Daniel Nestor, just turned a spritely 45 years old, is a doubles maestro about to play his 51st Davis Cup tie. His doubles record is 31-11 dating back to his beginning in the event in 1992.
He has been a stalwart, anchoring the Saturday doubles for Canada for decades and often being the front man for the team. But no longer – or least according to him during a media conference in Edmonton on Tuesday ahead of Canada’s World Group Play-off against India starting Friday at the Northlands Coliseum.
“Things have changed,” he said. “We’re very capable of winning singles matches and I think that’s our strength now. If I can help out and get a win in doubles with Vasek (Pospisil) or Brayden (Schnur) or even Denis (Shapovalov), whoever plays, it would be great. But I think we’re a singles country now and I’m just here to help in any way I can.”
The singles burden for Canada clearly falls on the shoulders of Denis Shapovalov, who has jumped from No. 143 before the Rogers Cup early last month to No. 51 after a semifinal in Montreal at Rogers Cup and a round-of-16 finish as the US Open.
In all likelihood as Canada’s No. 1 he will face the Indian No. 2 Yuki Bhambri, ranked No. 157, in Friday’s opening day of singles. They played each other at the National Bank Challenger event in Gatineau, Que., in July and Shapovalov prevailed 4-6, 6-0, 6-3. “I’m hoping I can turn things around this time,” said the 25-year-old Bhambri. “He has obviously had an incredible run. He did great in Canada at the Masters (Rogers Cup) and he had a wonderful US Open. It will be interesting to see how he does here. It’s only his second [corr: third] tie. It’s altogether a different game playing Davis Cup than when you’re on the tour.”
Shapovalov’s only two previous ‘live’ Davis Cup matches were losses to Brits Daniel Evans and Kyle Edmund in February on Ottawa. So Bhambri is entitled to have hopes that his potential 18-year-old opponent is somehow vulnerable.
The second singles on Friday is very much up in the air – with No. 154-ranked Ramkumar Ramanathan (above second from left), the No. 1 on his team, almost sure to play for India. But his Canadian opponent could be Vasek Pospisil, if his back is in good enough shape for a best-of-five singles or Brayden Schnur, part of the four-man team named last Tuesday, or possibly Frank Dancevic, the 32-year-old veteran of 24 ties, who could be substituted for Pospisil or Schnur (practicing together below) before Thursday’s draw ceremony.
Nestor’s partner for Saturday’s doubles depends largely on Pospisil’s fitness while the Indians could very well substitute Purav Raja, No. 56 in doubles, for No. 665-ranked singles player Saketh Myneni to allow him to play with doubles specialist, No. 19-ranked Rohan Bopanna.
On Tuesday, Bopanna (on right above) was practising in combination with Raja on the Premier Court surface at the Northlands Coliseum.
“We’re going to wait until the last minute – we’re practising and considering everything we have to throw out there,” said captain Mahesh Bhupathi. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Asked about the possibility of Canada making a change, inserting Dancevic (above) into the line-up, Bhupathi joked, “I just heard from Danny (Nestor) that we have a bigger team than Canada so I don’t know if they have others to switch.”
As well as the players already named to the team – Ramanathan, Bhambri and Myneni – Raja is in Edmonton and so is No. 226-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
Summing up his team’s chances, the 43-year-old Bhupathi, a former world No. 1 in doubles who claimed Tuesday that he envies Nestor still being out on the tour at age 45, said, “obviously Canada is the hot favourite. They’ve got two guys in the top-100 (No. 51 Shapovalov and No. 82 Pospisil) that we don’t. They’ve got two Wimbledon champions in doubles (Nestor and Pospisil each with different partners) that we don’t. So we feel that if we fight hard all the pressure is on them. So we’re going to take it to them and see how the weekend goes.”
Not surprisingly, Shapovalov was the focus of most of Tuesday’s Team Canada media conference and, right off the top, he faced the probably unavoidable question about playing Davis Cup for the first time since the February incident when he accidently struck French umpire Arnaud Gabas with a ball and was defaulted from the fifth and deciding match.
“For me Ottawa is in the past and this is another Davis Cup tie,” Shapovalov responded. “It was a long time ago and I’ve matured a lot from that time. And I’m ready to compete for my country.”
About more recent happenings in his tennis life – beating Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal at Rogers Cup in Montreal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the US Open – Shapovalov said, “it’s been a crazy month for me but I’m happy to be part of the Davis Cup team. We have so many players that are way more experienced and obviously still leading the team like Vasek and Daniel. They still mentor me so I just feel happy to be part of the team.”
Shapovalov paid tribute to Nestor recalling how he appreciated Nestor watching him play when he was a young kid in the programs at Tennis Canada in Toronto. “He’s such a fun guy to be around in the locker room and on court,” said the rising star from Richmond Hill, Ont. “I’ve got to practice with him several times in Toronto and it’s just a blast every time. It’s really inspiring and to be in the same locker room as Danny. He’s definitely a guy I’ve looked up to since the start of my career and I still look up to him.”
