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Sports Daniel Nestor: Canada’s most accomplished tennis player looks forward, not backward

Daniel Nestor turned 42 this week, but the great Canadian doubles player is not thinking about retirement. He’s got his eyes on the next Olympic Games.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

The players' lounge at the Citi Open tennis tournament in the American capital is glass-walled and offers an array of pastimes: day beds, desktop computers, Jenga, and in one corner, cornhole.

The beanbag-tossing game, a staple of professional tennis, helps fill tedious hours between practices, the gym and matches. Competitors stand eight metres from a rectangular box and loft beanbags into a grapefruit-sized target.

Nenad Zimonjic, a 38-year-old from Belgrade, tosses bag after bag and each one fails to score. "Ziggy!" announces Daniel Nestor, the 41-year-old Canadian who is Zimonjic's doubles partner. "You may be the worst cornhole player of all-time!"

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It is 8:18 p.m., a Tuesday in late July. Nestor and Zimonjic should be well into their retirement from pro tennis but are in fact the No. 2 ranked doubles team in the world. Nestor is one of the great athletes to emerge from Canada but his career has not unfurled on the nightly sports-highlight programs. He has forged his success on the doubles court, a game commonly played by recreational players that is a footnote at the pro level.

Last year, as Nestor turned 41, his life in tennis appeared near its end. For the first time in more than a decade, he tumbled down the rankings. Nestor is a serial monogamist when it comes to doubles partners, but in 2013 he played with six different men, and by year's end, his ranking had plunged to No. 25.

Revival began in January when he reunited with Zimonjic. The two had previously shared the best years of their careers, 2008 through 2010. The partnership bloomed again, and the pair won several big tournaments in spring, but this summer they've struggled. These are the ebbs and flows of doubles partnerships, which are likened by players to marriage, minus the sex but compounded by the strains of losing with paycheques on the line.

Nestor used to laugh at the older players on tour, insisting – like Pete Townshend of the Who – that he'd never be one of those greyhairs.

Yet, as he turned 42 on Thursday, Nestor remains one of the best on the doubles court, No. 5 in the world. As Canada for the first time becomes a significant country in international tennis, Nestor remains its most accomplished player. And with the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics in sight, and one gold medal in his pocket, the lure of a sixth summer Games drives him.

In Washington, Zimonjic gathers the chalky beanbags for another round of cornhole. The partners await the start of their first Citi Open match, which had been set for about 9 p.m. but will be at least an hour later.

Nestor, bored, defends the goal, extending legs and arms like a scarecrow. He blocks one, then another. "Why would you do this?" asks Zimonjic.

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The game devolves. Zimonjic partners with his trainer, Vlade, and the two assemble bags to fire at a new target: Nestor. One zinger smacks Nestor in the left shoulder. Nestor, a lanky 6 foot 3 and 190 pounds, with spiky brown hair and a big-tooth grin/scowl, bounces away, annoyed and playfully: "What is wrong with you people?"

A final mission. Two young women sit outside the players' lounge, headphones on and watching an iPhone. Zimonjic and Nestor rejoin as partners and fling bags at the glass wall, attempting to annoy the women. There are peals of laughter, boys, but their efforts are ignored and they lose interest, a bit deflated. Echoes of chalk cling to the glass where the beanbags hit.

"Great teambuilding," concludes Vlade, smiling, and the three men go separate ways. Nestor sits on a nearby couch and looks at his phone. Restless, he stands and hits a table-tennis ball for a few minutes. It is Tuesday night, 8:25, and his day's work will not begin for another two hours.

'You mean like that?'

Daniel Mark Nestor was born Sept. 4, 1972, in Belgrade, the second of two sons to mother Anna, a teacher, and father Ray, a mechanical engineer. Life in Yugoslavia was relatively good, but there was a major shortage of housing. The Nestors shared a single room, living in the home of Anna's parents.

The family immigrated to Toronto in June, 1976, and the Nestors settled in an apartment near Bayview and Sheppard. Daniel, as a boy, was shy, introverted, and obsessed with sports on television.

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Daniel was 7 when Ray bought his boys tennis racquets. Daniel was instantly addicted. The left-hander honed his game mostly in solitude, hitting for hours almost daily against the wall at Elkhorn Public School across a field from his home.

"I thought it must be a boring thing to hit the wall," remembers Ray. "And yet he was doing it every day."

Daniel also played soccer and basketball but was seized by the singular nature of tennis. "I didn't always fit in, or feel like I fit in," says Nestor in a long interview in Washington. "I was very shy. The sport made sense for me."

