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Sports Olympic tennis players Nestor, Lareau have staying power

Sébastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor have shown admirable staying power on the tennis scene since being part of Canada's Sunshine Cup winning team in 1989.

The Sunshine Cup is the international under-18 team championship, and the other members of that team were Lareau's Montreal pal Sébastien LeBlanc and Nestor's Toronto buddy Robert Janecek.

LeBlanc and Janecek went to the University of California in Los Angeles on tennis scholarships before having moderate success on the pro tour and then retiring to careers in business -- LeBlanc to a family enterprise in St. Bruno, Que., and Janecek using an MBA to recently begin working in New York City.

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Lareau and Nestor have done well financially, making more than $2.5-million (U.S.) each in official prize money. But it wasn't easy when they first began battling in the minor leagues of professional tennis.

After turning pro in 1991, it took Lareau until 1995 to break into the top 100 in singles, reaching a career best of No. 76 that year.

He really didn't hit his stride as a pro until he reached the 1996 and 1997 Australian Open doubles finals with American Alex O'Brien.

Nestor made a more dramatic breakthrough, bursting into the Canadian sports consciousness in 1992 by upsetting world No. 1 Stefan Edberg of Sweden in Davis Cup play in Vancouver.

Doubles also helped Nestor. Partnering with Mark Knowles of the Bahamas, he made it to the 1995 Australian Open final.

His ascent in singles took longer than Lareau's. After turning pro in 1992, he didn't reach the top 100 until 1998, hitting a career high No. 58 in August of 1999.

Lareau's 7-6, 6-3 win over Michael Chang in the opening round of singles in the Sydney Olympics reinforced his decision, made this past April, to totally revamp his game. He has rotated his grip a quarter turn and made several other changes, including using a new racquet at the Olympics.

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He has career wins over four top-10 players -- Michael Stich, Alex Corretja, Richard Krajicek and Gustavo Kuerten (last month in Toronto).

After his 7-5, 7-6 victory over host-nation favourite Patrick Rafter on Wednesday, Nestor has now beaten four former No. 1-ranked players -- Edberg, Thomas Muster and Andre Agassi (by default) and Rafter.

In doubles, he and Lareau have reached career highs of No. 5 and No. 4 in the ATP Tour's individual doubles rankings. This year they have played together since Nestor returned to action in May following a January shoulder surgery, winning the Master Series-Canada and reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Opens.

"In singles, I came here to win as many matches as I can," Nestor said yesterday, "but I came here to win a doubles gold medal. It's still our No. 1 priority."

New Canadian Davis Cup captain Grant Connell of Vancouver, who lost with Nestor in the second round of the doubles at the 1996 Olympics, noted, "Daniel [age 28]and Sébastien [27]have slowly become veterans.

"Hopefully, they've got the maturity to know what the Olympics mean. I wish I'd put more emphasis on them. I played in Seoul, but I bypassed Barcelona. Looking back now, I would have gone."

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Nestor has an obvious appreciation of the Games. "It's a great feeling, great for Canada," he said after beating Rafter. "I hope some of our athletes were watching, because we haven't had the best start to the Olympics. Hopefully it will be used as motivation for some of the other athletes to excel in their sports."

More thoughtful and well-spoken than the callow 19-year-old who beat Edberg, Nestor added, "The Canadian mentality, from my experience, has always been a little too nice and showing too much respect for the other countries. I think it's important we realize we're here for a reason.

"Everyone is good here, and we all have a chance of winning. We have to believe in ourselves."

The shy, unsuspecting kid who awoke to find the tennis world at his doorstep in 1992 has gradually become a sort of sage of centre court.

The question now is will he and/or Lareau walk off it in Sydney with a medal?

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