It has been called the loneliest sport by no less an authority than Hall of Fame tennis player Andre Agassi – this is especially true when you’re obviously outgunned.
Every singles match features at least a couple of moments in which one or the other of the players is a study in forlornness. In this case the slumped shoulders belonged to Izak van der Merwe of South Africa.
The 28-year-old had cleverly manoeuvred Canadian Milos Raonic into mis-hitting an arcing, defensive backhand while serving in the second set of their pivotal Davis Cup match Sunday.
Top-level players have a sixth sense about shots that are headed out – Raonic didn’t bother scuttling back into position – but the ball landed squarely on the side line, and the South African scuffed what should have been a simple cross-court winner into the net.
Before that point the world No. 118 van der Merwe was in trouble (he had lost the first set 2-6); after it, he was done. The 21-year-old Raonic quickly broke to grab a 3-0 lead to crush any residual hopes of a comeback and cruised through the third set.
Raonic’s 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 triumph was as imperious a display of tennis as the world No. 15 has delivered for his country. More importantly it cemented a Canadian berth in the Davis Cup’s top-tier World Group of 2013.
Now comes the hard part.
Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau has said the objective for his squad is to win a tie against the world elite, which the country has never done – a meeting last February with France turned into a bit of a one-sided mess when Raonic was forced to withdraw with an injury.
“I think we’re showing we belong at this level,” said Laurendeau, adding, “For the first time in a couple of years we got through the week with no injuries. … I think when all our players are healthy and competitive I think we can take on a lot of teams at the World Group level.”
Asked how far Canada is from advancing beyond the first round of the World Group, Raonic said, “It’s a long ways away, it’s February, we can all improve a lot, I know I will. Hopefully we’re stronger and better as a team.”
“All of us need to improve,” he later continued, “I think [top-ranked doubles specialist] Daniel [Nestor] is the only one who’s well established enough, he knows he can pretty much beat anybody. I believe I can, but it’s not just about beating them, it’s about beating them on a consistent basis. So I need to improve. … Everybody needs to improve.”
It’s van der Merwe’s bad luck that he played Canada’s best singles player in history after a lacklustre performance in his first singles match of the Davis Cup tie – facing a heavily-favoured opponent who wants to prove a point is no one’s idea of fun.
“The other day I waited for [South African Davis Cup rookie Nikala Scholtz] to lose to me, and today I played,” said Raonic, whose victory Sunday was far more comfortable than his 7-5, 6-4, 7-5 win over Scholtz last Friday. “I did what I wanted to do, I went out there to beat him.”
The result is one thing, but it’s the clinical manner in which it was achieved that caught the eyes.
How dominant was Raonic?
Van de Merwe earned just 19 points on the big Canadian’s serve during the entire match, five of them courtesy of double-faults.
Raonic is not yet the finished article, but when he does iron out the holes in his game, it’s going to be a real problem for the rest of the pro tennis circuit.
South Africa was playing without its two best players – top-30 player Kevin Anderson skipped the event to play a World Team Tennis tournament, veteran Rik de Voest withdrew with an injury – so this was always going to be a comfortable victory for Canada.
And other than a stumble in the doubles on Saturday – 40-year-old Nestor and 22-year-old partner Vasek Pospisil bumbled their way to a 4-6, 6-7, 6-7 loss at the hands of Raven Klaasen and van der Merwe – it was.
Once Raonic had wrapped up the tie in the first match Sunday, 27-year-old Frank Dancevic humbled Scholtz in straight sets, adding to Pospisil’s victory Friday and ensuring Canada’s singles players ended the tie a perfect 4-0.