A rapid ascent began. At the Tennis Canada national championships in 1984, when Daniel was 11, he reached the under-12 final in singles – and won in doubles. Daniel was 15 when he came to the tutelage of coach Pierre Lamarche, the junior national team and the All-Canadian Tennis Academy. The potential of Daniel's wicked left-handed serve was obvious.

"I hate lefties because when I used to play them they just drove me nuts," says an effusive Lamarche, who today runs Ace Tennis in Burlington. "I taught him everything I hated about a lefty serve."

Lesson No. 1: Lamarche instructed the teenager to serve short and wide, on the deuce court, so the ball kicks beyond reach of a returner.

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Daniel stepped to the baseline, and did as told, exactly.

"You mean like that?" Daniel asked his coach.

"That's the kind of jerk he was," laughs Lamarche at the memory. "So talented. Unbelievable."

'Everything fractured, more colourful, more complicated'

On Monday in Washington, midday, Nestor heads for the locker room following a practice. A couple ask for a photograph. It is a rare bit of attention. The man takes the picture, of Nestor and the woman. "The great Nestor!" the man tells the woman as they depart.

An hour later, Nestor is back in action with Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic. The pros face two amateurs across the net in a casual pro-am session. The man on the microphone commentating is Wayne Bryan, father and former coach of Bob and Mike Bryan, the 36-year-old American twins who have dominated doubles for the past decade.

Wayne Bryan is a ham. Bryan jokes to the duffers that if they can manage three points in a row, they win a Lexus, from the Citi Open sponsor, and a $100 bill from Nestor. The game on, Nestor adds the slightest bit of heat to a forehand and the ball comes in flat and fast, the amateur able to get a racquet head on the bright-green projectile but that's it, the ball deflects out. "He's protecting his wallet, Danny Nestor," jokes Bryan.

In a postsession Q&A, Bryan asks Greg Sharko, the stats guru of the Association of Tennis Professionals, about Nestor's legacy. "One of the all-time great doubles players," says Sharko. Bryan agrees: "Definitely."

Nestor turned to doubles in 2002, when he was 29, letting go of aspirations in singles after a decade of brief spikes of dizzying success but, mostly, a long, painful grind of injuries and erratic play.

On the doubles court – wider by one-third than in singles – Nestor found a home. He honed a mastery of the multitude of angles. It is a sport, as David Foster Wallace wrote, of trigonometry. Doubles harks back to a tennis of the past, when the serve-and-volley game was paramount, full of strategy and playing the net and drop shots. The pop-pop-pop of doubles today feels atavistic compared with the power-baseline monotone of singles, all radical curling top spin and dozen-plus shot rallies, on every point.

Nic Brown, an English professor at Clemson University and author of the 2010 novel Doubles, has called it the "sport's neglected stepchild." In an essay in The New York Times in 2011, Brown likened doubles to the cubist version of singles. "It's as if the game has been projected through some cosmic kaleidoscope, everything fractured, more colourful, more complicated, perhaps even more beautiful."

Still, it is a niche. Fans gravitate to the biggest names, the best players. They play singles. Tournament directors banded together in the late 2000s to end doubles. The Bryans and others rallied. Rule changes were made to shorten matches, and doubles forged on, the same old lack of exposure, absent from television.

A few days after the pro-am, Wayne Bryan sits on a couch inside a hallway at the main stadium. His sons have praised Nestor on many occasions. "A legend. An incredible athlete," Bob said in 2012. They've played 56 times, and have split them, 28-28. Nestor holds a 2-1 edge in the three Grand Slam finals in which they've met.

Wayne Bryan breaks down nuances of Nestor's game. He gives a nod to obvious expertise in strategy but it begins, even sanded softer by age, with the serve, left-handed.

"He's got some, what we call, work on the ball, spin," Bryan says. "He hits spots. He can take the ball off the court out wide" – spin to bounce it out of reach – "he can go hard T" – zippers down the middle – "and he's got a good kicker" – sizable bounces after the serve lands.

Then there is the strength of Nestor's second shot, after a point has begun. "He's loose with the forehand and backhand," Bryan says. "My boys Mike and Bob say he can really rope the second ball."

A prize list

The list of accolades of a Canadian who barnstormed a global sport has become more remarkable with a rare longevity. "It is," says Doug Burke, who coached Nestor two decades ago, "one of the best careers in sports – let alone tennis."

