Bo Mon Kwan
Vasek Pospisil has been a Davis Cup warrior for Canada, including winning three matches during a 2011 tie in Israel that lifted Canada into the World Group as well as mammoth doubles successes with Daniel Nestor, but it would be hard to top a clinching victory in the decisive fifth match as he did Sunday in his hometown.
“It’s pretty amazing, especially being here in Vancouver,” he said about playing in front of a partisan crowd that included his parents, Milos and Mila, as well as his brothers Petr and Tom who bang drums in the boisterous band of Canadian team supporters known as ‘Vashy’s Army.’
“It makes a bigger difference than a lot of people realize,” Pospisil said about the backing of the crowd. “We feed off the energy.”
Pospisil outclassed Japan’s Go Soeda 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in a masterful performance after Milos Raonic was beaten in a heart-breaker – 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 – by Kei Nishikori in the first of the reverse singles on Sunday.
The Raonic-Nishikori cliffhanger had Pospisil sitting in the locker room never sure whether or not he would be taking to the court for a live match. “It’s not that easy, especially with a match like today that was really up and down with a lot of momentum shifts,” he said. “But I just prepared the whole time as if I was going to play while hoping Milos was going to win.”
Tatsuma Ito had been slated in as the Japanese player for the fifth match but Pospisil sensed otherwise and was not surprised when he learned 10 minutes before start time that Soeda would be substituted. “I knew from day one that Go was going to play the last match,” he said. “If I was their captain, I would have done the same thing. His game is better on this surface. He plays flat and he likes a fast court. He’s best on quick surfaces. So I was pretty sure he was going to play.”
The match was close until Pospisil, ranked No. 62 but probably playing at a higher level, broke the No. 86-ranked Soeda in the final game of the first set.
Soeda had lost his serve on a critical double fault in the penultimate game of Saturday’s doubles, and he doubled-faulted to fall behind love-30 in the final game of the first set. Even though he got back to 30-all, Pospisil was ready to pounce at any sign of weakness and then blasted two big forehand winners to close out the set, the first punctuated with a roar of “c’mon.”
Effectively, the match was over. He broke Soeda in the eighth game of the second set, and in the third game of the third – while never facing a break point himself – to wrap up a relatively drama-free win in an hour and 45 minutes.
“He did beautifully,” said Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau about Pospisil’s effort. “That was a perfect match. He couldn’t have executed better.”
After the final point, Pospisil celebrated with his teammates, hugged his parents and generally ‘lived the moment’ to borrow a Tennis Canada phrase. “There were so many times when I was scheduled to play the fifth match but Milos always closed it out,” Pospisil said. “Obviously you would have wanted to finish it earlier (in the fourth match) but it was really special to win that one in front of the home crowd.”
It was even more special because on Tuesday of last week, Pospisil was honoured with a plaque at the Kitsilano Beach courts in Vancouver where he often played as a youngster, and to where he returned as the reigning (partnering Jack Sock) Wimbledon doubles champion.
At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Pospisil is a strong guy who thrives on work. “It seems like when I get a little bit tired, I play better,” he said. “I was a bit tired, heavy-legged today (Sunday), but it wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t have served better. That was a huge part of the match.”
He won 93 per cent of his first serve points, with a drop-off to only 71 per cent on his second serve.
Laurendeau was asked if Pospisil or Frank Dancevic would have played the exhibition fifth match if Raonic had clinched the tie with a win (in three sets) over Nishikori. He said he had no idea, but after a short pause Pospisil leaned into the microphone and deadpanned, “Frank would have played.”
Dancevic indeed came very close to getting on court because there were several junctures in the Raonic-Nishikori match when it appeared the Canadian No. 1 might win.
Raonic broke Nishikori in the fourth game of the opening set, after Japanese stopped a rally for a Hawk-Eye challenge that subsequently showed a Raonic shot had clipped the line. That made it 30-all and two points later – two misfired forehands – Raonic broke to lead 3-1.
That was the first set and the second and third sets were decided by Nishikori breaking Raonic in the eighth and fifth games respectively. He took control and had Raonic struggling to keep up in the rallies. But Raonic rallied, breaking twice in the fourth set to level the match against an obviously shaken Nishikori.
