turned out, it would have been at home against either Australia or Britain.
As it was, it’s the David Goffin-led Belgians who prevailed in the absence of Canada’s top-two players – Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil – and they will host Argentina the weekend of September 18-20 in the semifinals.
There’s a certain irony to the picture here showing Goffin with Raonic on the Friday before Wimbledon began when it seemed highly likely they would meet in Davis Cup three weeks later in Middelkerke (Ostend), Belgium. Raonic is spinning the racquet to see who will serve as they start playing games on the Aorangi practice courts.
As disappointing as it was to lose the quarter-final last weekend, the Belgians were great hosts and their players were good guys, which made the outcome somewhat easier to take. That and the fact that hopes weren’t excessively high with both Raonic and Pospisil hurt.
The Belgians did a first-rate job installing a red clay court on top of a soccer field. “I thought the court held up really well,” Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau said. “Especially because the weather wasn’t very good at the beginning of the week with three days in a row of rain. Building a temporary court in a space like that is not a given. At least we were able to play the tie on a court that was in good shape and it had no impact on the ultimate result of the weekend.”
There was a collegial feel to the tie, particularly with Filip Peliwo and Kimmer Coppejans being good friends and Adil Shamasdin and Ruben Bemelmans getting along well having previously played doubles together.
On top of everything, the weather which had been overcast, rainy and dull for the early days of practice, was bright and sunny over the weekend for the matches creating a pleasant festive feeling.
There were examples of that after the fourth and fifth matches on Sunday – Coppejans defeating Frank Dancevic in three sets and Steve Darcis beating Peliwo in two.
The relaxed, informal nature of the event is evident in the picture above of Goffin heading back to the team area after watching Sunday’s matches. There was no security around him as he obliged his Belgian admirers by signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Right after the fifth match, captain Martin Laurendeau and Peliwo acknowledged the contribution of the rowdy Canadian fans who shouted themselves hoarse cheering for the visitors right to the bitter end of both ‘dead rubber’ matches on Sunday.
The travelling supporters have become a welcome feature of Canada’s away ties and they play their part perfectly – with enthusiasm, gusto and lots of humour.
About the time that Goffin was mixing with the Belgian fans, the Canadian team players were doing likewise – see above – with their boosters. It’s not as easy as celebrating a victory but it’s always a nice touch and a chance for both sides to mingle after each doing what they do best over the previous three days.
The positive about Canada’s Davis Cup destiny going forward is that winning the first round 3-2 over Japan in Vancouver in March has protected its World Group status for 2016 – the fifth year in a row in the elite 16. The draw for next year’s competition will be done the week after the semifinals in September.
It’s not too difficult to pick Belgium to beat Argentina in those semifinals and advance to its first final since 1904, unless the No. 14-ranked Goffin for some reason is unavailable. Darcis, Coppejans and Bemelmans are solid players but, even on a fast surface that the Belgians are likely to choose, without Goffin the Argentines with Leonardo Mayer, Juan Monaco and Federico Delbonis would definitely have a good shot.
The other semifinal between Britain and Australia in Britain is basically all about Andy Murray. The Aussies probably have five – Bernard Tomic (if he’s re-instated), Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Sam Groth and Lleyton Hewitt – who would probably be favoured over No. 2 British player James Ward, maybe on clay which would be the least-favoured surface for the Australians.
As well, Murray is the most likely of all the players to be in the semifinals or final of the US Open the previous weekend. So, he could be physically and emotionally vulnerable – as he was at times this past weekend at Queen’s Club against the French just seven days after losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals.
Looking further ahead, there could be a similar challenge for Murray if Britain makes the final from November 27-29. That would be the week after the ATP World Tour Finals in London – an event where he is always under the microscope even if he doesn’t have a stellar record there.
In the meantime, Canada will lick its wounds and hope to be back at full strength with Raonic and Pospisil (brother Petr with Nestor and Shamasdin in Belgium above) for the first round in 2016, which will be played March 4-6. It will be an Olympic year, meaning that the crowded schedule will make the demands on players even greater.
Looking back at the weekend past, captain Laurendeau (with Louis Borfiga above), said, “it wasn’t easy for our players who had very little time to prepare. The news about Milos and Vasek came one right after the other and really at the last minute. It was tough because our other players were at other tournaments and had to turn around and prepare themselves for the long weekend, three-out-five set matches and a different surface.
“But let’s face it, any country missing its two best players, that changes the balance. And just because you’re in the World Group, that doesn’t mean you have five or 10 players that are of a World Group level.
“Like other countries, we’re hurting as a team if we haven’t got our two best players. But the guys tried and played their aggressive tennis to try to win in spite of everything. But I thought that we could win. The strength of their team is their No. 1 (Goffin) and he’s hard to beat. Their other players were hard to beat but beatable, but we weren’t able to do it.”
Don Fontana was a rare Canadian who made a career in big-time tennis for almost half a century.
He was a player, a tournament director and promoter, a Davis Cup captain and a television commentator.
After ill health for much of the past five years, Fontana died last Friday at 84 years old.
As a player, he ranked in the Canadian top ten 11 times between 1956 and 1967 – including four years in a row (1957-1960) as No. 2 behind the legendary Bob Bedard. He played the French Championships once, Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Nationals (now the US Open) 11 times.
He also reached the final of the 1956 Canadian championships (now Rogers Cup) and won the doubles with Bedard in 1955, 1957 and 1959.
Fontana, from Toronto, was tournament director of the Canadian Open (now Rogers Cup) from 1971 to 1978 and also served briefly in a similar capacity at the La Quinta, California, tournament – a precursor to what is now Indian Wells. As well, he was involved in exhibition events held at the old Maple Leaf Gardens and other venues.
He was a Canadian Davis Cupper from 1955 to 1962, playing in 10 ties, and was also playing captain in 1962 and non-playing captain from 1974-1976.
As a broadcaster, he worked as an analyst from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, mainly with CTV Sports on its coverage of the Canadian Open, often with longtime broadcaster Rod Black.
Fontana was the tournament director of the first tournament I attended as a reporter, the 1974 Canadian Open at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, and we became friends.
One of my favourite memories about “Fonts” goes back to 1978 and a round-of-16 match at the US Open between Jimmy Connors and Adriano Panatta – a stylish Italian with movie star good looks.
It’s still probably regarded as one of the ten best-ever matches at the US Open. Panatta held serve to 5-3 in the fifth set but kind of tossed the next game thinking that he would serve it out at 5-4. Connors came back and broke and eventually won the match 7-5 in the final set. I can still remember seeing Fontana as I walked out after the match and him saying that he thought Panatta had made a big mistake by not playing hard and making Connors work to hold serve in the ninth game when he had the 5-3 lead.
Fontana was helpful to many younger players and in particular Glenn Michibata of Toronto – the first Canadian to break into the ATP Top 50 at No. 48 in 1986 – arranging for him to locate to California in his mid-teens to work on his game.
Don Fontana was a genuine tennis guy in every sense of the term, and a significant contributor to the growth of the sport in this country.
One of the must-see places when you visit Ostend, Belgium, is the city of Bruges a 15-minute train-ride away. A group of Canadians at Davis Cup visited it briefly last Saturday but found it a little too crowded (above) with tourists on a Belgian holiday weekend.
The picture below, from the way back to the train station, shows a more placid location in Bruges with a lot fewer people around.