All four Grand Slam men's doubles titles, and a total of eight; one Olympic gold, 2000; Order of Canada, 2010; the most all-time doubles wins – 956 – and matches played – 1337; ranked No. 1 in doubles 10 different times, most recently in 2012; No. 1 for a total of 108 weeks; fifth-best in doubles; career prize money of $11.5-million; ranks No. 36 all-time among all male players; No. 5, current rank; and 46-17 in 2014, four titles and $619,230 in prize money

'He just loves, loves competing'

Earlier in Nestor's career, coaches and commentators would observe: He's talented, but what of the will to win? When rattled, or annoyed or outside his narrow comfort zone, he would become petulant. One writer quipped Nestor had the pulse of a hibernating bear. Even at 26, in 1999, a story noted Nestor was "criticized for his lack of effort and competitive fire."

The unlikely victory that launched Nestor to a crush of brief fame came in January, 1992, when he was 19.

In Vancouver, Canada against then-powerhouse Sweden in international Davis Cup play, Nestor defeated world No. 1 Stefan Edberg in a come-from-behind five-set win. "Instant sports hero" trumpeted the newspapers.

Nestor wilted. Ranked No. 238 when he beat Edberg, Nestor slammed into the usual struggles of young players, several years of losing. It was 2 1/2 years after the Edberg win, when he was ranked No. 170 in singles, that he found himself in Bogota, partnered with Mark Knowles, and his career began to turn toward doubles.

Nestor chased success in singles, and the mission clawed at his body. Through the 1990s, Nestor was plagued by injuries. His serving arm, especially, hurt every time he swung a racquet. Wrist. Elbow. Shoulder. Constant injections of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

"When I look at Dan's career – I know everyone thinks about the doubles – but I think of him as an incredible singles guy," says Grant Connell, the retired Canadian player who was No. 1 in doubles in the early 1990s. Nestor lacked a step of speed, and his body could not sustain the pounding of singles. "Physically," Connell says, "he just wasn't quite there."

An outward personality did emerge, Connell is quick to add. The introversion of youth faded as Nestor established himself on tour. He was popular with other players – even if some of his jabbing, teasing humour could sting.

"He's a private guy but he's loud and obnoxious when he's in a comfortable social environment," says Connell, laughing.

"You don't even know you've been cut from one of his barbs until you walk away and your arm falls off."

In singles, Nestor peaked in 1999, when he reached No. 58. Surgery followed in January, 2000, to treat osteoarthritis in the acromioclavicular joint in his serving shoulder. Nestor's serve lost its sharpest edges after surgery but his doubles game began to take off. Eight months later, he won gold with Sebastien Lareau in men's doubles at the Sydney Summer Olympics, upsetting Australian stars Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. In January, 2002, Nestor and Knowles won their first Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

As he got older, Nestor got better. A bottle of burgundy on the hardcourt. Nestor was 1-6 in his first seven Grand Slam finals, age 22 through 30. Thereafter he has gone 7-2, winning with three different partners. More than two-thirds of his career prize money has come after 30.

Nestor considers himself half-a-lifetime ago. Travelling the world, with its challenges and foreign foods, was not a joy. "I wanted to do everything in my comfort zone," he says, sitting in the shade outside the players' lounge in Washington, picking at a pile of penne pasta and chicken.

His blue eyes dart. He looks off at the adjacent practice courts, then down at the table and digital recorder. Sitting still is not a preferred position. He shifts. Left leg over right, right over left, forward in his chair, leaning back.

Nestor sees the success and determination of Canadian singles players Milos Raonic, 23, and Vasek Pospisil, 24. Nestor sees his younger self, a player who could have cracked the top 30.

"They really want it, whereas myself, I wanted it too, but not enough at that age," Nestor says.

He chews the question of legacy, of retirement.

"Being immature and not really maximizing my opportunities, I feel like I'm maybe making up for it now. What-was-I-doing-back-then kind of feeling. And now I'm almost overboard, competitive. I want to make the most of it. A lot of guys, over the years, I felt like they retired too soon. They were still good. Whatever they got into after, maybe they weren't happy. I don't want that to happen to me."

As Nestor has aged, his human foibles are the same: easily annoyed, somewhat claustrophobic, erratic sleep, occasional anxiety, fear of heights, struggles with humidity in the heat. But the competitive fire that at times flagged in his youth is constant. It doesn't matter what the stakes, or venue – a Grand Slam final, or a game of table tennis, or a $5 bet on a football game with his father-in-law.

"He always wants to win, no matter what he does," his wife, Natasha, says. "I think it'll be really hard for him when he stops playing. He just loves, loves competing."

