During Tuesday’s pre-tie team media conference before this weekend’s Davis Cup World Group quarter-final, the Belgians were cautious not to take anything for granted matched against their injury-depleted (Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil) Canadian opponents.
In this year’s first round in March, the Belgians, on an indoor hard court at home in Liege, were barely able to beat a Swiss team without superstars Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, as well as No. 3 player Marco Chiudinelli.
It was a soap opera of a tie with Swiss player Yann Marti leaving his team when captain Severin Luthi didn’t name him as a singles player and his replacement, little-known No. 321-ranked Henri Laaksonen, proceeding to beat both No. 95-ranked Ruben Bemelmens and No. 76 Steve Darcis. That forced No. 1 Belgian David Goffin, on the sideline with an iffy back, to risk it in a fifth and deciding match, which he won 6-4, 6-0, 6-4 over No. 282-ranked Adrian Bossel.
So Canada, putting out No. 272-ranked Frank Dancevic, a former top-65 player, and No. 491 Filip Peliwo, the world’s No. 1 junior in 2012, has representatives who may actually have higher profiles than Laaksonen and Bossel.
Still, it is very clear that Belgium (Bemelmens and Goffin below practicing on Tuesday) is a strong favourite and probably the reason quick-with-a-quip veteran Daniel Nestor described this Raonic-less/Pospisil-less Canadian team as being like “a zonal qualifying team” in an interview with Sportnet’s Arash Madani.
Another reason might be that, unlike in March, the Belgians have a squad in good shape. The often-injured Darcis, who memorably gave a walkover because of a shoulder injury that subsequently required surgery, the next match after his huge upset of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2013, claims to be fit as are Goffin, Bemelmens and rookie Kimmer Coppejans.
“It’s one of the few times we’ve come to a tie with everyone healthy,” said Belgian captain Johan van Herck. “Before we played the Swiss, there were worries when the players arrived. Now it’s different. We’ve had meetings to see how we could change things and things are going well.
“But every match is a danger. I’ve got nothing but respect for Canada and we’ll just try to be the better team by Sunday night.”
“There’s an advantage for us,” conceded No. 2 singles player Steve Darcis referring to the absence of world No. 8 Raonic and No. 29 Pospisil, “but we saw with the Swiss that it looked easy and then it was ultra-difficult. We’re favourites and have a chance to go to the semifinals (at home against Argentina or away versus Serbia in September).”
Members of the Belgian media suggested to captain van Herck that he might want to basically give away the doubles on Saturday if his team leads 2-0 after Goffin plays Peliwo and Darcis takes on Dancevic on Friday.
“I don’t like to concede any match,” van Herck insisted. “It would be a lack of respect to our opponents to give away the doubles.”
Nonetheless, the No. 24-ranked Nestor and No. 65-ranked Adil Shamasdin, who reached the second round of the Newport grass-court event together last July, are favoured to give Canada that point.
In singles, the No. 14-ranked Goffin, 24, is the key man for Belgium. On the Friday before Wimbledon started, he practiced with Raonic and was asked on Tuesday if he noticed anything at the time in terms of the top Canadian’s fitness. “It’s hard to say,” Goffin said. “Even if he’s not at his best, he still serves 220 (km/hr or 137 mph) with his arm and that’s how his game is. For example, if David Ferrer isn’t 100 per cent and he doesn’t move for every shot, you’ll see it right away. With Milos it’s different. With his serve he can win a whole set or even a match.”
Goffin claims the red clay court, which was laid down over a soccer field on June 29 and first played on last Sunday, is in good shape. Asked to compare it to Roland Garros, he said Tuesday, “it’s a little slower. And today and yesterday, even if the court was covered, the rain made it a little heavier and it bounces a little less. But it’s hard to compare because here were on the (North Sea) coast, the wind can get going and the conditions can change. If it’s a little warmer on the weekend, it could easily change.
“It takes a couple of days to adjust to the clay (after grass at Wimbledon) but it’s going well and there are no problems with sliding.”
The forecast is for high winds on Friday, the day of the opening singles. (The flags above were blowing mid-afternoon on Tuesday in fairly moderate conditions.) Some have suggested, including Nestor, that extreme wind could be a great equalizer.
Dancevic, who will play Friday, said he has always liked playing in the wind. (He should be reasonably rested after sleeping for 11 straight hours Monday night after arriving in the morning on an overnight flight from Montreal.)
The seating in the stadium is about 25 rows high on all four sides, and one of the people involved in preparing the site said, “we’ve talked to the fire department about it. But it’s true, it can get quite windy at the top of the stands.”
As for Peliwo, Nestor, who joked that the 21-year-old from Vancouver never listens to him, said about the game plan for Canada’s No. 2 singles player, who’s making his Davis Cup debut in a live match, “he has to go for it. He’s not going to win matches playing safe against the best players in the world. If anyone on the team has the firepower to pull an upset by hitting big shots, it’s him.”
Captain Laurendeau, more guarded in his assessment of his team than Nestor, knows what he is up against. “I was just at the French Open and I saw five Belgian guys in the main draw,” he said. “So that’s pretty good depth. They’re a good team with a lot of options so that’s a challenge for us.”
Needless to say Laurendeau was asked by Belgian journalists about the reversal of fortune with Canada originally favoured to win with Raonic and Pospisil but now decided underdogs without them. “We made the (World Group) semifinals two years ago,” he said. “We want to do better than that and we had the players to do that. We had a draw where if we could get through the first few rounds, we could play the semifinal at home no matter what.
“But we still believe in our chances to win even without Milos and Vasek. We can play great tennis here and win the matches we need to win.
“The weekend hasn’t even started and we don’t intend to feel like we’re beaten before it begins.”
There was an amusing moment at the end of his scrum with French-speaking Belgian reporters when he was asked if he had ever played against Filip Dewulf of Belgium, the 1997 French Open semifinalist who is now a tennis writer. “Sadly I never played against him,” said Laurendeau (with Dewulf above), “but I played with him and we won a doubles tournament (a German Challenger) back in the era before there were computers!” (That was the Lippstadt Challenger in 1993.)
Visiting the Davis Cup site
On Tuesday, reporters were given a tour around the site for the Canada-Belgium Davis Cup tie.
The area where the tie is being played is actually a pétanque (like Italian bocci) club which also includes soccer fields and mini-golf.
It is best known for the annual cyclocross race held every February that draws a crowd of 20,000 spectators.
To construct the court, five-metre metal slabs were laid on the field before the clay was put on top – a thickness of 8 to 10 centimetres.
Starting the whole facility from scratch, the cost of just electricity and internet installation was more than 20,000 euros ($28,000 Can) and the overall cost, shared between the municipalities of Middelkerke and Westende and the Flemish Tennis Federation, is over 500,000 euros or $700,000 Can.
The guide showing journalists around said that 160 Canadians, as part of organized tours, are expected to attend the three-day tie.
So far, 11,000 tickets have been sold for the weekend in the 6,000 temporary-stand stadium. Three sides of it will remain in place after the tie until the end of August. It is hoped to stage concerts at the site.
Ostend post card
Many of the liquor establishments in Ostend have American names. There’s “Le Switch” and “Hemingway,” the latter bar advertising “Your mojito Ernest’s way.”
And then there’s Fats Domino, borrowing the name of the 1950s and 1960s legendary American pop singer.