When it was all over, when Vasek Pospisil was trying to explain what had just happened to him – defeating the No.6-ranked player in the world in a tight three-set match Thursday at the Rogers Cup – he was overcome by the emotion of the moment, tears springing to his eyes.
Well, who wouldn’t be?
This was unexpected. This was new unproved ground. Pospisil received a direct entry into the tournament, an ATP Masters 1000 event, as a wild card because organizers are permitted to fill out the field with a handful of Canadians who otherwise would have been required to play qualifying matches to get in. Granted, the Vernon, B.C.-born Pospisil had been on something a roll of late, but winning on the secondary Challenger circuit, which he did last weekend, is far different than keeping up with the best professional tennis has to offer.
And yet here is Pospisil, three matches in, with three victories under his belt, and a legitimate chance to advance to the semi-finals, if he can defeat Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko in his next match Friday. Davydenko was once the No.4 player in the world, but has fallen to No.47 in the ATP rankings, still well ahead of Pospisil, who is No.71, but rising fast because of this week’s successes.
Pospisil won the biggest match of his career, and his first against a top-10 player, when he toppled the fifth seed, Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic by a 7-5, 2-6, 7-6 (5) count in a match that lasted 2 hours 38 minutes.
Hours later, countryman Milos Raonic joined Pospisil in the quarter-finals, with a straight-sets victory over Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, the sixth seed. After taking an extended injury timeout early in the match because of a inflamed neck muscle, Raonic won 7-5, 6-4, and will next play unseeded Latvian Ernests Gulbis, who upset the No.2 seed Andy Murray earlier in the day.
Canada hasn’t had two men in this tournament’s quarter-finals since 1989, when Grant Connell and Andrew Sznajder both managed the trick.
But what makes this so deliciously intriguing is both Pospisil and Raonic are in the bottom half of the draw, where seven of the eight seeded players have already been eliminated.
If both the Canadians win their matches Friday, a distinct possibility, they would meet in one of the semi-finals – and who might have predicted that happening before the tournament started?
Raonic’s decision to switch coaches to Ivan Ljubicic in the spring came about largely because he wanted to be more competitive against the big boys.
Del Potro, at 6 foot 6, is one of the biggest. Del Potro won his 15th career title last weekend in Washington and is a former U.S. Open champion, but he had been extended to three sets by Croatia’s Ivan Dodig the night before, and forced to rally from two breaks down in the third set to win the match. Del Potro looked spent, emotionally and physically.
Raonic, on the other hand, overcame an early service break in the second set by breaking back twice. Controversially, Raonic appeared to run into the net at a key moment, an infraction the chair umpire failed to detect. By his body language, del Potro wanted Raonic to call the point against him but he opted not to do so.
“It’s a lucky thing for me in my sense, unlucky for him,” the Thornhill, Ont., native said, “something that can go really both ways. It’s sort of the exact same thing as having no challenges left and you get a bad line call. It’s like a bad-luck thing. It was hard to sort of be able to take this point on such a big point.”
Nor was Raonic certain how his neck would react to a night’s sleep, and being second on the court Friday, after Pospisil.
“It is a tight muscle that’s inflamed,” Raonic said. “If we can sort of calm that down, I think it’s going to help significantly lower the pain and the discomfort in my arm.
“Tomorrow’s another day. I don’t know. I could sleep well and it could be something really good, or I could have a bad sleep.”
Considering how Raonic had struggled of late – just 5-7 in his previous 12 matches going into the Rogers Cup – advancing to the quarter-finals might represent a turning point in his year.
But Pospisil’s win could be more than that – an important turning point in his career. Berdych has eight ATP career titles to his credit and had a match record of 37-14 going into the tournament, so he was no pushover.
And yet Pospisil stood there and slugged it out with him toe-to-toe.
“I feel I can play with anybody now, if I just beat a guy [ranked sixth] in the world,” Pospisil said. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect because I never played somebody that’s that good from the baseline.
“The key was really not thinking too much out there. When there are big moments, stick to the patterns, try to be solid. Obviously, I was fortunate that it worked out. I’m very happy right now.”
At the highest levels of tennis, once the players get their shot-making skill down, so much of winning and losing is all between the ears. Pospisil is 23, and becoming a more mature player, with every passing month. But as he noted, it all goes hand in hand – confidence and maturity, the physical and the mental sides of the game coming together simultaneously.
“If you keep working on it, it becomes a habit to have your emotions under control,” he said, “but it is very closely related to your level of play, as well. When you’re confident, it’s easier to be composed and mentally there.”
The match had a number of twists and turns, Pospisil winning the opening set after breaking Berdych’s serve in the 11th game. But at 2-2 in the second set, Berdych appeared to take over, reeling off four consecutive games to win the set going away.
In the third set, Pospisil earned an early service break in the third game, but Berdych got it back with some clutch shot-making in the eighth game to square things at 4-4. From there, it appeared a tiebreaker was almost certain, with Pospisil using his serve frequently to get himself out of trouble.
Just before the decisive tiebreaker began, the crowd rose to its feet and gave Pospisil a loud standing ovation. Pospisil said it was comparable to the lift he received as a member of Canada’s Davis Cup team playing doubles in Vancouver last spring, during a historic breakthrough win over Spain.
Yes, it has been quite a year for Canadian men’s tennis – and with Raonic the highest remaining seeded player remaining in the bottom half of the draw, it could keep getting better and better in the days ahead, with an actual honest-to-goodness Canadian playing for the title come Sunday. Unbelievable.