Before the ageless Daniel Nestor took to the tennis court in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, in a Davis Cup doubles match Canada seemed almost certain to lose to the powerful Spanish side, he was asked about the game plan. “The same as Frank last night,” said Nestor, invoking teammate Frank Dancevic’s incredible and incredibly unlikely victory in singles on Friday evening, a win that vaulted Canada to the precipice of tennis history. “The exact same thing.”
It seemed, for a couple hours, magic could be conjured for the second time in less than a day. Nestor, who is still one of the world’s best doubles players at age 40, was paired with a player barely half his age, Vancouver local and 22-year-old Vasek Pospisil. The two were buoyed by the raucous, flag-waving home crowd, ringing out with shouts of “We love you, Daniel,” and “We love you, Vasek.”
And while Canada had an enticing lead for stretches of Saturday’s doubles match against perennial tennis power Spain, Nestor and Pospisil could not sink the armada of Spanish tennis. Nestor, in particular, started to suffer from light-headedness in the later stages of the match.
And, so, on Sunday morning, it will be on the shoulders of the finest player Canada has ever produced, the 22-year-old ace Milos Raonic, to deliver a victory that would seal what would be Canada’s greatest-ever win in the country’s tennis history. A history whose distinct feature is the decided absence of glory moments.
Canada enters Sunday with a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five first round of the Davis Cup world group, an unexpected edge on Spain, which even with a depleted roster without its biggest names such as Rafael Nadal, was favoured to win. But, instead, Raonic scored an expected win on Friday in singles, followed by Dancevic’s magic making. The journeyman-turned-hero, ranked No. 166 in the world, demolishing No. 34 Marcel Granollers. The Dancevic victory made Canada’s Sunday glory possible.
"We were not too far from closing the deal today," said Pospisil after the match. "The whole team’s feeling good, very confident. We’re one match away from making a historic run."
Nestor and Pospisil showed numerous flashes of Dancevic-like magic on Saturday, leaping for balls and hammering returns, and led two sets to one, but their game was also marred by mistakes such as numerous double faults – 10 in total – and could not hold on. They went down in five sets, a near-four hour battle, as Spain’s Granollers and Marc Lopez won 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-2. The loss would have been an especially severe humiliation for Spain, given that Granollers and Lopez are arguably the best doubles team in the world right now – but defeat for Spain is still at hand.
The key on Saturday, in the end, came in the fourth set, when Spain was up 3-2 and broke Canada, which decisively popped the ballooning magic bubble and firmly changed the afternoon’s momentum.
Beyond Spain's superior skill, Canada's problem was also physical. Pospisil, who had mononucleosis in December, said he legs got "heavy" as the match worn on, and Nestor was hurting, which seemed clear from his demeanour -- sucking back water spiked with salt late in the match.
Nestor was with team doctors after the match and did not speak with the press. Team captain Martin Laurendeau said Nestor spent the final two sets "hanging in there" -- "light headed and dizzy and, you know, not feeling great, legs and lower body."
Now, at 11 a.m. PT Sunday, Raonic – the world No. 15 – is scheduled to play Granollers, though a substitution could be made up to an hour before, which is possible given Granollers’s terrible play Friday and extended work Saturday. But Spain’s alternative, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, is No. 82 in the world (though he did reach No. 23 in 2011), so it will likely be Granollers to scrap as underdog for his country. Raonic will be heavily favoured and has beaten Granollers twice previously.
For Spain, especially Granollers, the doubles win was redemption, and said he feels fresh for his scheduled match against Raonic, where he knows he is overmatched.
"We will fight until the last moment," said Granollers after his win Saturday.
A Raonic win secures Canada’s upending of Spain, marking Canada’s first-ever ascension to the quarter finals of the Davis Cup world group, and the first time Spain has been ejected in the world group first round since 2006. In the past five years, Spain has won three titles–and the only two times it has lost was in a foreign country on hard court, like the one at University of British Columbia where Canada specially prepared the court to be particularly fast. It is the exact opposite of the preference of the Spanish, who are dominant on their preferred surface, the slower pace of clay. Granollers, for instance, is 42-50 on hard court on the ATP world tour and in grand slams.
“This is Vancouver,” said Spanish newspaper El Pais on Saturday, “but it could be hell.”
It is what makes Davis Cup great, home-court advantage, and the wild things that happen when tennis players – who spend most of their lives as independent operators – vie for their country.
Dancevic has a history of playing amazing tennis when he does it for Canada on Davis Cup, starting with a huge win when he was 18 to get Canada into the world group for only the second time ever. This marks Canada’s fourth world group appearance, and second in two years. A win over Spain, beyond its historic nature, could in fact be a demarcation point in the history of tennis in Canada. The rising star of Raonic, followed by Pospisil, who himself aims for the Top 50 this year, way up from his current No. 131 and notably better than his best, No. 85 last summer.
And should Raonic lose on Sunday, it will fall to Dancevic to deliver for Canada in the final of five matches. He has done it before.