The game plan for the Japanese visitors in this weekend’s opening round Davis Cup World Group tie in Vancouver has to be to get two wins from their superstar Kei Nishikori, and then come up with a third point in the doubles or from their No. 2 singles player.
The 25-year-old Nishikori, who has just reached a career-high No. 4 ranking, led his country to a 4-1 win over Canada a year ago in the World Group first round in Tokyo. But the visitors were pretty well hamstrung with both Milos Raonic (lower leg) and Vasek Pospisil (back) injured and unable to play.
Both are reported to be in good health this time and this brings us to the “big question” – and here it is worth noting that at the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo 13 months ago, the Japanese got a vital point when Nishikori and Yasutaka Uchiyama upset Daniel Nestor and Frank Dancevic 6-3, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4 in the doubles – with Dancevic being a little leg-weary after his singles win over Go Soeda the previous day.
The question is should Pospisil play the opening singles versus the No. 1 Japanese, Nishikori – or would it be better to play Dancevic and rest Pospisil to make sure he is fit and ready to play doubles on Saturdayand a possible tie-deciding fifth match on Sunday?
The essence here is that if Pospisil played and lost a tough match to Nishikori, would he be ready for the doubles? Additionally there’s always the risk that his troublesome back could become an issue, especially if pushed hard by Nishikori.
Playing Dancevic would almost be conceding that opening-day singles match to Nishikori while assuming that Raonic would beat the No. 2 Japanese, either No. 85-ranked Tatsuma Ito or No. 86 Soeda, making the tie score 1-1 heading into day two and the doubles.
The highest ranked Japanese doubles player is Uchiyama at No. 222 while Nestor is No. 5 and Pospisil is No. 15.
That would give Canada two chances on Sunday, assuming it won the doubles on Saturday after splitting the singles on Friday, with a rested Raonic against a more tired Nishikori – assuming he plays Saturday’sdoubles for the Japanese – and the No. 62-ranked Pospisil versus Ito or Soeda in the fifth match if necessary.
There are a lot of “ifs” in the preceding but it did not seem all that far-fetched when a first query was put to Canadian team captain Martin Laurendeau on Monday about the possibility of not playing Pospisil the first day.
Now in his 12th year as leader of the Canadian squad, the 50-year-old Montrealer and ex-world No. 90 (1988) offered a complicit smile and replied, “that’s a deep question.”
When asked a follow-up question, he conceded, “anything can happen.”
Basically, what not playing Pospisil in the opening singles would do is pretty well eliminate the worst-case scenario for Canada – namely that he would be unavailable for the doubles and/or the reverse singles fifth match on Sunday, giving the Japanese chances for that extra point they would need if Nishikori is able to win his two singles.
The bottom line is that it’s always very difficult for any coach or captain not to play his best players, but he always has to consider all the options and possibilities.
Highlighting the seventh Japan-Canada Davis Cup meeting (Japan leads 6-0 dating back to a tie at the Mount Royal Tennis Club in Montreal in 1923) will be the marquee match-up of Raonic vs. Nishikori inSunday’s fourth match – as long as neither team leads 3-0.
It will offer a fascinating juxtaposition of styles – with Raonic attempting to dominate with his huge serve and monster forehand while Nishikori counters with his speed and exceptional ground strokes off both sides.
Nishikori leads their head-to-head 4-2 but they have split their last four meetings, including at the Grand Slams – Raonic winning in four sets at Wimbledon while Nishikori prevailed in a drawn-out, 2:26 a.m.finishing five-setter at the US Open, both last year.
In their last encounter – in the semifinals at the first tournament of the new season in Brisbane in January – Raonic prevailed by the narrowest of margins, 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(4) in a match that featured zero breaks of serve! Completing the uncanny symmetry of the match, both players were 0-3 in break point chances.
Not that the Canadian side would want in any way to be over-confident against a player as gifted as Nishikori, but there was a noticeable jaded aspect to his play at the Acapulco, Mexico ATP 500 event last week.
In the semifinal against Kevin Anderson, he had several obvious dips in form, and even lost his serve in the opening game of the final set, before prevailing 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. In the final, a 6-3, 7-5 loss to David Ferrer, Nishikori was definitely off his game, and though he rallied in the second set, he couldn’t sustain the consistency required to stay with the dogged Ferrer.
Nishikori didn’t arrive in Vancouver until late Monday evening, meaning he only has three days to practice on the medium-paced Premier Court at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre on the campus of the University of British Columbia.
An indication that he wants to maximize his chances for success this weekend may be that he has his coach Michael Chang in Vancouver. The 1989 French Open champion has just spent a few days vacationing with his family at Whistler, the nearby resort and site for the skiing competitions during the 2012 Winter Olympics.
Not necessarily to counter that, but Raonic also has his coach, former world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, in Vancouver. He will be around until Friday when he heads to Los Angeles for some family time before going out to Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open next week.
The practice players for the Japanese team are 19-year-old Yoshihito Nishioka (rank No. 147) and 18-year-old Naoki Nakagawa (rank No. 888).
On the Canadian side, Filip Peliwo, currently ranked No. 334, returns to his hometown to be of help in singles and doubles (above with captain Laurendeau) workouts, and also available is 32-year-old Adil Shamasdin, the affable doubles specialist who is just five spots off his best ATP doubles ranking of No. 58 (2011) at his current No. 63.
(Note: he is slated to play doubles with Raonic at Indian Wells but they are still well outside the entry cut-off.)
Present on Monday in all his trash-talking glory was the ageless Nestor, coming in off his 87th career title, with partner Rohan Bopanna, at the Dubai ATP 500 event last Saturday.
Trooper that he is, Nestor, 42, flew back from Dubai on Saturday, landing with time for a brief visit with his wife and two daughters in Toronto on Sunday, and then immediately leaving for Vancouver where he got in at 1 a.m. (PST) on Monday.
But he was out at the court practicing rigorously later in the day – playing highly-competitive singles tiebreaks with Peliwo, and baiting his 21-year-old opponent with lines like, “you used to hit the ball harder.” That, of course, prompted Peliwo to bash a few as hard as he possibly could.
The last word here goes to the venerable Nestor, with the following highfalutin barb aimed in the direction of Peliwo at one point on Monday: “form is temporary, class is permanent.”
Under the Mask
It’s up to readers to try to figure out which prominent tennis player is hiding inside this Tennis Canada tuque. There’s one obvious clue related to something he’s wearing, as well as something he is not wearing – on his right arm!