The players in this weekend’s Davis Cup World Group Playoff between Canada and the Netherlands – including Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime pictured above – have been practicing at the Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto since Sunday.
“My team is feeling good, they’re hungry, they’re ready,” said Dutch captain Paul Haarhuis on Tuesday. “I don’t think we need to wait two more days to play. If it was up to us we’d start tomorrow. Davis Cup is the only event where you show up five or six days before the event. Normally a tennis player is ready within two days after getting used to the balls or a court that’s different or going from outdoors to indoors.”
About the Premier carpet indoor surface, Haarhuis commented, “the court is good – not so fast, not so slow – the ball stays low. I think it’s fair to play on for both sides.”
The 52-year-old Dutchman added about Canada’s No. 1 player, power-serving Milos Raonic, “if Milos is playing, it doesn’t matter how slow the court is, his serve is big. He’ll serve aces on clay and he’ll serve aces on grass.”
Haarhuis joked about Raonic and the indoor conditions at the Coca-Cola Coliseum, “hopefully he has a lot of wind against him when he’s serving.”
Basically what’s at stake in the best-of-five match tie is positioning for the Davis Cup opening round next February when 12 of the 24 countries will be seeded as they play for 12 spots in the 18-team Davis Cup grand finale planned for November, 2019.
“Obviously it’s better to be seeded,” said Haarhuis (above in tracksuit), “then you miss out on the other 11 good teams. But if we lose we might still be with those 24 teams, so it might not make a difference. For sure it’s better to be part of those 24 teams and to be seeded. So it can be a big difference.”
Currently Canada is No. 14 and the Netherlands No. 18 in the Davis Cup rankings.
Haarhuis downplayed the importance of his main man – No. 44-ranked Robin Haase, who upset Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 6-2 in the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto last month and will almost certainly play the 19-year-old in Friday’s opening singles. He insisted his team will need contributions from the other players who will likely be No. 236 Thiemo Bakker as the second singles player and probably Jean-Julien Rojer in the doubles with Haase.
The players pictured here are big men – de Bakker on the left is 6-foot-4 and Haase is 6-foot-3. So while Shapovalov and Raonic may be heavier hitters, the Dutchmen know how to bring down the hammer when needed, especially de Bakker.
Analyzing the singles opposition for his team, Haarhuis said about Raonic and Shapovalov, “I watched both in some matches recently at the US Open. The key is to make Raonic play a lot of balls on his serve games but that’s what everybody tries and it’s really hard to do because he’s great from the baseline too. So it’s going to be tough if you get broken once during the set – then you’ve got to at least break him once to get to a tiebreak.
“Shapovalov, I saw him play some matches. First you think maybe his forehand is good and then you think ‘wow he doesn’t miss a backhand.’ He’s very aggressive with the backhand. So you don’t really see a weakness. Obviously he’s less experienced. For us it’s a shame that Milos is here (after missing Canada’s last six ties) because I think it would be a lot more difficult for Denis if he was the No. 1 focus on the team and had to win all the points. But then you have another great player in (Vasek) Pospisil. We have only one guy in the top-200 and they have three guys in the top hundred.”
When a reporter joked, “so you have no chance?” Haarhuis played along saying, “on paper we have no chance.”
Haarhuis took part in a memorable match – and one of the all-time memorable points – at the 1991 US Open when the combative, 39-year-old Jimmy Connors made it to the semi-finals by beating him.
He led by a set and 5-4 in the second set against Connors. Then the above point happened – when he failed to put away four overheads and Connors kept hoisting lobs to the delight of the delirious crowd in the old Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“I don’t get asked about the match a lot,” Haarhuis said. “They send me the point quite a bit on social media. That happens a lot. During the US Open I was there for two weeks and nobody asked me about it. To me it’s not the point that I remember most. Maybe it’s part of US Open history and part of my US Open history. But I’ve had other great moments and that isn’t a defining point for me.”
