Daniel Nestor had 44 victories in singles and doubles in his Davis Cup career for Canada and few will approach his win over the world’s No. 1 player, Stefan Edberg back in 1992, when he was just a pup breaking on the circuit.
But victory No. 45 for Nestor – playing with Vasek Pospisil against the Italian doubles team of Fabio Fognini and Daniele Bracciali on Saturday afternoon at UBC’s Thunderbird Arena – may have the greatest lasting impact.
Canada won the first two sets of their World Group quarter-final against the Italians and was up an early break in the third. But the Italians came back and won the next two sets, setting the stage for the fabulous fifth. After 26 consecutive holds, the Canadians finally broke Fognini. From there, Pospisil served it out, Canada officially gutting out a 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 3-6, 15-13 victory.
It was a match for the ages and put Canada up 2-1 and needing only a single point from Sunday’s two reverse singles matches to advance to the semi-finals for the first time in history.
The Canadians can manage that if Milos Raonic defeats Italy’s Andreas Seppi in Sunday’s first singles match. Both Raonic, No. 16 on the ATP tour, and Seppi, No. 18, won their singles matches on Friday. The two have never previously played on the tour, or in Davis Cup action.
Given the length of Saturday’s match, it seems almost certain that the captains will switch up the players for the second match of the reverse singles which will only be a live rubber if Seppi can win.
Currently, Pospisil and Fognini are nominated to play, but the more likely candidates to play will be Jesse Levine for Canada and Paolo Lorenzi for Italy. For Levine, it would be his first-ever match for Canada. Lorenzi, who was subbed out in favor of Fognini for the doubles at the 11th hour, is 1-1 in singles for Italy, but gave a good account of himself in the last round against Croatia, pushing Marin Cilic to five sets.
There was a chance Nestor might not even play the match, given that he’d “felt a pop” in his ankle during the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. “I didn’t know what the status was going to be,” said Nestor. “There was no tear, but there’s always a chance you could re-aggravate it.
“I went into the match thinking, I’ll start a little slow and not go too crazy and work my way into things. Yesterday, I asked Marty (captain Martin Laurendeau) if Milos wants to play, considering my injury, and maybe even without my injury, maybe that would be the better team.
“But they wanted to keep Milos 100 per cent for Sunday, so I thought maybe being 80 per cent on a fast court was good enough. I was hoping it would be good enough.”
Nestor said the injury didn’t hinder him much: “It was better than I thought it would be. I can’t say I ran after every ball like crazy, but I don’t do that anyway all the time.”
That last crack brought the house down. Both Nestor and Pospisil seemed worn out rather than euphoric, so it was left for Laurendeau to note the historical importance of the win.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” said Laurendeau. “That match was really up-and-down. There’s a lot going on, but ultimately, we played with a lot of courage and passion and we played to win. They never held back. We talked about us, if we want to make the semi-finals of the World Group, you need every point – and they really earned it tonight.”
After a messy fourth set which featured four service breaks, the fifth set was pure magic, all four players raising the level of their games, and refusing to give in as the pressure built and built.
It was a pure test of wills to see which side would crack first. At one point, Pospisil had his service broken four times in a row. For him to regain his composure and confidence the way he did could be career-defining.
In that fifth and deciding set, Canada had a break point against Fognini in the third game and against Bracciali in the fifth, but couldn’t convert either.
The Italians had two break chances against Nestor in the sixth game, but the Canadians fought them both off and according to Italian team captain Corrado Barazzutti was one of multiple key moments in the match.
It was on serve in the fifth set until the 27th game when Fognini finally buckled, a game in which he’d been called for his second foot fault of the match – and received a warning for the first from the umpire’s chair. At love-40, the Italians saved one break point, but a Fognini mishit gave the game to Canada. Italy had previously saved eight break points in the set before finally giving one up.
From there, Pospisil served it out in convincing fashion. Nestor noted that Pospisil covered “three-quarters” of the court for him.
“It’s nice to finally help out the team because I’ve felt like a liability the last few ties,” said Nestor.
For most of Nestor’s career, the second-day doubles match was the one point Canada could count on. Nestor is a sparkling 29-7 in career Davis Cup doubles matches and as recently as May of last year, was the world’s No. 1 ranked doubles player – the oldest player in ATP history to be ranked No. 1 in either singles or doubles.
But Nestor hasn’t had a great year, reaching just one semi-final (in Memphis, with Lukasz Kubot); and he’d also been on a personal three-game losing streak (against France, South Africa and Spain) in Davis Cup action.
So the doubles was not a sure thing and the Italians made the expected 11th-hour switch, substituting Fognini for Lorenzi, because they believed – with Raonic up tomorrow - the doubles could represent the pivotal point.
The Italians grumbled a little about the hostile environment – Fognini especially was a target for some hecklers – but Nestor noted that Canada had played in far tougher conditions in previous away matches and said he hoped the same rowdy bunch would be back Sunday.
“That’s part of Davis Cup, that’s what makes it special,” said Nestor. “I just hope they all look at the bigger picture and know that it wasn’t all that bad.”