'As far as our friendship, we don't really have a friendship'

Mark Knowles, from the Bahamas, was 22 in the summer of 1994 when he contacted Nestor to play doubles at a tournament in Bogota. The two shared a birthday, Sept. 4, Nestor one year younger. Nestor was unaware he was registered for Bogota. His father, Ray, had signed him up. Nestor agreed to play and the duo won the tournament, $9,000 apiece. Four months later, they reached the finals of the Australian Open.

The two men, both sports nuts, struck a professional and personal bond. They attended one another's wedding. On court, the partners won 40 titles, the fifth-most among doubles teams.

There were lows. In the 1998 U.S. Open final, when Nestor's racquet glanced the net, an important point was lost, and then the match. "Weird things happen under pressure," said Nestor afterwards. Knowles called it "a cruel twist of fate." By 2002, winning became the standard.

In 2007, it shattered. Nestor, worried about a losing skid, fearing his own ageing, asked the younger, bigger-serving Zimonjic to become his partner midseason. Knowles was dumbfounded, betrayed. Then, in the purgatory of pending divorce, Nestor and Knowles won the French Open, barely speaking with each other. They qualified for the year-end ATP finals in Shanghai, where they had lost the finals the year before. In 2007, they won, not speaking at all.

"Blindsided." This is how Knowles, seven years later, describes the feeling of Nestor telling him it was over. Time has, however, softened bitterness. Knowles, when he sees Nestor, wishes him the best. "It's pretty phenomenal that he's playing at such a high level," Knowles says. But breaking up is hard to do, and some things, when broken, cannot be put back together.

"As far as our friendship [goes]," Knowles says, "we don't really have a friendship."

Nestor regrets springing the breakup midseason but his words, seven years later, echo the end of all long relationships. "Things got a little stale," he says in Washington. "We didn't have that spark anymore." Ever the sarcastic humourist, he jokes: "It worked out – at least for the French Open. Not so much for our friendship." The real reasons, a younger, stronger player, and fearing one's own end, are unchanged. "To me," Nestor says, "the future was better with Zimonjic."

'We fit the best together'

It is late Sunday afternoon in Washington. Zimonjic, with his dark brown eyes, black hair, and a big black goatee speckled grey, stretches out on a beanbag chair in the shade outside the players' lounge. "Did Daniel mention my name, or say 'his partner'?" Zimonjic asks with a smile. In tennis-mad Serbia, where Novak Djokovic is a national hero, Zimonjic is also venerated, much more so than Nestor is in Canada. Zimonjic, who has a stern comportment and prefers a desert-dry humour, adds: "It is always Daniel Nestor, and partner."

Zimonjic had not won a Grand Slam before he teamed with Nestor in 2008. They won 21 titles together, including three Grand Slams, and after they separated, Zimonjic did not again have the same success, whereas Nestor won two more French Opens with Max Mirnyi of Belarus.

"We didn't see the things the same way," Zimonjic says of the breakup. The two grated on each other. Zimonjic would note Nestor's mistakes on court. Nestor is a ruthless self-evaluator. "If you were working with someone at your office," Nestor says, "and they repeated to you what you already knew, it would get annoying."

Nestor and Zimonjic are akin to a long-married, loving couple. They bicker but on court know each other intimately and off court a bond has grown between the men and their families. Zimonjic displays brief umbrage when asked about the strength of their friendship. "Daniel jokes around that we are not best friends or that we don't like each other," Zimonjic says. "He's got a strange sense of humour that not everybody understands."

The one partnership that has lasted is the Bryans – twin brothers who occasionally engage in full-fledged fist fights, featuring leg kicks and smashed guitars, to vent resentments. Zimonjic and Nestor, not bound by blood, have still concluded they are best off together.

"If we're arguing, whatever it is, we both have to realize we both give ourselves the best chance of winning of any partner out there," Nestor says. "We fit the best together. No matter how difficult things get, we should understand that."

Fifty-one minutes

On Tuesday night in Washington, at 10:35 p.m., two hours after Cornhole, Nestor and Zimonjic step on to Match Court 2. They are colour co-ordinated in black and green. Bright lights overhead cast a glaring sheen in the darkness. It is 21 C but feels cooler. Crickets chirp. The four rows of bleachers are three-quarters full, about 75 spectators. The opponents are Colombian Juan Sebastian Cabal, 28, and Spaniard David Marrero, 34.

After a quick warmup, the day's work begins, at 10:44, the first of four doubles rounds at the 2014 Citi Open. Zimonjic serves first, and wins four straight points. In the second game, Nestor and Zimonjic up the first point, Nestor places a perfect volley winner from his own forecourt at a sharp angle, wide, to the opposite forecourt. Cabal and Marrero rally back but on break point, Nestor and Zimonjic side-by-side midcourt, Nestor pings a volley into the deep back left corner. Nestor and Zimonjic go up 2-0.

