TEBBUTT: HOME IN THE WORLD GROUP
Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada
Next to winning the Davis Cup, the principal annual goal of every World Group country is to remain among the elite 16 nations for the following year.
Once experiencing life among the top-16, the ones which actually vie for Dwight Davis’ silver salad bowl every year, none want to return to the sub-strata of relegated nations. Canada had the misfortune of losing its first tie of 2014 in Tokyo against the Japanese when its two top players, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, were injured and unable to play. Kei Nishikori, as many have recently come to appreciate, is a fine player and he was able to basically singlehandedly defeat the depleted Canadian team.
In order to avoid returning to Americas zonal play and potentially thorny encounters with Latin American nations, Canada needed to beat Colombia in World Group Play-off action in Halifax this past weekend. That was accomplished on Sunday when Milos Raonic defeated Santiago Giraldo 6-1, 7-6(2), 7-5 in the first of Sunday’s reverse singles to clinch a 3-1 victory for the home country at the Metro Centre.
Once the match was over, thoughts quickly turned to 2015 and what could be the prospects for a run at least as good as 2013 when Canada made it to the semifinals before losing 3-2 in Belgrade to Serbia.
In particular, there was the matter of seeding for 2015 – with Canada’s current ranking being No. 8 followed very closely by the United States at No. 9.
By a complicated International Tennis Federation ‘rolling ranking’ formula that includes the last four years of play, the U.S., which won its World Group Play-off tie with Slovakia in Chicago this weekend, actually moved ahead of Canada into eighth spot. That potentially meant that Canada, at No. 9, would not be among the top eight seeds for the 2015 World Group draw to be held on Thursday in Dubai.
On a day when many things went well for Canada – including Raonic saving consecutive set points in the second set to avoid getting involved in a more drawn-out and potentially complicated affair with Giraldo – there was good news coming from the other World Group Play-off ties.
Later on Sunday, with a decimated squad – no Nadal, no Ferrer, no Lopez, no Almagro, no Garcia-Lopez – Spain was defeated in Brazil meaning that it will not be in the World Group next year. So, with the current No. 3-ranking team not even qualified for the top 16, Canada moved back up to at least (depending on the result of a 2-2 Serbia – India tie postponed until Monday) No. 8 and will be seeded for 2015.
That’s a big advantage, although lessened somewhat by Spain not being in the top group for 2015 and the possibility that Serbia (Djokovic et al) might not be there as well.
It’s too soon to know for sure, but there are some potentially juicy first-round match-ups for Canada in 2015 – such as Australia, Great Britain and a possible re-match at home with Japan.
Next year, the professional calendar is different and, instead of one week after the Australian Open as it was this year, the first round of 2015 World Group play will be in March, the weekend before the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
When questioned about what he thought about the draw for 2015 and the potential match-ups for Canada, Raonic joked, “I don’t really understand how the ITF does it or when it’s done or which time zone it’s done in. So, I will not be thinking anything. I’ll probably be sleeping.”
On the court Sunday, Raonic broke an antsy, tight Giraldo in the second game of the match, and again in the sixth, to wrap up the first set in 24 minutes.
The No. 33-ranked Colombian had been sketchy in his opening match with Vasek Pospisil, but he settled down, after changing his shirt, in the second set on Sunday. He actually maneuvered things – helped by a patch when Raonic lost rhythm on his serve – so that he had double break point (his first of the match) and double set point leading 6-5 and 15-40 on the Raonic serve.
On the first point, Raonic boldly serve-and-volleyed on a second serve and put away an angled backhand volley. On the second, also a second serve, Giraldo hit a forehand return awkwardly and it ended up in the net.
“It was 15-40 and two second serves and he was tight in that moment,” Giraldo recalled about the break points. “The first one I tried to put the ball in play and I did with a good stroke on the backhand and he hit a good volley.
“But then on the second one, I changed my plan and said I would be aggressive. Unfortunately, I waited for the second serve on the backhand as he normally does. (But) he was smart and changed it, and I go for the ball and I miss. It’s a 50-50 chance.”
From the Raonic viewpoint, the points went like this: “He missed a forehand, and on both of them I went for it – made him beat me, made the right play.
“I didn’t give him anything to really swing at.”
Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada
Raonic went on to take the subsequent tiebreak 7-2, extending his record in tiebreaks since Wimbledon to heady 17-2!
A break in the fourth game of the third set and Raonic looked close to having things done and dusted. But Giraldo, who had definitely stepped up his game, hit one big service return and capitalized on a couple of sloppy points by Raonic to achieve his only break of the match and soon get back on level terms at 4-4.
