The concept of the Davis Cup tennis competition dates all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, when a quartet of players from the Harvard University varsity team wanted to test their skills against the top players from the British Isles. One of the four players, Dwight Davis, became the Lord Stanley of his sport, donating a trophy that now, some 114 years later, has evolved to the point where 130 nations annually compete for the prize, making it the largest annual team competition in sport.
Canada is traditionally a minnow in international tennis competition, but thanks to Milos Raonic's emergence as a top-20 player, plus a stirring victory over a depleted Spanish lineup two months ago, it is suddenly swimming with the sharks, in uncharted territory.
Beginning Friday at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena, Canada plays Italy in the World Group quarter-finals – and even goes in as the slight favourite, ranked No. 8 in the world in the latest Davis Cup rankings compared to No. 9 for the Italians.
Player for player, the lineup that Italy will roll out will look a lot like Spain's – no outright superstars, but a lot of depth, including No. 19 Andreas Seppi and No. 36 Fabio Fagnini. Canada, meanwhile, will counter with Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, who was bumped up to play singles Friday by Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau because of a knee injury to Frank Dancevic.
Had the tie been played at home, the Italians would unquestionably have chosen to play on clay, their preferred surface. Instead, they'll have to adapt to UBC's speedy hard court, which is set up to capitalize on Raonic's strengths – his overpowering serve, his ability to rip an inside-outside forehand and his ever-improving return game.
"This is all new territory for us," Raonic said. "It's a team event, it's a quarter-final, it's a position we've never been in, but at the same time, we train to play tennis. You get out there and it's an individual sport in singles. Nothing changes. The lines aren't any different. The court's not any different. You've got to play tennis and you've got to play well to win."
Overall, Raonic has played well of late – for Canada and on the ATP Tour. He is 8-3 as a singles player in his Davis Cup career, and won two of the three points in the victory over top-ranked Spain.
From Vancouver, he went on to San Jose and won the ATP 250 stop there for the third year in a row. More impressively, he got to the fourth round of the ATP 1000 Masters event at Indian Wells, upsetting No. 12 Marian Cilic and then going to three sets with No. 6 seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, before losing in a thriller. Raonic played a strong overall match against Tsonga and blamed a couple of "mistakes" at key moments for losing – and missing out on the chance to play the world's No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic in the next round.
He is currently ranked No. 16 in the world and has fully recovered from the strep throat that forced him to drop out of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last month.
Canada's hopes of advancing rest largely on Raonic's shoulders. According to Laurendeau, the 22-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., has upped his game, even since February, the last time tennis fans in Vancouver saw him play, live and in person.
"Winning always gives great confidence," Laurendeau explained. "I think he's returning [serve] more consistently. He's returning very big now. Obviously, he can hold his serve quite easily, but eventually, if you don't go into a breaker, you need to break somewhere. It's not like he goes 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 all of his matches, which a guy like [Croatia's] Ivo Karlovic has a tendency to do.
"He's winning a lot of sets handily, a lot of 6-2s, 6-3s – and for that, you need to break the guys regularly and he's been doing that. His return has progressed. His shots from the baseline are getting heavier and heavier. His serve is just as lethal. He's throwing in a bit more serve-and-volley – and his volley has gotten a bit sharper, as a result of that. He's gaining in maturity and experience every week that goes by.
"At that age, a couple of months can make a big difference."
Making history can be an overused expression in sport, but it applies accurately to Canada and the task at hand. The Davis Cup was first played in 1900 – the Americans defeated the British Isles at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston – but if Canada can defeat Italy, history will be made – and a quarter-final berth against either the United States or Serbia (and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic) would be the reward.
For now, the task at hand is to handle an Italian team that goes into the event willing to take its chances, even on the road, on a hard court against the improving Canadians. Spain, full strength, on any surface, would not have been an appetizing alternative.
"The advantage we have is that, we'll have the confidence that we performed really well against Spain and we're facing a similar team," said Laurendeau, "so the table is set for us to do it again – and that'll be our challenge."