Milos Raonic is from Thornhill and Denis Shapovalov from Richmond Hill – two communities just north of the city – but really they are both Toronto guys.
So it’s only fitting that, in the first Davis Cup tie in the nation’s largest city since 2010, two locals are playing the opening singles on Friday when Canada faces the Netherlands in a World Group Playoff at the Coca-Cola Coliseum.
Raonic leads off in the first match at 4 p.m. against Dutch No. 2 Thiemo de Bakker with Shapovalov following versus Robin Haase, the Netherlands’ top player.
It marks Raonic’s first Davis Cup since March, 2015, when Canada hosted Japan in Vancouver. “It’s exciting, we’ve got two young guys (Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime) here since I last played who have been playing incredibly well over the last 18 months or so,” he said about being back on the team. “We’re excited it’s here in downtown Toronto, and it’s also nice to have Daniel (Nestor) here for one last tie.
There were some doubts about Raonic when he experienced a hip problem that required treatment from the ATP trainer before the fifth set of his loss to John Isner in the US Open fourth round 11 days ago.
When did he know for sure he would be ready for this weekend’s match-up against the Netherlands? “As soon as I got cleared – pretty much 48 hours after the match with John – that everything was okay,” he said.
It’s a first encounter for Raonic and de Bakker, who’s ranked No. 236 but has been as high as No. 40 (2010) and had a 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-3 victory over No. 32 Adrian Mannarino in the opening round of Davis Cup in February in Albertville, France.
“I haven’t seen him play for a while,” Raonic said about de Bakker who turns 30 next Wednesday. “He’s played well over the summer – most of his tournaments have been on clay from what I’ve watched. But he’s gotten his ranking back up over the past couple of months. It’s just about going out and doing what I can do and controlling as much as possible.”
Shapovalov, No. 34, and Haase, No. 44, have already met twice in 2018 with Shapovalov winning 7-6(3), 6-7(5), 6-3 in Rome in May and the 31-year-old Dutchman upsetting him 7-5, 6-2 in the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto last month.
“It’s definitely a tough match for me,” Shapovalov said. “Robin is an incredible player and he’s been playing really well over the summer and has got some good wins under his belt. So it’s definitely not going to be easy but I’ve had a good summer as well so we’re both playing well. I think these courts suit me – they’re pretty fast, low-bouncing so I think I can be pretty aggressive against him.”
“It’s totally different,” Haase said comparing Friday’s meeting with the match-up five weeks ago at the Rogers Cup. “It’s going to be a totally different match – that was best-of-three sets and now it’s best-of-five. And there’s a coach (captain) on the bench, so that’s always a different feel. He’s a young player, he’s a great player and all we can do as a team is do our best.”
Saturday’s doubles is scheduled to be Nestor and Vasek Pospisil (left) against Jean-Julien Rojer and Matwe Middelkoop but it’s likely the Dutch will change that.
“I don’t think Rojer and Middelkoop are going to play,” Nestor said, “usually it’s Haase teaming with one of the two. I’ve beaten Haase and Middelkoop this year but I’ve also lost to them. And I’ve played Rojer many times in the past and kind of know what to expect. They’re very good but we’re playing at home and I think we have a good chance.”
It will be Nestor’s 53rd and final Davis Cup tie dating back to Canada vs. Sweden in Vancouver in 1992.
“I have many special memories, especially playing with these guys,” he said about his teammates during the draw ceremony on Thursday. “It’s something I’m definitely going to miss. I’ll try to soak in every moment the next few days and hopefully play a good match. Vasek and I play well together and I’m really looking forward to playing well in my last match.”
Sunday’s reverse singles would be Raonic vs. Haase and Shapovalov vs. De Bakker. But things could change, especially if the score-line was weighted one way or the other.
There has been much talk about the Canadian team, which includes 18-year-old rookie Felix Auger-Aliassime, being the best ever. On the other side, the Netherlands has had some very good players in the past including 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek and Tom Okker back in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no players quite of their calibre today but captain Paul Haarhuis, among the top-five all-time players from the Netherlands, is happy with his group. “This is the strongest team we could have,” the wily 52-year-old former world No. 18 (1995) said. “I’m very upset that Canada has never been so strong. It’s going to be one match at a time and every match we can win. It’s going to be a difficult task but we can do it.”
