As he fumbled through a courtside interview during Canada’s run to Sunday’s Davis Cup final, Vasek Pospisil felt the need to explain why he wasn’t making sense.
“I have no oxygen left in my brain,” Pospisil said, doing a full-body exhaustion wobble. “I can’t even think. I can’t process what’s going on.”
What’s going on is that in the space of three months, Canada has gone from being a tennis comer to a tennis arrival. Perhaps not yet a superpower, this country is now an undeniable member of the sport’s elite.
Canada didn’t complete the movie-of-the-week storyline on Sunday. Playing a bonafide giant in Spain, and in front of a Spanish crowd, Canada fell.
The Canadian team hadn’t been patchwork from the off, so much as threadbare. Davis Cup tournaments are meant to be five-man affairs. The operating principle is that matches come at you so fast, multiple substitutes are required.
Canada ran that gauntlet with just two men – Pospisil and Denis Shapovalov.
But because of injuries to others, the pair had to carry the full load through the week. They averaged two matches each a day. Somehow, they Red-Rovered their way through some of the sport’s most storied countries – United States (32 Davis Cup titles), Australia (28), Russia (two) and Italy (one).
By the last day, the arrangement had frayed. Pospisil was too spent to play singles. Félix Auger-Aliassime – only just recovered from an ankle injury and lacking match fitness – replaced him. He fell to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6 (3), 6-3.
That left Shapovalov against world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Nadal hadn’t lost a Davis Cup singles match in 15 years. He hadn’t had his serve broken once in the tournament. Although Shapovalov put the screws to him in the second set, it was too tough an ask. Nadal won 6-3, 7-6 (7).
After the last point, Nadal fell spread-eagled on the court while his teammates covered him in a human dog pile.
“I could not be happier,” he said, positively glowing.
This is a guy who’d already won three of these things and about a hundred Grand Slams. That’s how much the Davis Cup means to tennis players, including the very, very best of them.
That sort of tradition is very European. You can win a whole bunch of titles as a professional, make many millions of dollars and get paid for years afterward to wear a Swiss watch and the right brand of sneakers.
But if you haven’t excelled for your country, it doesn’t mean much. What you accomplish under the flag defines your career.
Recently, Canada has done a poor job upholding this standard. Few of our best basketball players bothered showing up at Olympic qualifying this summer. The country’s NHLers have conceded their union’s position that the only sort of international competition that matters is one in which you stand to make a lot of money.
That’s their business, one supposes – quite literally. But it’s not the sort of thing that endears you to your fellow citizens. Making oodles of cash is not going to get you on a stamp one day.
One hopes those NBA and NHL players – were they bothering to watch – felt a twinge of regret over the past few days. This is what it looks like when Canada’s best put themselves through the athletic ringer and do so without much hope of winning, but a great deal of pride in trying.
That Pospisil & Co. surpassed expectations is not the point. That they cared enough to have expectations is. This team reminded the rest of us how wonderful it feels to be represented so well on the world stage.
“As sad as it is losing today, it’s also a little bit of a celebration for us,” Canada’s coach, Frank Dancevic, said afterward.
It feels as though Canada’s spent the whole year celebrating tennis.
From Auger-Aliassime’s breakthrough on the ATP circuit to the moment Bianca Andreescu taught the country that it didn’t always have to just be good at things, it could also occasionally win them, tennis has provided our signature sports moments of 2019.
The Davis Cup run was not the unlikeliest of these things or the most impressive (Andreescu wins on both counts), but it may have been the most fun.
The Davis Cup used to be a plodding, endless affair that was hard to keep track of. It was streamlined this year. One week rather than several of them broken up over months. Best-of-three matches rather than five. First man to two sets, rather than three.
The electric pace suited the modern attention span. On Thursday, you were thinking, “The Davis Cup Finals is on?” By Saturday, you were thinking, “We’re going to win the Davis Cup.”
We didn’t, but we certainly may soon.
Spain pushed out two top veterans. Canada pushed out two kids who, were they not sportsmen, might be living together in a university dorm. Auger-Aliassime is 19; Shapovalov is 20. When all three competitors appear together, Pospisil comes off like their father and he’s only 29.
In short order, barring calamity, this will be the best one-two punch in men’s tennis. Canada is Davis Cup favourites for years to come.
But what moves you most about this team and these individual players isn’t how good they can be. This country has always punched well above its global weight in producing top athletes.
It is that the Pospisils, Shapovalovs, Auger-Aliassimes and the rest show up when they don’t have to, only in order to make the rest of us feel some measure of pride.