As for Nestor, being on a five-match losing streak and having his ranking drop to No. 43, he noted about taking part in his 51st tie, “I’ve had a tough season. I wasn’t sure about my status after the summer – a little bit mentally tired and beat up. But Marty (captain Laurendeau) gave me the opportunity to come play and I took a step back and realized it was perhaps a good way to turn things around for me and help the team.”
He recalled one unfortunate memory about Edmonton where he lost in Davis Cup to Chile’s Marcelo Rios 6-4, 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 3-6, 14-12 in April, 1996. It was the only time in his career that he came back from a two-sets deficit and he was pretty bummed to wind up losing.
All the Canadian players are somewhat in awe of being in Northlands Coliseum where hockey immortal Wayne Gretzky played from 1978 to 1988. “It’s pretty cool actually being here after having a chance to know how humble he is and what a great guy he is,” Shapovalov said about the famous No. 99. “He’s definitely a role model of mine. It’s amazing to be in the same locker room as he was and the whole team.
And the punchline to this story: Asked who was sitting in Gretzky’s old stall in the locker-room, Shapovalov laughed and said, “I am. I stole it before anyone could get it.”
Somdev Devvarman retired from tennis in the spring of 2016 after a career that saw him ranked as high as No. 62 (2011) in the ATP rankings. That followed one of the most celebrated U.S. college tennis careers highlighted by winning back-to-back NCAA singles titles in 2007 (John Isner in the final) and 2008 (John Patrick Smith in the final).
The 32-year-old Devvarman now lives in Chennai and runs a non-profit organization that he co-founded and that offers sports activities for kids in inner-cities and economically-disadvantaged areas.
“I’ve been brought on board by the Indian government,” he explained about another endeavour he recently started, “the sports ministry of India to help them structure sport in a little bit better way, and tennis specifically. We’re trying to create a nice junior development program, actually very similar to what Canada has done. They’ve done such a great job over the last 10 or 15 years. They’re a really good example for us.”
Although he’s very active on court during this practice week in Edmonton, he’s not officially the team captain or coach. “The Davis Cup is a bit of my experience,” he said. “I played on the team a long time (2008-2015 – 15 ties). I know the guys and have a great rapport with them. We have a coach, we have a captain. I’m just an ex-player on the team who’s giving the players what I can.”
Questioned about this weekend’s match-up against Canada, Devvarman said, “it’s an exciting tie. You have a lot of moving pieces, a lot going on – and even with Team India. The beautiful thing for us is Yuki (Bhambri) and Ram (Ramkumar Ramanathan) are coming in general good form – after maybe one of the best summers they’ve had in their lives. It’s definitely not to the level of Raonic and Shapovalov and these guys. But it’s Davis Cup, it’s one match, three-out-of-five. Yuki beat (Gael) Monfils earlier (in Washington in July) and Ram beat (Dominic) Thiem earlier (in Turkey in June on grass), so we’re coming in feeling we have a chance for sure. And doubles we have a top-20 guy in Rohan and we’re still not really sure on how we’re going to play our doubles. We have quite a few options. There’s (Purav) Raja, there’s (Saketh) Myneni – he’s played a few ties, won a few ties for us. He played against Spain last year – a fantastic player. He was top-10 in college as well.
“We’ll kind of wait and see how things pan out.
“Canada might be slight favourites especially because they’re playing at home. But Davis Cup…I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been favourite and I’ve lost, and I’ve been a heavy underdog and I’ve won.
Looking back on his career, which included a shoulder surgery in 2012, Devvarman (with Gunneswaran and Bhambri above) said, “are there things I could have done better? – sure. But are there things I’m proud that I did in my career, yes. I think I did well. I was known to be an extremely hard working guy and I think I was. I left it all out there on the court – never really had regrets from that end.”
Since 1977, only Swede Mikael Pernfors (1984-85 – University of Georgia), Devvarman (2007-2008 – University of Virginia) and American Steve Johnson (University of Southern California 2011-2012) have won back-to-back NCAA singles titles.
Joking about Johnson, whose current ATP ranking is No. 45, Devvarman said, “Steve let me hold the record for about two years.”
Devvarman added about his collegiate success, “I’m really happy with it but I would have taken the team title over that. On the bright side I think Virginia won four of the last five years.”
Having reached the NCAA final in 2006, Devvarman said, “it would have been easy after a final to drop off but my coaches pushed me. We always knew I was going to play pro so it was all focused on developing.
“Those two NCAA titles obviously justified that. And it makes me feel good looking back because what’s there is there. If you ask me Steve Johnson is the greatest college tennis player of all-time – he won two back-to-back NCAAs and four team championships. That’s going to be pretty hard to beat.”
Looking back, Devvarman, who has a sociology degree from the University of Virginia, said, “more than anything else, I’m just a huge fan of Virginia athletics. They obviously personally changed my life but not just that there’s a certain feel and a certain connect I still have with UVA. I go back, I own a home there. I stay in touch with the team, there’s an emotional connect. It’s hard to explain. I’m indebted to the team for life and I’m a huge alum, a huge fan and I always want them to do well.”
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