Maybe the high point of the match for Raonic came when he faced a break point immediately after breaking Nishikori in the fourth game of the fourth set. He hit a serve and then thundered a forehand winner that could not have been more impressive for its cool under fire.
In the fifth set, Raonic was broken in the third game but broke back in the sixth to level at 3-all.
But as sublime as Raonic’s serve and forehand had been on that break point in the fourth set, he stumbled when facing break point at 4-all in the fifth. After missing his first serve by an inch or so, he called for a Hawk-Eye challenge, which he lost. He then proceeded to double fault, with the ball tipping off the net. Nishkori served out the match to love in the following game.
Later asked if he had any regrets about making that Hawk-Eye challenge in the penultimate game, and then double-faulting after the ensuing interruption, Raonic was adamant, “none, that’s the right choice.”
There were interesting observations after the match, which was just another in a streak of seven extremely competitive episodes between the two – although the first that didn’t include at least one tiebreak. Nishikori said that he thought the fast Premier Court surface actually helped him return Raonic’s second serve because it bounced low and put the ball more in his hitting zone.
“I tried to stay down,” he said about dealing with the redoubtable Raonic serve. “His first serve, I can’t do anything with. But on the second, I tried to give him a little pressure. Return of serve was really key in today’s match.”
That was obvious in the stats, with Raonic winning 86 per cent of his first serve points but only 46 per cent on his second.
“The whole match comes down to one or two moments,” said Raonic, who lost at home for the first time in Davis Cup after compiling a 10-0 record. “I’m happy with the way I fought and the way I competed – that’s all I can ask of myself.”
On the hot topic of the fast surface, he noted, “whoever gets the first strike…Kei sort of likes it when it goes back and forth fast. He likes pounding away and taking time away. When it came to the rallies, I couldn’t get ahead the way I wanted to – or get enough short balls the way my game usually is.”
Raonic showed a touch of bravado as he now moves on to ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. Referring to those two events, he declared, “this gives me things to build off of, and I can do big things there.”
Canada now has a quarter-final match-up in Belgium against a team that features the following players (rankings in brackets) – David Goffin (21), Steve Darcis (102), Ruben Bemelmens (132) and Neils Desein (154).
The tie will be July 17-19, which is one week after Wimbledon and one week later than usual because Wimbledon is pushed back this year, creating a three-week gap between it and Roland Garros.
“That one is going to be a challenge,” Laurendeau suggested on Sunday evening about playing in Belgium, “logistically speaking and scheduling wise because our guys are going to be in Europe quite a bit – the whole clay season and then the grass season. Then usually there’s kind of a break at home to regroup before they begin the North American stretch.
“You’ll have to follow back-to-back Grand Slams (Roland Garros and Wimbledon), where you have to be at your best, and then you have to be at your best again. It’s a long stretch, so it’s very demanding.
“There’s surface changes from clay to grass to whatever they play us on – probably it won’t be grass so we’ll be back on clay or hard court. It’s a lot of things to juggle but we’ll get to that a little bit later, we’re just going to get the guys together and celebrate tonight.”
It’s an opening for Canada, especially considering it would likely have been playing Switzerland with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, instead of Belgium, had the two superstars not decided to skip the opening-round tie.
Definitely getting ahead of ourselves, but if Canada can advance past Belgium it could possibly host a semi-final versus Novak Djokovic and Serbia just five days after the US Open final in September.
The win against Japan guarantees a spot in the 2016 Davis Cup World Group, meaning Canada will have been in the elite 16-nation echelon for five years in a row.
Hopes are high, and Pospisil may have expressed it best when he said, “the way Milos is playing…anytime you have a guy like him on the team and Danny (Nestor) and myself as well, we have a lot of depth. Anything can really happen, and we showed that when we made the semis (2013). I think the goal is to win Davis Cup, be it this year, next year or however many years down the road. That’s what we want to accomplish and I think we have the team that can do it.”
Vancouver Post Card
Vancouver is a busy Pacific seaport and bulk carrier cargo ships moored in English Bay are a fixture of the city landscape. Here’s one silhouetted against the North Shore mountains.