The short, sharp news report, “Canada eliminated by Serbia in Davis Cup semi-final” conveys the brutal bottom-line of the result, but hardly does justice to the remarkable spirit and success of the Canadian team.
Tennis is a truly international sport, a game that can be played for a lifetime, and one, like all good games, that reveals much about character and life. My mother tells the story of watching my dad and an American friend playing tennis in England against two English opponents. After the opening niceties and shaking of hands, my dad’s partner turned to him as they walked back to the baseline “Ok, Saul, let’s get these bastards”.
I cannot today listen to John McEnroe opining on television without recalling his tantrums and outbursts, his bullying and berating of linesmen and umpires, and thinking this was no way to play the game. Others will say it’s not a tea party, and it’s about winning.
From childhood we learn that people cheat, miscall shots, throw racquets, lose focus, get dispirited, give up, but also show toughness, generosity, sportsmanship, flair, grace, integrity. Momentum shifts, trends are misread, people assume victory is theirs only to have it snatched away. After I beat someone who really believed he was the better player, he told his girl friend “Bob’s not that good, he’s just steady”. What a compliment.
Canada has produced a few truly great players over the years, but right now – for reasons that are not at all accidental – we are in the midst of a real flowering of talent and ability. We are not exactly a tennis super-power, but we are a force to be reckoned with, and this showed in Belgrade.
To get here we had to beat (most recently) Spain and Italy, and we had the significant disadvantage of playing on the Serbians’ choice of surface – clay – which slowed down the power game of our best players. Davis Cup tennis is hardly like Wimbledon – it is raucous, noisy, more like a hockey game in overdrive, where silence (and tension) only prevail once a rally begins.
In Belgrade, it was not unusual for people to whistle in the middle of a toss for serve, for people to applaud a missed shot and to cheer a double fault. And the Serbian crowd was not, by prevailing standards, particularly ill-mannered.
In fact, Canadians were greeted warmly, and given a cheering section that was used by the contingent of several hundred tennis fans from Vancouver to Newfoundland that came to Belgrade to encourage their team. Pound for pound, we made more noise, albeit in smaller numbers.
Damon Runyan once wrote words to the effect that the race does not always go to the surest and the swiftest, but that’s still the best way to bet. In a nutshell, this is what happened. The best player in the world, Novak Djokovic, beat Vasek Pospisil on Friday night in three sets, and did the same to Milos Raonic on Sunday afternoon, albeit being forced to a tiebreaker by Raonic in the first set. Raonic in turn beat the lower ranked Tipsarevic in a tough match where clay, crowd, and sheer grittiness made it a longer and closer contest. The Canadian doubles team, with the outstanding veteran Daniel Nestor and the twenty-two year old Vasek Pospisil finally prevailed over the Serbian team, although again it was a very close match.
Which brought the whole match to the final contest between Pospisil, now ranked 40th, and Tisparevic ranked 21st. If Milos Raonic’s game is marked by sheer power, Vasek Pospisil truly impresses with his grace and speed. He literally bounces on to the court, exuding the energy of a gazelle.
His opponent is different altogether, about five or six years older than Pospisil, closer to the ground, who would have played dozens of world matches on this surface, and had the ability to appeal to the crowd. Tipsarevic is the quintessential grinder, but a grinder with flair, flattening Pospisil’s confidence with brilliant shots cross-court and down the line.
After a scary moment when a tendon injury looked like it lead to a forfeit, Pospisil recovered and forced a tie breaker in the first set. The quick 7-1 loss seemed to discourage him, and this carried into service breaks in the second set, which went 6-2 to Tipsarevic. After a break of serve in the third set, Pospisil was down, and seemed out.
Tipsarevic, who served brilliantly throughout the match, was serving for the match at 5-3. But it was at this point that emotion played its part. Pospisil hung in, kept returning the ball, and for the first time Tipsarevic lost his nerve. Momentum suddenly shifted, as the game moved to 5 all, and then 6 all.
Once again, the wind of the game moved. Tipsarevic regained his command and surged to a 6-2 lead – again, the end seemed inevitable, until Pospisil again showed real character, kept his cool in the face of a screaming crowd, and clawed his way back to 6 all. Then 7-6, on serve, to Tipsarevic.
Pospisil, serving to stay in the match, appeared on the verge of winning the point when he hit a delicate shot at the net. As Tipsarevic ran to get it, Pospisil rolled over his ankle and fell to the ground in agony, watching his opponent tip the ball into an empty court.
And so, yes, “Canada lost”. But no, we didn’t. We have young players with real game. We have Nestor, whose talent in doubles seems timeless. And we have the future – as these young players grow and learn, the only way anything is learned, through defeat and disappointment as much as in any victory.
Tennis Canada can take much pride in what has been accomplished, but there is much work still to do. A racquet and ball are all you need to play, and to get the greatest players you need to broaden and deepen the pool of people playing. That means taking the game to schools, rec centres, and community courts. It means building both regional and national centres of excellence, and doing whatever we can to raise the money and awareness that this is a great sport. We have great role models now for kids to emulate, and, as they say, everything to play for.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.