Photo : Pascal Ratthe
Five and a half years is a long time to wait for anything, especially something you enjoy.
Most professional athletes will tell you that one of the best feelings in sport is playing in front of your home fans, having them cheer you on and lend their support.
For Team Canada presented by Sobeys, they had to wait a long time to have that experience again. It had been so long since the Canadians played a Davis Cup tie in front of their home fans that three of the members of the Canadian squad this past week in Montreal had never experienced it before.
In fact, none of Gabriel Diallo, Alexis Galarneau, and Liam Draxl had yet turned pro the last time the men’s team played on home soil.
While Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil were back, the pair are at very different stages of their careers than they were in 2018, when Canada won their playoff tie against the Netherlands in Toronto.
Raonic was still a Top 20 player at the time, but now is working his way back from injury, having been away from the tour nearly two years. He was not physically up to playing this weekend.
Pospisil was entrenched in the Top 100 in 2018, whereas today he is clinging to the Top 500.
Read also: Diallo Seals the Win for Canada over Korea
In short, the next version of Team Canada to play at home after that 2018 looked incredibly different, with more than half the team under the age of 25 with fewer Davis Cup ties combined than Raonic has alone (and Pospisil has more than the other four combined).
Of course, perhaps the most dramatic difference between the Canadian team then and now is the prestige and expectations.
Back in 2018, Canada was still seen as at best a dark horse in the Davis Cup competition. They certainly had title aspirations, the nation was only five years removed from their semifinal run in 2013, but lifting the trophy still seemed to be a ways away.
As it turned out, it was four years away to be exact.
It is more than just the faces that have changed since that 2018 tie in Toronto. Having won the Davis Cup in 2022 and currently holding the No. 3 ranking, expectations are now sky high every time the Canadian squad competes. They think they can, know they can, and expect to contend for the title every year.
Imagine telling that to the fans in attendance in 2018.
Diallo’s Dream Debut
If you had told fans that September weekend in Toronto in 2018 that the next time the team played at home, Gabriel Diallo was going to play the hero, those fans rightfully would have said: “who?”
In September 2018, Diallo was still in high school. He was a year away from taking the next step in his career by starting at the University of Kentucky in the NCAA.
The Montrealer was competing in his fifth Davis Cup tie for Canada this weekend, but his first in his home country. Not only that, it was in his own neighbourhood in his hometown.
“It was very special,” said Diallo after his win on Saturday. “It was at home. The fact that Frank gave me the opportunity to play in front of my whole family, my friends, everyone from my neighbourhood, I’m very grateful. These are moments that I’m going to remember my whole life.”
A lot was asked of Diallo in his first home tie. The 22-year-old played the role of Canadian No. 1 in the absence of Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov and while there was certainly excitement, that’s a lot of pressure on a young player to have to lead your country when playing in front of your home fans for the first time.
“We have a lot of depth on our team, especially with the performances you saw the last two days from Gabriel and Alexis,” said captain Frank Dancevic of his youngsters. “They are young guys. We have guys with experience like Milos and Vasek. But it’s true that we have young players who play well, who comport themselves well on court. We have a lot of ability on our team.”
It was a spectacular first appearance for Diallo at home in this competition. He was up to the challenge, winning both of his singles matches including a three-set thriller to seal the victory for his country.
“There were a lot of firsts for me this weekend,” said the local hero. “First time playing Davis Cup at home, especially in [IGA Stadium], it was special for me. I tried to be open-minded and to not put limits on myself mentally. I was ready for everything. I was very focused on my tactics. That helped me to not put all my focus on my emotions.”
Having now gotten a taste for playing at home, those young Canadians would certainly like to do it again. That being said, winning the Davis Cup title means you skip the qualifiers, so if given the choice of not playing at home for another five years if it means winning a few titles, most fans and players would probably be ok with that trade-off.