Sometimes, Davis Cup tennis matches produce high drama and dizzying upsets, where previously unknown players topple legends – or if not legends, opponents they really have no business beating based on world rankings.
Sadly for Canada, Friday was not one of those days.
Canada's No. 1 player, Milos Raonic, did his part, rolling to a routine three-set victory over Italy's Fabio Fognini. Raonic had a few up-and-down moments with his ground strokes during the match, but except for one bleak double fault early in the third set that cost him a break, Raonic's service rarely faltered. His decided advantage there was enough to squeeze out a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 7-5 win in the second match of the night and squared the best-of-five World Cup quarter-final tie at a match apiece.
Earlier in the day, Italy's smooth as silk Andreas Seppi survived a major scare against Vancouver's own Vasek Pospisil. Pospisil won the first two sets of their match and had the world's 18th-ranked player on the ropes. But Seppi gradually played himself back into the match and ended up winning a five-set marathon 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Canada is ranked No. 8 in the world in Davis Cup, Italy No. 9 so the tie was expected to be close. The doubles is on tap for Saturday, with Pospisil and the veteran Daniel Nestor scheduled to play for Canada. However that match turns out, the tie will not be decided until Sunday's reverse singles.
Raonic raised his Davis Cup singles record to 9-3 by winning a thoroughly entertaining match against Fognini, a fun and excitable player to watch. But like so many on the tour, Fognini had no real answers for the power and the placement of Raonic's serve.
Fognini fended off four match points in the final game of the third set, but finally Raonic prevailed when the Italian blasted a forehand wide following a lengthy rally.
With a victory over Italy, Canada would advance to the Davis Cup semi-finals for the first time in its history and play either the United States or Serbia in the next round.
Pospisil, who stepped in to play singles for the injured Frank Dancevic, had it going for a while against the 29-year-old Seppi, who is at a career high in the ATP rankings right now, after advancing to the fourth round of the Australian Open this past January.
In the end, Seppi was just too consistent for Pospisil, who created openings when he teed off on his forehand, but more often than not, was spraying that shot long, especially in the latter stages of a match that took three hours and 15 minutes to play.
Seeing how Seppi fares against the world's No. 16 Raonic on Sunday, in the first of the reverse singles, with the tie on the line, should make for a compelling match.
"We're where we want to be," Raonic told Sportsnet, in a post-match interview. "Could be better, could be worse."
Canadian coach Martin Laurendeau praised the play of both his players, and called Pospisil's performance "a heart-and-soul effort against a top-20 player."
Against Seppi, Pospisil serve faltered different times, most critically in the first game of the fourth set when he served two consecutive double faults to hand him an important break.
"The third set, he stepped up for sure, right from the first game," said Pospisil. "He played great, I couldn't do much. He played very aggressive, more aggressive than the last time we played, or the first two sets today.
"In the fourth set, I had a mental lapse of concentration, and those first two or three games cost me … He deserved to win, playing the way he did."
Except for a nervous beginning in the first two games, Pospisil won most of the key points in the first two sets, with some pressure-packed shot-making. Seppi acknowledged some nerves playing in front of the pro-Canadian crowd and noted that he'd never won a match in Canada before. After the second set, Seppi had a short conference with Italian captain Corrado Barrazzutti that settled him down.
"He said, 'don't be so negative. You're not playing well, you know it, accept the conditions, fight until the end – and stay a little more positive,'" reported Seppi. "That was the main thing we talked about."
So much of playing Davis Cup matches is channeling the home-court advantage – the speedier surface; the Yonex tennis balls (said to be speedier than the Wilson, Penn or Slazenger alternatives); and the energy of the hometown crowd. For Pospisil, that was literally true. He was born in Vernon, but lives in Vancouver and at 22, has shown glimpses of excellence, but has mostly played in Raonic's shadow. But for Canada to get this far along the Davis Cup path, they need contributions from more than just Raonic.
Nestor is 29-7 lifetime for Canada in doubles, so he and Pospisil will get a chance to win that point. Italy has nominated Paolo Lorenzi and Daniele Bracciali to play the doubles, though they have up to an hour before the match to make a switch. Currently, Sunday's reverse singles would see Raonic play Seppi and Pospisil face Fognini. Even after spending three hours and 15 minutes on the court Friday, Pospisil said he was good to go for doubles. Depending upon the length of that match, Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau could insert Jesse Levine into the starting line-up Sunday.