He has been No. 1 in the world in his specialty, men’s doubles, for more than 100 weeks. He has 79 career doubles titles and a Golden Slam – champion of the four major tournaments (Wimbledon, French, U.S. and Australian Opens) that define tennis at the highest level, plus Olympic gold. That came in 2000 and he did it in Australia, partnered with fellow Canadian Sebastien Lareau, against arguably the greatest doubles team in history – the Woodies, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, the heavy hometown favourites.
His career earnings exceed $10-million, and although he was never ranked above No. 58 in the world in men’s singles (in 1999, when he was still a relative pup), Daniel Nestor has career singles wins over five players who were ranked No. 1 in the world at one time – Stefan Edberg, Thomas Muster, Patrick Rafter, Gustavo Kuerten and Marcelo Rios.
The victory against Edberg came in a Davis Cup match in Vancouver when Nestor was 19; his win over Rios in a Davis Cup match in Calgary occurred more than a decade later, long after he’d become a doubles specialist. Indeed, that was all Rios could talk about after the loss. Offered any number of excuses – the altitude, his level of fitness, the dark building, the lightning-fast court – all Rios could mumble, over and over again, was some variation of “but I lost to a doubles player.”
That observation by Rios may explain why Nestor – who was born in Belgrade and now lives in Bahamas – hasn’t received wider recognition as one of the greatest athletes ever produced in Canada, where he was raised after emigrating with his parents at the age of three. Nestor has been so consistent for so long, but doubles – despite its popularity among recreational players – remains the poor stepchild of professional tennis. As a result, matches are banished to the side courts for most tournaments, even if the level of athleticism can make for a lot of “wow” moments.
Nestor received the Order of Canada in 2010, and this month received an honorary degree from York University, where he has been playing in the Rogers Cup (née Canadian Open) for the better part of two decades.
But remarkably, Nestor’s 40th birthday is just around the corner, on Sept. 4, and he and partner Max Mirnyi of Belarus are currently co-ranked No. 1 in the world. Nestor played doubles with fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil at this summer’s Olympics, but he will be back playing with Mirnyi at the U.S. Open, which begins Monday at Flushing Meadow, N.Y.
When Nestor and Mirnyi won their opening-round doubles match at the Rogers Cup this month, they became the first team to qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour finals, the year-end tournament that brings together that season’s top players in London and represents the de facto world championship of tennis. Nestor has won the event in each of the past two years, once with Mirnyi, the other with Nenad Zimonjic, his previous partner.
“Daniel Nestor is a legend,” said Bob Bryan, half of the iconic American doubles team, the twin Bryan brothers, who have been Nestor’s top rivals for close to a decade. “He’s shown us all that’s it’s possible to play until you’re 40. Ten years ago I think the oldest guy in the top 10 was 32, and we couldn’t believe he was still playing.
“He’s an incredible athlete. He’s flexible. He’s limber. He’s still playing like he’s 20. That serve that he has is timeless. That serve will probably carry him until he’s 50.”
The Bryans are the reigning Olympic champions, winners of the Masters 1000 in Toronto, and the most visible doubles team of their generation. But every great rivalry requires a foil and Bob Bryan says that’s been Nestor.
“We’ve been knocking heads for the last 14 years,” Bryan said. “Every time you step on the court with Danny you almost feel less pressure, because you know if you don’t play your best tennis you’re going to lose. It frees you up to go for your shots.
“He’s given us a lot of bitter defeats, and we’ve clipped him in a couple of big ones as well. There is a lot of mutual respect between us and him.”
According to Mike Bryan, that respect extends from the court into the locker room.
“He’s a good guy on the court and a great guy off the court,” he said. “He’s beaten us in a lot of tough matches and never rubbed it in. I’m sure we have. We chest bumped in his face.
“But he’s one of the most well liked guys on tour. He jokes around in the locker room before tough matches, big matches. We’re all happy to still see him playing.”
In mid-August, 21-year-old Milos Raonic broke into the top 20 of ATP rankings for the first time in his career, and will be seeded in singles at the U.S. Open. Ultimately, Raonic may be known as the greatest Canadian player ever, if he meets some of his early promise.
