A Spaniard in red strides the tennis court at the University of British Columbia. It is not an odd sight, as Spain's Davis Cup team, like Canada's, is clad in red. But this Spaniard is the only one in a Canada uniform.
Galo Blanco has not relinquished his Spanish passport, the country of his birth and residence. The 36-year-old retired pro, once ranked as high as No. 40 in the world, is full-time coach to Canadian star Milos Raonic, who first trained at Blanco's tennis academy in Spain in late 2010. At UBC, however, his national allegiance is trumped by his professional one, as Canada prepares to play Spain in the first round of the 2013 Davis Cup world group this weekend.
The good-natured Blanco feels some tension, nation versus job, Raonic's success directly inverse to Spain's success in its quest to charge to yet another Davis Cup win. The tournament is a rare venue where players represent nations rather than focus on themselves, the weekly quest for individual success that marks a life in tennis.
"This one, it's going to happen once or twice in my life," said Blanco in an interview this week after Raonic practised, the Spanish coach sitting on a hockey bench at the arena where the tennis is to be played. "I know what my job is. I don't see this like a war between me and Spain or whatever, no – I'm working for Milos, I want him to win and that's it."
A Spain-Canada match at the Davis Cup is indeed a rare thing, as the last one happened in 1991. And while Canada is only in the world group for the fourth time ever, Spain has been a perennial winner the past dozen years, and has won three of the last five Davis Cups. But even with so many victories, Spain is hungry, as last year it lost in the final on the road to the Czech Republic. Spain arrives in Canada missing all of its best players, so the successful squad faces added pressure to overcome Canada, a relatively weak tennis country but one underpinned by its 22-year-old ace, Raonic, currently ranked No. 15 in the world.
Blanco – quietly coaching Raonic at UBC – is mostly trying to avoid attention.
"I don't want to get more in these things. If they think in Spain like I want Spain to lose, it's tough for me, this question. What I know, I want Milos to win," said Blanco. But the Spanish press has not yet taken aim, in part because Blanco has engaged in some preemptive ducking.
"I'm refusing most interviews, because I know they can be tough on me and I don't want to get in these things," said Blanco. "It's one thing I hate. I am a really relaxed guy. I don't want to get in any trouble. I know my job and I know what I want."
As a pro on the ATP Tour from 1995 until 2006, Blanco was 122-175, a fiery 5-foot-8, 150-pound clay specialist who had wins over a handful of top players such as Pete Sampras. Blanco won one ATP title and reached the quarter-finals of the 1997 French Open. But he often preaches to Raonic that feelings of satisfaction ultimately limited his own rise on the court. Blanco constantly reminds the Canadian that the world's best fight daily to get better.
Raonic is the star pupil to emerge from the 4Slam Tennis Academy in Barcelona, where Blanco is a co-founder. Another talent to emerge from 4Slam is 26-year-old Marcel Granollers, who is coached by Blanco's 4Slam partner Fernando Vicente. Granollers, in the absence of the likes of Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, is Spain's top singles player on the country's depleted squad, and is currently ranked No. 34 after a high of No. 19 last year. Granollers is also No. 5 in doubles. A key Davis Cup match will likely be Raonic-Granollers in singles on Sunday.
Blanco knows the Spanish team well, but so does Raonic, who on Tuesday said he likes the Spanish "mentality" and the competition in training but added: "I don't think you'll see too much Spanish tennis in me." And while Blanco might be seen to have an insider's eye, tennis is a small world where most players know each other's styles well – so if Canada is to pull off the major upset this weekend, it will be the men on the court who do it.
"Milos knows who the Spanish players are," said Blanco. "It's not like because of me he's going to know anything more special."