Asked if it was more about the crowd stoked by Connors, he replied, “no it was a big point – when you’re 6-4, 5-4 serving for second set in the quarter-finals of the US Open, and you have the momentum going…it would have been amazing in that early stage of my career to get to the semi-finals of a Grand Slam. It might have been a career defining moment had I won and been able to say ‘okay you can get to the semi-finals of Grand Slams.’ Maybe I would have had even better results in singles (he ranked as high as No. 18 in 1995) but I didn’t and he came back with some great shots.”
Since that unforgettable night, has he had any kind of relationship with the 66-year-old Connors? “Yes I played him six months later at an event (in Philadelphia),” Haarhuis replied, “and he was up 5-2 in the third set and I beat him [6-4, 2-6, 7-6(3)].
“I’ve seen him in past years every now and then when he was on the tour coaching (Andy) Roddick and I’d see him at Wimbledon and we’d always have a chat.
“And he invited me to go to his house to practice.”
“So he was always very nice to me,” Haarhuis continued before adding with a little humour, “although I was also nice to him in that match.”
Canada has a 2-1 head-to-head advantage over the Netherlands in Davis Cup competition but its victories came in 1969 and 1990 before the Dutch won 3-1 at home in Maastricht in 2004.
But it’s an entirely new cast of characters this time – except for ageless 46-year-old Daniel Nestor in doubles – and captain Frank Dancevic (above with Raonic) has an impressive group of players.
“This is actually the strongest team we’ve ever had going into the tie,” Dancevic said. “I was talking to the guys and I was ‘I’m so happy to be part of this team. It’s exciting.’ I think we have a great opportunity the next couple of years to do some serious damage. Of course, the guys all have to be fit and healthy for the Davis Cup weeks but it’s definitely great to be in my position – to have the option to play top singles players and even have a guy like Vasek who’s still a great singles players, he’s top-100, and to have him there to jump in if we need him.”
It’s the 33-year-old Dancevic’s second time heading the team. He succeeded 15 years of Martin Laurendeau as captain when he led Canada away against Croatia (a 3-1 loss) in February. While not committing 100 per cent, he essentially said it would be Raonic and Shapovalov for the opening singles beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday. It’s basically the same thing with the doubles on Saturday – Nestor and Pospisil.
The official draw will take place at noon on Thursday at the new Hotel X just outside downtown Toronto.
“It’s my first tie at home,” Dancevic said, “so this is a new one for me but it’s great to be here. Hopefully I get my first win as a captain this week.”
Sizing up the opposition, he said, “they’ve got a lot of firepower in the singles – I think they’re going to play Haase and de Bakker. The doubles is unsure but they’ve got a lot of options. We’ll just have to see as the tie goes on.”
On the subject off the Premier carpet surface, he summed up, “it’s a pretty standard Davis Cup court that we’ve been using the past 10 years and we’re quite used to it.”
About any Dancevic on-court coaching style he has developed as captain, he said, “as a player I have a good sense of the situation – what’s happening, the momentum swings. Tactically speaking as well, I can help the players out noticing things they can change up during the match.
“And I like to get a lot of the other guys involved too. We’re all players, we all see they game well and I like to hear a lot of advice from the bench. The guys sitting there – Vasek, Milos, (team coach) Fred Fontang… they all have a great eye for tennis. I like to get information from everybody.”
The teams are staying at the Hotel X which is just a five-minute walk from the Coliseum. “It’s amazing to have everything nearby,” Dancevic said. “If we need extra time to work on things with the guys, we have beautiful courts and a gym right at the hotel. It’s kind of an ideal set-up for a Davis Cup tie.
“Sometimes Davis Cup can be tough with having one court, having to go early in the mornings to try and get that extra court time, and late at night. It’s a luxury this week to be able to make a really good practice schedule.”
TORONTO POST CARD
These three skate-boarder guys were comfortably installed on the sidewalk on Queen Street West last Saturday afternoon. That was after they had visited an establishment whose sign is visible in the picture below.