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Milos Raonic of Canada serves to James Blake of the U.S. during their match at the U.S. Open men's singles tennis tournament in New York September 1, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Milos Raonic of Canada serves to James Blake of the U.S. during their match at the U.S. Open men's singles tennis tournament in New York September 1, 2012. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Sean Gordon

Canada's Davis Cup Matchup a walk in the park (on paper) Add to ...

Sporting decorum dictates you have to respect your opponent, praise their skill level, insist on taking them seriously – and sometimes it’s a genuine sentiment.

But allow us to say what those nice people at Tennis Canada wouldn’t ever utter, even under threat of having every racket in the joint smashed to slivers: their upcoming Davis Cup tie against South Africa will be little more than a stroll through Jarry Park.

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After all, Canada is playing in that green space’s Stade Uniprix, on its preferred hard courts, against a tennis nation that was supposed to host the tie but couldn’t scrape together $180,000 to fund it.

They are playing a team deprived of its best player, 34th-ranked singles specialist Kevin Anderson, who, after begging off through injury, has opted to indulge in a payday at the World Team Tennis event the same weekend. (This has gone over rather poorly back home.)

They are playing against a squad with exactly zero players in the top 150 on the ATP computer. One member of the team is a 21-year-old University of Mississippi player with no world ranking at all.

No, this tie is less about the team on the other side of the net than it is about solidifying Canada’s position as an emerging tennis power and banishing memories of a one-sided Davis Cup loss to France earlier this year.

The home side featuring Milos Raonic, the 16th-ranked singles player on the planet, world No. 1 doubles specialist Daniel Nestor, 104th-ranked Vasek Pospisil and 125th-ranked Frank Dancevic has its opponents comprehensively outclassed.

On paper, at least.

Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau said his squad is confident going into the matchup – the first two singles matches are on Sept. 14, the doubles go the next day and the final two singles matches are on Sept. 16 – but pointed out the pressure-filled stakes: The loser drops down to the Davis Cup zone groups for another year of arduous travel and dodgy clay court matchups.

And he knows better than to not fear South Africa, at least a little bit.

“Teams have a way of raising their game at the Davis Cup,” Laurendeau noted.

The former national singles champion referenced an episode from his own playing days, when heavily favoured Canada travelled to Haiti and needed fifth-set heroics in the final singles match to salvage a result.

He’s right to be cautious, but there is every expectation of winning at home against an under-powered opponent, and South Africa would remain so even if Anderson were to have a last-minute change of heart.

This is seen as an opportunity not just to rejoin the big boys of global tennis but to show everyone, themselves included, that Canada belongs.

“We want to plan on beating a team in the [16-nation] World Group, which is something we’ve never done,” said Laurendeau, who reckons the current unit is the strongest team Canada has ever had.

The upcoming tie is also about putting the dolorous lessons of last spring’s 4-1 spanking at the hands of France into practice.

Raonic won his first singles match that weekend in Vancouver, but withdrew from his second through injury. His replacement, ATP journeyman Dancevic, was no match for world No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but this time around the 27-year-old won’t be relied upon to do too much heavy lifting.

The fourth member of the Canadian squad, 22-year-old Pospisil, is coming off a moderately successful Olympic doubles competition with Nestor. (The pair lost a tough match to the third-seeded Serbians.)

Pospisil’s singles ranking has risen as high as 85th this year, though he lost in the first round of the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, which has at least given him plenty of practice time.

The star of the squad remains the hard-serving Raonic. The Thornhill, Ont., native missed last fall’s heavily fraught matches in Israel but according to Laurendeau, his health is as good as it has been.

“It’s encouraging for everyone to see our best player playing his best tennis,” he said.

Canada has never spent two consecutive years in the Davis Cup’s World Group, the highest echelon of international tennis. But as long as Raonic is fit and his teammates play to their ability, that will change in about 11 days’ time.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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