Sneakiness is its own reward, but sometimes there are also tangible benefits to keeping a watchful eye on the opposition.
When the coaches of Canada’s Davis Cup entry checked out the South African practice sessions ahead of the pivotal tie this weekend between the countries, they noticed something.
South Africa’s youngest player, strapping 21-year-old Nikala Scholtz, an All-America sophomore at the University of Mississippi and son of a former pro rugby player, was sure on court for a lot of singles points.
It’s a good job they paid attention: The top-rated South African, Rik de Voest, surprised the hosts by withdrawing from the tie on Wednesday because of a wrist injury, and Scholtz has been thrown into the fray.
In theory that should bolster Canada’s chances of winning the matches and conserving its place in the Davis Cup’s prestigious World Group. Top South African singles player Kevin Anderson is also skipping the tie, having opted to play for cash at a World Team Tennis event (his countrymen are not thrilled at the decision).
But no one ever got anywhere in sports assuming the worst of their opponents.
“We’re facing guys who know how to play tennis,” Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau said.
Though Scholtz doesn’t have a professional world ranking, he dazzled in his first National Collegiate Athletic Association season last winter, and Laurendeau said the lanky, long-haired righty “has a big serve, a big forehand, and likes to go for it.”
Words that could just as easily describe the man Scholtz will be facing in the second singles match Friday, fellow 21-year-old Milos Raonic.
It would be a huge upset if Scholtz were to beat Raonic, but Laurendeau is a prudent sort, and having been around a while can trot out a precedent.
“A few years ago we had a college guy that nobody knew about come in and play really well,” he said in reference to Bruno Agostinelli, who played for Canada against Peru in 2009, winning the last match of the tie and nearly taking his opening match against heavily-favoured Luis Horna, one of his first tournament matches on clay.
But this isn’t a soft surface in Peru and Raonic, currently ranked No. 15 in the world, isn’t Horna, who topped out at No. 33 in singles (he was a much better doubles player).
The opening singles match Friday will pit 22-year-old Vasek Pospisil (No. 116 in the world) and 28-year-old Izak Van de Merwe (No. 188).
The match, like the rest of the tie, will be played on the 4,250-seat grandstand court at Stade Uniprix, which is coincidentally where Pospisil had his best moment as an ATP pro, beating No. 22 Juan Ignacio Chela at the 2011 Rogers Cup.
“I can pretty much say that’s where my career jump-started … after that I took off, I played against my idol in the next round [Roger Federer],” said Pospisil, the Canadian Davis Cup hero a year ago against Israel. “That, for sure, is the most special court for me.”
On Saturday, doubles take centre stage with Pospisil and 40-year-old partner Daniel Nestor (the top-ranked doubles player in the world) taking on Van de Merwe and partner Raven Klaasen, who reached the third round of the U.S. Open doubles with regular partner Alex Bogomolov.
The reverse singles – Raonic vs. Van de Merwe, Pospisil vs. Scholtz – takes place Sunday.
On the face of it, this is an impossible task for the South Africans, who are ranked 23rd in the world (Canada is 13th).
Short their best two players, playing in front of a hostile Canadian crowd for a tie they were originally supposed to stage but couldn’t because of financial worries, it’s safe to say everything that could go wrong for the South Africans this year has.
“If you were to make a movie with all the worst-case scenarios, it would include all of that. It hasn’t been easy,” de Voest said.
The decision to withdraw was a particularly difficult one for the 32-year-old, whose wife is from Vancouver, the couple spends a good portion of the year at their house in British Columbia.
“The timing of it is obviously unfortunate, it obviously would have meant a lot to me to be able to play in Canada,” said de Voest, adding, “I can’t even really hold a racquet, let alone deal with the big serves out there.”
Adversity is said to bring out the best in champion athletes, and if such is the case, the South Africans will indeed be formidable.
Life, however, is rarely that poetic.