A long-haul type of baseliner who would have been happy to prolong the match, the 26-year-old Colombian looked like he might be getting his teeth into the match, and getting more accustomed to Raonic’s raw power (20 aces and 21 service winners on the day) when he managed to save two match points and hold serve trailing 5-4. But two games later, Raonic converted his third match point with a forehand passing shot to win in two hours and 11 minutes.
He is now 13-4 in Davis Cup singles, and has never lost a singles match when playing for his country in Canada. In fact, if you remove his first two singles matches in Colombia in 2010 when he had not emerged as a world-class player, and a loss to Amir Weintraub in Israel in 2011 when he returned too soon after hip surgery in July of that year, his record would be 13-1 overall. His only loss would be to then world No. 2 Novak Djokovic in Belgrade a year ago in the semifinals.
Although he rated his performance as only a ‘B’ on Sunday, “because I didn’t impose myself on him as I wanted to,” Raonic has again come through with two singles wins and is indisputably the team stalwart.
“I was able to do the same thing, four times for us,” he said about winning two matches, “against South Africa (Montreal), against Spain (Vancouver), against Italy (Vancouver). When I have that opportunity to face the best player from the other nation, I just find a way, especially when I’m at home where I feel the most comfortable.”
No doubt the fairly slick Premier indoor carpet court is another part of the reason. “On this exact court, the way it’s set up, I don’t believe I’ve lost a match,” he noted. “This is the same court as in San Jose (titles in 2011-2012-2013). Every time we’ve played at home, I’ve won all my singles matches on this court – Vancouver and here. It’s a quicker court. A little bit, I wish this week that it would have been done so that it would have bounced a little bit higher. Other than that, it’s something I feel comfortable with. My serve goes through the court and keeps more pressure on my opponents.”
Despite his ‘B’ rating of the match, he wound up with 69 winners and just 38 unforced errors.
Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada
Giraldo had his moments, but mostly it was the booming Raonic serve – regularly clocked over 230 km/hr – that set the tone, including in the fifth game of the match when he fired a royal flush of aces, and extended it to five in a row with another ace on the first point of the ensuing game.
Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada
The Colombians were a little upset with a few line calls, including a forehand down-the-line which would have made it 3-2 instead of 4-1 for Raonic in the second set tiebreak. Yours truly was on the line, but higher up, and thought it might have been good. When the set ended, I asked a younger man with better eyes who was also on the line, what he saw. “I thought it was in, right on the line,” he replied.
But Raonic had earlier saved two set points, so Giraldo couldn’t really complain about not having had his chances.
“It’s tough to make some calls,” Colombian captain Mauricio Hadad would say after the match. “They try their best. That’s why nowadays you have Hawk-Eye. Unfortunately for this Play-off, we don’t have the luxury of Hawk-Eye. We could have challenged many calls, and I bet Canada could have challenged many calls too. But you have to go with what the umpire says because it’s in the best interests of the game. They make the rights calls, and they did. They were very fair.”
The Canadian team was happy with the crowd support at the Metro Centre, but even more so with the hospitality of the Haligonians.
“I think the atmosphere was great,” Raonic said. “And it’s not only important what’s it’s like in the stadium, because we come here for seven to 10 days. It’s important with the whole set-up around – that you’re facilitated with proper meals, with a warm welcome from the people of Halifax, and just all that kind of stuff. It made the week that much easier and made us that much more fresh and actually happy mentally when it came down to those important moments to compete.”
Captain Martin Laurendeau chimed in, “for a first time with this team, the city really responded. I thought in the city as a whole there’s was a good Davis Cup vibe. It’s been a very positive first experience.”
Laurendeau was on court for the fifth match, after Canada had established an insurmountable 3-1 lead – a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 win by Alejandro Gonzalez over Frank Dancevic (above).
Looking ahead, the Canadian captain said, “hopefully, we can play a few ties at home next year, we’ll find out on Thursday. You need a few things to come together to have a great run. France is a great team, and they're in the finals now and so is Switzerland, but it’s not like they do that every year – and they have a lot of depth, a lot of good players. Hopefully we can put a few things together and make a good run at it in 2015. “
For that, Raonic will remain the key player. And regarding something that has achieved almost mythic status with his big game – Raonic’s famous right arm sleeve – he made a bit of a revelation. When asked if he ever took off the sleeve during a match, he replied, “no, because when you start sweating, it’s too hard to pull it off. I’ve got to put it on before I warm up.”
Moments after winning, Raonic said something to the crowd at the Metro Centre that will resonate among tennis fans all over the country, “we as a team believe we can do better, and we’re going to do everything to do better.”
HALIFAX POST CARD
Ferries traverse the Halifax harbour between the city and Dartmouth and Woodside. The ferry in the picture above is headed for Woodside.