Then he joked, referencing the new, somewhat confusing Davis Cup format whereby 24 teams will play off next February for spots in the 18-nation grand finale to be held in November, 2019, “the good thing is if we don’t do it this weekend, we’re going to play them at home (the alternating home-and-away system) in February and we’re going to do it then.”
He then went a little further referring to International Tennis Federation representative Mary Pierce (left), the two-time Grand Slam champion who is the ITF representative at the tie and who was present at the draw, saying “we’ve talked to Mary Pierce about the draw in February and it’s already done.”
Of course Haarhuis was joking but there is some uncertainty about exactly what happens as a result of this weekend’s competition. One thing for sure is that the winner will be seeded for the February ties.
Questioned about the various possibilities that exist, the 19-year-old Shapovalov said his team prefers to simply focus on the matter at hand. “I don’t think we’re focused on that, I think we’re more focused on trying to win this tie. We’re just focusing on this weekend. We’re not thinking about what the future holds.”
One man can make a big difference in Davis Cup ties and that threatens to be painfully obvious for Spain and the USA when they play in France and Croatia this weekend in the 2018 World Group semi-finals.
ATP No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal made Spain a strong favourite as visitors against France in Lille. But now that he’s out because of the right knee tendinitis from his US Open semi-final last Friday, the host French are in a much more favourable position.
Playing on hard courts in Lille, they have chosen No. 19-ranked Lucas Pouille and No. 54 Benoit Paire for singles – neither of whom is playing particularly well at the moment.
As for Spain, with Nadal unavailable and David Ferrer a shadow of his former self, its singles players will be No. 21-ranked Pablo Carreno-Busta and No. 26 Roberto Bautista Agut.
The Friday line-up for the opening singles is Paire vs. Carreno Busta followed by Pouille vs. Bautista Agut.
The Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille has a 27,500 capacity for tennis but the absence of 11-time French Open champion Nadal will likely mean it will be far from a full house this weekend.
The French, defending Davis Cup champions and playing for the final time with the legendary Yannick Noah as captain, are probably slight favourites in Nadal’s absence. Two-time French Open champion (1993 and 1994) Sergi Bruguera is the Spanish captain.
The USA – Croatia semi-final won’t be as affected by American best player (No. 17-ranked) Jack Sock not being available because of a hip injury as will Spain – France by Nadal’s withdrawal. But Sock nonetheless could have been key to the U.S. team’s success. Having a dreadful year (6-16) in singles, the 25-year-old has nonetheless won both the Wimbledon and US Open doubles titles with Mike Bryan – available because his twin brother Bob is out after right hip surgery.
The Americans would have been slightly favoured in the doubles, meaning that No. 30 Steve Johnson or No. 40 Frances Tiafoe (above) might have been able to manage a win over No. 18 Borna Coric or No. 6 Marin Cilic in the opening singles to put the Americans in an advantageous position. But the Croats have two strong doubles players in No. 4-ranked Mate Pavic and No. 24 Ivan Dodig, who are now matched against Bryan and Ryan Harrison (Sock’s replacement), making the hosts solid picks overall to win the tie outdoors on red clay.
Coric plays the first match on Friday against Johnson and that will be followed by Cilic facing Tiafoe.
If the Croats win that would get them to the final for the second time in three years and give them an opportunity to avenge a 3-2 loss to Argentina at home in Zagreb in the 2016 final.
The other World Group Playoff ties are as follows with several big names – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Nick Kyrgios – all not playing:
Colombia at Argentina
Uzbekistan at Great Britain
Australia at Austria
Sweden at Switzerland
India at Serbia
Czech Republic at Hungary
Bosnia-Herzegovina at Japan
A final note for those who remember Sweden as a tennis power – its top player against Switzerland in Biel this weekend will be No. 455 Markus Ericsson, 28. Every other player on the Swedish team is ranked above 800.
Philosopher’s Walk is a footpath that winds down through the northern part of the University of Toronto (U of T) downtown campus. It goes past the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the U of T Faculty of Music, Trinity College and the U of T Faculty of Law. BTW – no bicycles allowed!
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)