It was Canada’s day at the Rogers Cup – but perhaps no one enjoyed the moment more than Vasek Pospisil, who is slowly emerging from the shadow of Milos Raonic to make a few waves of his own at the international level.
Altogether, five Canadian men advanced to the second round of the tournament, the first time that’s happened since 1972, but it was Pospisil who faced the most daunting task Tuesday.
Even though he was coming off a victory in a Challenger event in his hometown of Vancouver last weekend, and had risen to a personal best of No. 71 in the world, Pospisil drew red-hot American John Isner in the opening round.
Isner is ranked No. 20 in the world, and lost in the final in Washington last weekend, after winning the Atlanta event the week before.
Pospisil was fighting jet lag, Isner fatigue, and the match between the two heavy servers was an entertaining throwback to a different era, but ultimately Pospisil prevailed 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4).
Pospisil was down 4-2 in the third-set tie-breaker against Isner, who had the best tie-break record on the ATP tour this season. But in a wonderful display of composure and tennis smarts, the Canadian rattled off five consecutive points to earn a second-round date with Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, who upset the No. 12 seeded Spaniard Nicolas Almagro.
Earlier, Filip Peliwo of Vancouver, playing in his first Rogers Cup, plus veteran Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Ont., also prevailed in their matches.
Counting Jesse Levine’s win over Xavier Malisse during Monday’s opening day of play, it all added up to Canada’s best showing in this event in nearly forever.
“Obviously, Canadian tennis is doing well right now,” Pospisil assessed. “We have a lot of capable and good players that can play at a high level, so yeah, it’s thrilling there’s so many of us in the second round.”
“It’s a Masters Series event,” added Dancevic, after he survived a tight second-set tiebreak to defeat Lu Yen-hsun of Taiwan in three sets. “Pretty much everybody you play here is a high-level player in the top 50. To have four guys through the first round shows a lot in how far Canadian tennis has come along.”
Dancevic spoke before Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., took to the court and eliminated France’s Jeremy Chardy in a tight three-set match to get a crack at Mikhail Youzhny of Russia in the second round.
Raonic has been in the process of trying to tweak his game under the tutelage of a new coach, Ivan Ljubicic, after he split with Galo Blanco earlier in the year. Ljubicic was once rated as high as No. 3 in the world, and the thinking was his own aggressive style of play would make him the ideal tutor for Raonic, who is still a career-high No. 13 but has had a rough go of it lately, going 5-7 in his past 12 matches prior to Tuesday, after a sparkling 17-6 start to the season.
Knowing his heavy-duty service game can only take him so far, Raonic is trying to develop a more-aggressive style under Ljubicic’s guidance. But for now, his game looks still like a decided work in progress.
He committed a string of unforced errors that gave Chardy a lot of easy points and his return game seems more suspect than it did in the early stages of the hard-court season.
But Raonic prefers the hard courts and the thinking in tennis circles is sometimes you need to take one step back to move two steps forward. If so, this stretch may be seen as a small blip in Raonic’s ultimate goal of cracking the top 10 in the world.
In the bigger picture, Canada has rarely had this sort of depth or promise and the one thing you can’t forget is that unlike a decade ago, players are maturing more slowly. The days of the teen sensations, on either the men’s (or more commonly) the women’s side, are long past. So the important thing is to remember the ages on the respective birth certificates. Pospisil is 23, Raonic 22, and Peliwo just 19.
The last time this group came together was in the spring, when Canada defeated Spain to advance to the Davis Cup semi-finals for the first time. In some ways, their developing esprit de corps is reminiscent of Canada’s emergence as a factor on the international ski scene in the mid-1970s, in the era of the Crazy Canucks.
These Canucks aren’t demonstrably crazy – not with the low-key, buttoned-down Raonic leading the charge – but according to Dancevic there is “absolutely” a sense of camaraderie developing in the team.
“We all get along really great,” he said. “We spent a lot of time together this year during Davis Cup, during those weeks. It’s cool. It’s fun to see. We’re buddies. We’re all going through to the second – and, hopefully, deeper in this tournament.”