Things fall apart. There are unforced errors, double faults. Deuce points, served to Nestor, are lost. A ball that is clearly out is judged in. The match ends 6-2, 6-2, over in 51 minutes. Zimonjic exits quickly, signing a basketball-sized felt tennis ball – sold for $29.50 on the grounds – proffered by a teenage girl. Nestor sits, and eventually exits too, and also signs.

"It wasn't easy to see," says Nestor outside the locker room of the match. "It wasn't a good match. Too many unforced errors, too many free points."

It is the 377th loss of his career, against, at the time, 951 wins. Nestor smiles a goodbye. His blue eyes look tired.

"Thanks, all the best," he says, and descends the stairs.

'The way I am'

The next week, in early August, Nestor and Zimonjic have a first-round bye at Rogers Cup in Toronto – Nestor playing the tournament for an incredible 26th consecutive year – and in the round of 16 face Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, the No. 1 and No. 4 ranked singles players. The doubles experts win 6-4, 6-4. Nestor and Zimonjic win in the quarterfinals but lose in the semis.

In Cincinnati thereafter, Nestor and Zimonjic reach the quarter-finals. At the U.S. Open, they won two matches but lost in the third round.

Two years from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Nestor eyes 2016, the games a month before his 44th birthday. There are precedents for longevity in sports, and in tennis, but Nestor nears the extreme edge, Martina Navratilova territory.

Health, body, become essential. After an injured-plagued 20s, Nestor focused on fitness through his 30s. He gave up soft drinks, which exacerbate inflammation. He undertook a stretching routine that began to relieve pains in his arms. He doesn't travel with a coach but works closely with a physiotherapist. He has signed on with a Toronto company for a line of protein drinks and bars called Schinoussa.

Late in the afternoon on Monday in Washington, the day before his match, Nestor enters the gym after a light practice. He starts on the floor, planks. Core work. Then situps. More core.

"It's the body, not the tennis," Nestor says.

A jarring episode occurred in January, 2013, in the severe heat and humidity of Chennai, India. Nestor has always struggled in such conditions. This time, he was overwhelmed, heat stroke. He became anxious. His heart pounded. He received medical treatment, some IVs, and slowly settled down. Then, four weeks later in Vancouver, in an indoor Davis Cup doubles match, it flared again. Playing with Vasek Pospisil, ahead two sets to one against the favoured Spanish, Nestor visibly faded in the fourth set and in the fifth was a ghost. They lost the match, even as Canada went on to upset Spain.

"I felt," remembers Nestor of the fourth set, "like something might happen to me. 'I'm going to collapse.' I hit a wall. It overtook me."

The episodes passed. Two months later, against Italy in the Davis Cup in Vancouver, Nestor and Pospisil played a longer doubles match, and won, taking an extended fifth set 15-13. Nestor had undergone some tests. He was fit. "I think my mind wasn't sure I was physically okay."

'There's more hunger'

At home with his wife and two children in the Bahamas, the guise of Nestor the player is shed and Nestor the father easily takes the place. "When he's home," says Natasha, "he's a really great dad. He's the one dad at the playground organizing games of hide-and-seek and tag with the kids."

Nestor, the tennis player, feels his way forward. The fall season begins: Davis Cup in Halifax, then back on tour, Tokyo, Shanghai, Basel, Paris – with the year capped by the ATP World Tour finals in London in November, which Nestor has won four times.

"Everyone in sports or life, you know, they come to a point where all of a sudden they start feeling it" – Nestor chuckles –"so I don't know when that's going to be, but right now, I don't."

There is a particular emphasis on "don't."

He keeps thinking about Rio 2016, and the prowess of Pospisil in doubles. They have played well in Davis Cup, and in London 2012 they lost a tight match in the round of 16.

"If I stay in shape, and Vasek keeps playing great, we have a shot at a medal," ventures Nestor of Rio.

"If it all comes together. A lot depends on my health. I don't want to rule it out."

He fell in love with the game at age 7. Hitting countless balls, alone, against the wall of Elkhorn Public School in North York, spring, summer, fall. There is no reason, yet, to let go.

"There's more hunger to keep doing what you love to do," Nestor says. "Because on the other side, whenever you stop, whatever it is you do from then on, it's not going to be the same."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Nestor's record against the Bryan brothers. This version has been corrected.

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