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Tebbutt: Vasek is Canada’s leading man

Nov 23, 2021
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Canadian hopes for success at the 2021 Davis Cup Finals will largely depend on stalwart Vasek Pospisil.

With Félix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic unavailable, the 31-year-old from Vancouver will be the team’s No. 1 player as he competes in his 23rd tie since 2008.

Canada, in Group B with Sweden and Kazakhstan, is playing its matches in Madrid along with Group A made up of Spain, the Russian Tennis Federation and Ecuador. The other four three-team groups are divided between Innsbruck, Austria, and Torino, Italy. The semi-finals and final will be played in the Pavilion Madrid Arena in Madrid.

Two years ago, the last time the Davis Cup Finals took place, and the first time the Finals grouped 18 teams at a single venue, Canada reached the final before losing to the Rafael Nadal-led Spanish.

On that occasion, Pospisil played impressively – compiling a 3-1 singles record with wins over Fabio Fognini, Reilly Opelka and John Millman before losing to Andrey Rublev. He was also 2-1 in doubles partnering Shapovalov.

In Thursday’s opening tie, Canada will face Sweden with Pospisil, his ranking having slipped to No. 133, likely matched against No. 93 Mikael Ymer, 23, and probably either No. 234 Brayden Schnur or No. 277 Peter Polansky taking on Mikael’s brother No. 171 Elias, 25. None of the Canadian players, including No. 264 Steven Diez, have played either of the Ymer brothers.

The format is the No. 2 singles players facing each other followed by the No. 1s, and then a doubles. It appears almost certain Pospisil’s well-established pedigree in doubles will be combined with either Schnur or Polansky against a Swedish duo that may include 27-year Andre Goransson, whose ATP doubles ranking is No. 64. Former world No. 4 (2010) Robin Soderling is the Swedish captain.

On Sunday the 28th, Canada will play the other team in Group B, Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstanis, featuring the quirky but talented No. 36-ranked Alexander Bublik, don’t start until the previous day, Saturday the 27th, against Sweden.

At the pre-event media conference on Tuesday, Schnur was not present and it was announced that he was “under the weather” with a non-Covid issue. The speculation had been that he would be the likely candidate for the second singles.

As for No. 1, captain Frank Dancevic left no doubt about who that will be. “Vasek is for sure playing the singles and doubles,” he said. “For the other players, it hasn’t been decided yet.”

Harking back to 2019 and his great performance in Madrid, Pospisil said, “it was an incredible week, an incredible run for our team. The first time we ever made the finals – incredible memories and for sure, one of the highlights of my career. To make a Davis Cup final is special. I’m extremely motivated, and playing here I like the courts and the conditions. It brings back great memories from two years ago. So I feel when I step onto the court I’ll be ready to go.”

Regarding Mikael and Elias Ymer, he said, “I’ve seen them play and I know a little bit about their games. Every match here is tough and I feel like we have a good shot to win the tie. In the Davis Cup Finals, there’s no easy matches.”

For the 37-year-old Dancevic, who has represented Canada 24 times as a player during his career with an overall 18-22 record, it will be his ninth tie as captain. Asked about how he felt to not actually be playing, he laughed and responded, “I’m happy not to be running with these guys to be honest. But at the same time, I’m super privileged and very honoured to be part of this team and working with them. On and off the court it’s been a great week so far and a great vibe.”

On the new format of having all the teams at one location (although three this year) and one-day, two-out-of-three match ties compared to home-and-away and three-out-of-five match ties in the old format, Pospisil said, “I think having all the teams in one location can be amazing, an amazing potential for the event. There’s a building period that obviously has to happen. But I do miss the home ties, I do miss parts of the old format. Having said that I understand the advantages and the potential of having all the teams in one location. I enjoy playing for my country and as long as there’s crowd support, it’s super enjoyable to play in front of big crowds. Two years ago we had a great cheering section and great atmosphere.”

It’s disappointing for Canadian fans that the country’s two top players – No. 11-ranked Félix Auger-Aliassime and No. 14 Denis Shapovalov – are not in Madrid.

The fact that they were Canada’s two singles players in the final (against Spain) two years ago at the inaugural Davis Cup Finals makes it even more unfortunate.

But this has been a long and difficult year with quarantining and bubbles mandatory at many tournaments – making it particularly wearing on the players.

This Davis Cup Finals will end on December 5, meaning that players would only have about three weeks before having to leave for Australia and the beginning of the new season slated for January 2.

By way of comparison, three years ago in 2018, Auger-Aliassime ended his season in Vienna on October 22 and Shapovalov finished on October 29 in Paris. That left plenty of time for a two or three-week break away from the game and then three or four weeks to gear up for the new year leading into the Australian Open. With an early December finish this year, it’s almost as if a player has to choose between a break (likely a vacation somewhere warm and relaxing) or virtually no break and right into hard training for 2022.

A year ago, Auger-Aliassime finished on November 11 in Sofia, Bulgaria, while Shapovalov’s last match was also in Sofia, on November 10. But that was different because the new (2021) season in Australia was delayed and didn’t begin for both until early February.

So their decision to miss Davis Cup makes sense in the context of the broad arc of their still evolving careers.

Dancevic confirmed that notion, saying, “it’s been a really tough year and a half with everything happening on the planet. Overall, being a tennis player these days is not easy – there’s a lot of travelling and mental exhaustion for players. It’s understandable that some guys are more prone to be injured at this time of year and more prone to be exhausted and they need a little bit of a break. I totally understand where they (Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov) are coming from. They’re team players and love playing for their country. They’ve been here all the ties in the past since I’ve been captain (2018) and I’m sure they’ll be here in the future if they’re healthy and ready to go.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

As for Milos Raonic, now ranked No. 70, he has played just one match – a three-set loss to American Brandon Nakashima in Atlanta in July – since the Miami Open in March due to a calf injury. It appears he’s hoping to return to the tour in Australia.   

There’s live coverage of Canada vs. Sweden and then Canada vs. Kazakhstan beginning on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET in Canada on Sportsnet (Ontario, West and East) with commentators Rob Faulds and Robert Bettauer. Marie-Eve Pelletier and Sébastien Goulet will handle similar duties for TVA Sports.

Below – Dancevic with team coach Guillaume Marx.