When he walked into the last media conference of his career as a professional after losing Saturday’s Davis Cup doubles with partner Vasek Pospisil 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to Matwe Middelkoop and Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands, Daniel Nestor crossed paths with someone who had a similar experience with him 14 years earlier.
Paul Haarhuis, captain of the Netherlands team, mentioned to Nestor that his own career ended against him in a 2004 Davis Cup match in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Haarhuis was returning from shoulder surgery and re-injured the joint in the first set of doubles alongside Martin Verkerk and then retired after one game in the second while playing Nestor and Frederic Niemeyer. That was the final match of his career, a career that saw the 52-year-old Dutchman rank No. 1 in doubles and win six Grand Slam doubles titles.
Nestor may not have entirely understood at that moment – but Haarhuis was saying that as captain of the Netherlands team he was a participant in Nestor’s final match just as the Canadian had been in his in long ago February, 2004.
Saturday’s last match for Nestor wound up not being anything like he had hoped it would be at Toronto’s Coca-Cola Coliseum in the World Group Playoff tie.
Nestor and Pospisil broke Middelkoop’s serve in the opening game of the match and held serve the rest of the way to win the set. But momentum quickly reversed when Nestor was broken in the second game of the second set.
The Dutchman won the set convincingly and then broke Nestor twice more – in the third game of the third set and the seventh game of the fourth set – while fending off all five break points that they themselves faced the rest of the way in the two-hour, 34-minute contest.
Nestor had eight double faults overall, with two coming when he lost his serve in the third set and two more when he was broken for the last time in the fourth.
It was obvious that his level dropped progressively as the match wore on but there still glimpses of the Nestor magical racquet-work. One moment stands out – in the third game of the second set he was at the net and caressed two forehand volleys with his trademark feathery touch. It was like he just reached out his racquet and dabbed the ball softly to wherever he wanted – almost as if his strings were made of marshmallows.
“It didn’t end up the way I wanted it too,” he said about his farewell match, “that’s for sure. I wanted to play one more season and this match was one of the most important of the year for me. Obviously I wanted to play better. I prepared pretty well for it and I was playing well in practice but the level is just not there anymore. I wasn’t getting any (service) returns in play – they (Middelkoop and Rojer) were probably feeling comfortable serving to me. And on my serve there were just too many double faults. I got the yips for a couple of service games there. They really didn’t do too much to break me – I was giving them one or two double faults a game. They would just hit one shot and get the point and at this level you just can’t do that.”
“I know that it’s my time and so I’ll miss what happened two years ago and all before that when I felt I could win big tournaments and play well in the biggest moments. I don’t feel that anymore – guys are too good now and today was another example. So I’m happy to retire.”
After losing the Middelkoop serve in that very first game, the Dutch side tightened their game and gradually began to dominate. “From that moment,” the 35-year-old Middelkoop said, “we said ‘let’s play basic real good, let’s not get fancy.’ And we played the strong suit we know we’re good at – me at the back and him on the volleys. And play that basic as well as possible.”
As for Rojer, 37, he has known Nestor for many years as a fellow traveller on the doubles tour. Speaking about him and the match, the doubles world No. 20 said, “Danny’s had an unbelievable career. We have a lot of respect for him and what he’s been able to accomplish. In a way we were happy we were his last match. He’s a close friend of ours.
“I know he was looking forward to this match and to be honest he came out and played very good at the beginning of the match and both of us were impressed. You give him a lot of credit for that because I know he prepared to come out and give a good showing, which he did. But you can say eventually Father Time is undefeated – it catches up with you. Maybe he had some nicks and bruises on the court. But it was an unbelievable career and now he gets to enjoy a new part of his life.”
Nestor said he intends to stay involved in tennis and could even be again associated with the Davis Cup team at some point. He’s bullish on the current generation of his Davis Cup teammates – Pospisil, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime. “We have a special group of players,” he said, “these four guys on this team are just as good as four guys on any Davis Cup team. I see a lot of big things for these guys in the future. If they’re able to stick together as a team and be healthy and represent Canada – the sky’s the limit.”
As a result of the doubles defeat, Canada will take a 2-1 lead into Sunday’s reverse singles with Raonic slated to play Robin Haase in the first match at 2 p.m. followed by Shapovalov against Thiemo de Bakker if the Dutch are able to extend the tie to a fifth and deciding encounter.
“We’re in a good position,” captain Frank Dancevic said. “The guys played their hearts out today and we ended up going down, but that’s the nature of Davis Cup.
“Robin played a really, really long match yesterday (Friday in losing in more than three and a half hours to Shapovalov) which is in our favour tomorrow with Milos being fresh having played a short match on Friday (well under three hours versus De Bakker). It’s definitely an advantage for us and we’re going to go out there and try get business done. Milos played really well on Friday so hopefully he can come out and get a good start, get ahead and try to cruise to that win.”
Raonic won their only previous meeting – 6-3, 6-4 indoors at the Paris-Bercy event in 2013.
During an on-court interview following his doubles loss, Nestor joked, “Milos said I should have retired a year and a half go – I should have listened to him.”
That’s debateable but at age 46 and being ranked an unflattering No. 135, he doesn’t have any regrets. “I think it’s better this way,” he said. “Some people retire and they’re not sure if they’re doing the right thing and they second guess themselves. You see a lot of people retire and then come back. It’s the perfect time – a year ago would have been the prefect time but it’s the right time for sure.”
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(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)