Canada’s two singles players, Frank Dancevic and Filip Peliwo, gave a max effort and a boisterous band of supporters from home never lost heart, but on Friday it was still not sufficient to overcome the Belgians in the opening singles of the Davis Cup World Group quarter-finals. The hosts, playing in Middelkerke (near Ostend), took a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five match tie.
Dancevic won the opening set against Steve Darcis but the Belgian gained in firepower as the match went on to win 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-3 while David Goffin beat a game, defiant Peliwo 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
Sadly, there’s an air of déjà vu to these proceedings because, for the second time in the last four World Group ties, No. 1 Milos Roanic and No. 2 Vasek Pospisil are not available for the visitors. Raonic (foot) and Pospisil (wrist) could not make it to Belgium. In February 2014, for the first round versus Japan in Tokyo, Raonic (lower leg ligament tear) and Pospisil (back) couldn’t post and Canada lost 3-1 to Kei Nishikori and the Japanese. In March of this year, with its two best players able to play singles and doubles, Canada downed Japan 3-2 in Vancouver.
With Raonic ranked No. 8 and Pospisil No. 29 in singles, and Pospisil No. 11 and Daniel Nestor No. 24 in doubles, Canada has almost the ideal profile of a country – except for maybe Switzerland and Spain – with the talent to be competitive for the Davis Cup. Its current No. 7 Davis Cup ranking testifies to that.
In tennis as in life, people have to deal with reality but thoughts of what it would have been like on Friday with Raonic and Pospisil had to be running through the minds of Canadian fans as Goffin began to seem like the inevitable winner against Peliwo, with the resulting scoreline going to be 0-2 after the singles.
Still, it was an impressive effort by Peliwo as he tried to salvage the day in his Davis Cup debut. He did what Daniel Nestor and others had counseled him to do – he went for his shots from start to finish, banishing any thought that he had a humbling ranking of No. 491 up against Goffin’s heady No. 14. “I just went out and played as hard as I could,” Peliwo said. “It wasn’t the absolute best that I can play but I think I played quite a good match regardless.”
Few will ever question the fight in Filip – and his numbers compared favourably with the smooth-stroking Belgian. Goffin had a 23/31 ratio in winners to unforced errors while Peliwo was 19/36. The most significant number was that Goffin had 53 forced errors on Peliwo while the Vancouvite only inflicted 33 on the Belgian.
“He puts a lot of pressure on you,” Peliwo, 21, said about his 24-year-old opponent. “He always hits the ball early – even when I stretched him a few times he managed to get it back pretty deep. I had to play very aggressive to pressure him.”
Goffin, who stepped in and won the fifth and deciding match against Switzerland in March despite a back issue, suggested about Peliwo, “he had nothing to lose and he tried everything he could. He’s a guy who hits the ball really well and with power. It’s never easy to play a young guy who’s going for everything. But I think I was able to stay calm and win the important points at the right time.”
Dancevic made a somewhat similar analysis of his match with Darcis. “We were pretty even throughout,” he said about the two-hour 42-minute encounter with Darcis. “I think the key points are what made a difference today. He hit a couple of good shots on the key points and I think that’s really what made the difference.”
Darcis, ranked No. 76 to Dancevic’s current No. 272, said he started out a little tight and that captain Johan Van Herck got into him about playing more aggressively. The numbers confirm that he was the more attacking player as the match wore on – he finished with a winners/unforced errors ratio of 49/34 to 34/21 for Dancevic.
“Frank looked a little tired at the end of the third set,” Darcis said. “I thought it would be tough for him to come back from two sets to one down.”
There were strong winds during both matches. “On one side it was very windy with the wind – one side it was very windy against the wind,” Dancevic said. “We had to adjust every time we switched sides to counter the conditions.”
Nonetheless, it was hardly really extreme conditions with Dancevic hitting just two double faults and Darcis only one – as well there being only a relatively small number of double-clutch, caught service tosses.
Now the speculation turns to who will play the doubles for Belgium on Saturday. Nestor and Adil Shamasdin are a fixture for the Canadians but Kimmer Coppejans, a rookie like Peliwo, could be substituted for in his intended partnership with veteran Ruban Bemelmans.
“We expect it to be Steve (Darcis) and Ruben, but it could be Ruben and Kimmer, Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau said. “We have a good team and we hope that Adil will be able to raise his game as Filip did in his first (Davis Cup) match – with the experience of a guy like Daniel it seems to be a good combination.
“We’ve got to win to stay alive so no matter who it is (for Belgium), we’ll try to implement our Canadian style which is to play very aggressively and to play doubles as we know we can no matter if it’s clay. We’ll do everything we can to win. We’ve got no other choice.”
Filip Dewulf, a Belgian 1997 French Open semifinalist, suggested it would be wisest to stay with Coppejans and Bemelmans.
One thing for sure, the so-called Vasek’s Army – although Pospisil is not here, his vocal brothers Petr and Tom are – will be there and will be relentless in its support. One of the better cheers on Friday was, to the tune of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance – “all we are saying, is give us a break.”
“They were there from the first point to the end,” Dancevic said about the vocal, enthusiastic and eclectic Canadians. “It was amazing to have that support. They pulled me through when I got down a break in the first set to get back on track and I ended up breaking twice in the first set to win it.”
As for Peliwo, he admitted about the support, “it’s an amazing experience to be out there with a crowd like that. I do hear it. I try to stay focused on the match and not take in too much of the distractions but I did choose the moments to use the energy when I could. I tried to keep it in a good balance without getting too out of the court.”
Laurendeau remembers a time when Canada did not have the kind of on-the-road backing it has received at recent ties in Belgrade and Tokyo. “There’s kind of a tradition that’s established itself with our supporters, which is great because we never had that in the past,” he said. “It’s really inspiring for us because normally when we’d go on the road there would be a (Canadian) ambassador and a couple of tourists that happened to be in town. Now we really feel their support and they help our players get the best out of themselves.”
On Friday, about 150 of the crowd of 4,400 punched well above their weight and the absent Vasek would have been proud that Petr and Tom are still at the top of their game despite their missing sibling and with a tall mountain to climb for the depleted Canadian team.
One major positive of the first day was how well the recently constructed (laid down on a soccer field) red clay court held up.
“The court was well-watered (by rain) at the beginning of the week,” Laurendeau said, “and now it’s playing very well. For a temporary clay court it’s surprising to see the quality. So ‘bravo’ to the group that built a court that’s good for both teams.
“There was a lot of good tennis out there today and it’s partly due to the quality of the court.”
Unfortunately, the balance of good tennis tipped more toward the Belgian side – no real shock considering the circumstances – but disappointing nonetheless for the visiting side and its supporters.
A Belgian hose job
It hardly met the minimum standards for watering a clay court. So, at the end of the first set of the Dancevic – Darcis match, when the guys in the grounds crew thought they had completed their work, referee Roberto Ranieri of Italy went out to inform them that there was still a little more to do!
Ostend post card
René Magritte was a world-renowned Belgian surrealist painter. One of his most famous pieces was a man looking through binoculars. This work – which was on sale for 120 euros ($169 Can.) in a store next to the hotel where the Canadian team is staying – seems to owe something to the artist who lived from 1898 until 1967.