Spain, the Davis Cup titan, arrived in Vancouver without a single ace in a tennis deck normally stacked with them. Rafael Nadal and his star-crossed knees last played for his country, at home, to win the Davis Cup in Seville in late 2011. David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco decided a trip to Canada wasn't worth the effort. Nicolas Almagro, the 11th-best player in the world, was scratched due to injury at the last moment.
Still, Canada, even with 22-year-old star Milos Raonic, was a considerable underdog in the first round of the 2013 Davis Cup world group against Spain, regardless of whether the country that has won three of the past five titles brought a lesser tennis armada. But a trio of entwined advantages – a depleted Spain, a strengthening Canada, and home court – proved to be the potent mix that on Sunday vaulted Canada, for the first time, to the Davis Cup quarter-finals.
At match point Sunday – as Raonic was about to seal Canada's third win in the best-of-five contest – the arena announcer at the University of British Columbia had to practically beg the crowd to quiet for the serve. Raonic, who started the day with three cannon aces, ended it with a smash of a return against his overmatched Spanish opponent, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
"We're working on our history," Raonic said on court after being mobbed by his teammates, a Canadian flag unfurled. "We're making history today."
The defeat of Spain, alongside the potential breakthrough of Raonic into the top 10 this year, is a demarcation point in the history of Canadian tennis. Canada has never had a better player, and he's backed by a collection of players that collectively can make an impact. It reverberates: the game becomes steadily more popular, with research for Tennis Canada showing that about five-million Canadians now play the game at least four times a year. A series of promising junior players keep emerging, as the country's much-improved national development system does its work.
Upsetting Spain is the finest moment in Canada's mostly unspectacular tennis history and was underpinned by two predicted Raonic wins in singles play – Friday and the thumping clinching win on Sunday afternoon. But what made it possible was an incredible, and incredibly unlikely, victory by journeyman-turned-hero Frank Dancevic on Friday night.
After Canada's upending of Spain, Raonic was asked whether it deserves to have something of an asterisk stamped on it, given it was hardly the real Spain. The confident young player, who arguably has the best serve in the world, said Canada is poised to keep proving its burgeoning tennis power – starting in April when the country plays host to Italy in the next round.
"It still takes quite a lot of courage, resilience and determination to get through what we got through this weekend," said Raonic, the world No. 15. "I sort of went about my job, and I'm very proud of that, and I think what Frank did, stepped up, and went far and beyond his call to do what he did on that first day, that's pretty amazing."
Come spring, Canada has a shot for its next ascension. The country will take on Italy and in fact is slightly favoured, as Canada is ranked No. 12 on the Davis Cup ledger and Italy is No. 13, which could then see Canada roll into the semi-finals in September against the United States or Serbia – hello, Novak Djokovic.
First, Italy, whose squad is much like Spain's B-team, with a good singles player, Andreas Seppi, the world No. 18, and a strong doubles team. It means, once again, that Raonic will be leaned on to win both of his matches and Canada will have to find a third win from an unexpected corner, like Dancevic's magical victory Friday.
Home-court advantage will also again be a factor, from the raucous partisan crowd – the venue has not yet been chosen – to the zippy hard-court surface, on which the Spanish struggled mightily, and where Italy is also weak. Seppi, like Spain's lead singles player this week Marcel Granollers, has a losing record on hard courts.
One man who possibly might not be there is Dancevic, even after it was his outstanding play on Friday to sink Granollers, the world No. 34 getting demolished by the No. 166 player. And yet it may in fact be Jesse Levine, who was born in Ottawa, added to the team, a 25-year-old ranked No. 81, at the expense of Dancevic, a 28-year-old who has played Davis Cup for Canada for the past decade. Raonic on Sunday acknowledged Levine would add "a lot" to Canada's team – but noted Dancevic's play on Friday arguably deserves a reward. "That's something that also deserves a lot of credit," said Raonic.
As for Canada, asked whether it was crazy to picture Canada going all the way and not just winning a round but the entire Davis Cup, Raonic flashed the confidence of a young star growing ever-brighter.
"What do you think?" he responded. "I don't think it is. … I think we're going to keep surprising people."