The work on a potential Canadian victory at Davis Cup this weekend, against perennial tennis power Spain, began in early January with no racquets, balls or players on hand. Quietly, at an old building at the University of British Columbia, Michael Maxwell-Smith worked methodically and alone.
He laid out 23 pieces of a 60-millimetre-thick, specially purchased, indoor hard-court tennis surface first acquired by Canada for last year's Davis Cup tie against France. Canadian star Milos Raonic won his first ATP tournament on the surface in 2011 in San Jose, Calif.
Spain's players are best on the slower red-clay surface, so Maxwell-Smith's job was to make the court faster. He worked amid 60-litre buckets of frothy tincture, "a pancake mix" of acrylic binders, pigments, sand and water. He squeegeed the concoction on to the court, three coats, with several days between coats to cure and dry, all in a two-week process.
Under the direction of Tennis Canada, Maxwell-Smith painted on a mix of "100-mesh aggregate" instead of last year's "80-mesh aggregate," this time using a slightly smaller kernel of material. It means balls won't catch as much when they hit the court, and the pace of play will be quicker.
"A lay person might not really notice," said Maxwell-Smith, a partner at Tomko Sports Systems Inc. "But pros, these guys can really tell, they can feel everything. It's like a race-car driver. He feels it if the car just doesn't bite the corner perfectly."
This is home-court advantage. It is among the quirks of Davis Cup, the international tournament that stretches back to 1900, when the United States won the first event against the British Isles, the U.S. playing at home in Boston. The advantage of playing host starts with the surface and includes everything from picking the balls (Wilson US Open Extra Duty this weekend) to a raucous, partisan crowd expected to exceed 6,000 daily.
After Maxwell-Smith completed his work, the court was disassembled, rolled up and crated to nearby Thunderbird Arena. Last weekend, it was rolled out and taped down on the concrete floor of a venue that normally plays host to hockey. Starting Friday, it promises to be the site of Canada's finest moment in a long history of tennis ignominy.
The opportunity has never been better. Backed by home-court advantage, the 22-year-old Raonic, ranked No. 15 in the world, will lead Canada against a depleted Spanish side that arrives without any of its stars. Spain is led by Marcel Granollers, 26, who has a losing record on hard-courts, 42-50. Still, Granollers, No. 34 in the world, is a dominant doubles player, and Canada remains the underdog. But the setting has stoked hopes that Canada, for the first time, could win to reach the quarter-finals of Davis Cup world group.
Home-court cannot be underestimated. In the past five Davis Cups, from 2008 through 2012, Spain has played most of its matches at home and won three titles. Spain has been perfect at home, 11-0 on clay, including the finals in 2009 and 2011.
"These guys have showed up so many times when it's been at home," Raonic said this week. "When you go away, [there are] a lot of circumstances you can't control. [At home], it's one rare event that we can control, to suit as best as possible."
Of Davis Cup ties in the past five years in a foreign country, Spain has lost twice in seven contests, both times on hard-court. However, Spain won the 2008 Davis Cup on hard-court in Argentina.
The International Tennis Federation has five broad categories of court pace: slow, slow-medium, medium, medium-fast, and fast. The ITF conducts a test before a Davis Cup event to make sure the court is within the broad bounds. At UBC, the rating, as measured by the ITF on Tuesday, is medium-fast. The same court last year, with the coating of larger aggregate – and thus slower – had been rated medium.
Curating a court is as much art as science, said Gavin Ziv, tournament director for Tennis Canada.
"When we're resurfacing, we're a little bit blind," Ziv said. "We're trying to get to a spot where the home team feels comfortable. This court is essentially playing like a fast court."
"To be honest," said Galo Blanco, the Spaniard who coaches Raonic, "we expected the court to be a little faster. But, anyway, it is the way it is. Milos is comfortable on this kind of court and hopefully it will help him."
The Spaniards betrayed no worry this week.
"The surface, it's okay, it's pretty good," Alex Corretja, Spain's captain, said. "When you play Davis Cup, you need to adjust yourself to the opponents, because they choose the conditions. This is Davis Cup, it's a great competition, and we're ready for anything."