But now? Few would argue that it’s Nestor, even if the bulk of his success came in doubles.
“I would say there’s a pretty good case to be made that he’s the greatest player ever to come out of this country,” said Hatem McDadi, Tennis Canada’s vice-president of player development and someone who played against Nestor at the start of his career.
“He’s won Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal, and has been No. 1 in the world. Now, one may qualify it to say it wasn’t in singles, but if you look at it really, the collection of work that he’s had over the past 20 years, it’s pretty incredible, and he would be in the discussion of the greatest doubles players of all time.
“Just look at what he’s done with different partners,” McDadi added. “Zimonjic hasn’t won a Slam before or after he played with Nestor. [Mark] Knowles hasn’t won a Slam since leaving Nestor. Lareau won a gold with Nestor. Mirnyi definitely won Slams with [Jonas] Bjorkman and others, but if you look at what Danny’s done with different partners, the common factor is Daniel Nestor’s phenomenal play. He’s remarkable.”
So what keeps Nestor going, with so many miles on the odometer?
“I’m pretty competitive,” Nestor said. “I realize this is what I do best. I like playing the Grand Slams. I like to try and do well in the Grand Slams. I’m wondering why I haven’t done so well at Wimbledon [wins in 2008 and 2009], which is a better surface for me, or the U.S. Open last year.
“So that’s a goal of mine, to do better at the U.S. Open and just try and play my best in the big events and in the Grand Slams especially.
“I think maybe when I was younger, I didn’t play so well in some of finals that I got to early on, so I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time, perhaps.”
Nestor has seen lots of changes in the game, but acknowledges that his longevity has something to do with being a doubles specialist.
“Obviously you have to work harder to play singles,” Nestor said. “It requires a lot more stamina. Doubles is pretty explosive, but the points are a lot shorter and more of a quick-reflexes, quick-thinking kind of thing.
“Over the last eight to 10 years, the game has definitely slowed down compared to the early 2000s and became much more physical. Whether it’s singles or doubles, guys are getting bigger and stronger, and hitting the ball harder.
“The balls are slower and the courts are slower, so you have to be ready to deal with longer rallies and more balls coming back than perhaps in the nineties. So for sure, fitness is something I focus on a little bit more in the last few years than actual tennis, I think.”
Tennis is a sport that can break down the body. Nestor has had his share of elbow woes – needing a steady diet of anti-inflammatory medication to dull the ache at one point in his career – but mostly he’s been able to avoid the catastrophic injuries that have cut short other players’ careers.
“He’s very meticulous in terms of taking care of himself,” McDadi said. “When he was younger, he had a wrist problem and he was out for a while. He actually had to change grips on his forehand. And he did make a comeback after some shoulder problems in the middle of his career there.
“For a while, after he beat Edberg, maybe the second year on tour, he was out for a few months, and that was a wake-up call. But if you look at the last 20 years, he developed such a professional routine and has taken great care of himself. He’s become the quintessential professional, in terms of knowing himself and what he has to do to get his body and mind ready to prepare for the tour and the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup.”
Nestor won 40 of his titles playing alongside Knowles, an accidental partnership that began in 1994 in Bogota after his father Ray had entered him in singles in a clay-court tournament, soon after the U.S. Open. Nestor and Knowles won the doubles event, and four months later, made it to the Australian Open final. The two dissolved their partnership in 2007, but even after announcing that they would split, still won the French Open that year.
Nestor won 21 more titles with Zimonjic, including his only two Wimbledon championships.
Nestor will evaluate his future at the end of the 2012 season, and his direction will be determined as much by family as tennis. Martina Navratilova, the legendary women’s player, won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title one month short of her 50th birthday playing with Bob Bryan, so the twins know something about longevity and what it takes to keep playing into a creaky old age.
“I haven’t heard that he wants to retire any time soon,” said Mike Bryan, laughing, “so he’s probably going for Rio [site of the 2016 Olympics]. “He’s probably going to outlast us.”