Their hearts pounded with every point, and exhaustion was evident on their faces. And that was just the spectators, who had their guts wrenched minute by minute during four-and-a-half hours of the greatest tennis match ever contested on Canadian soil.
Now try to imagine the mental anguish and physical toll for the players in the heat of the battle, slugging it out on the court as Canada’s Davis Cup doubles team of Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil did on April 6 at UBC’s Thunderbird Sports Centre.
The Canadian pair outlasted the Italian duo of Fabio Fognini and Daniele Bracciali 6–3, 6–4, 3–6, 3–6, and 15–13 in a match for the ages and one that will still be talked about in Canadian sports circles 25 years from now. It provided a crucial point that allowed Canada to defeat Italy and advance to September’s Davis Cup semifinal, when they will travel to Serbia.
What makes high-level competition like this marathon doubles match such compelling drama is that athletes are given the opportunity to put their training and preparation to the test. They put in hours on the practice courts and hours more in the gym, hoping to be ready for moments like these. But the only way to know for certain if they’re up to the challenge is to step into the line of fire.
And in this match, the Canadians—and the Italians too—left absolutely everything they had on the court. Although Nestor and Pospisil got the result they wanted, it’s impossible to declare them the better team on the day. There was virtually nothing to separate the two sides that took turns having the upper hand. The match and its 391 points—many of them mesmerizing displays of the skill, finesse, touch, and lightning-fast reflexes that doubles play is famous for—provided all sorts of plot twists. Canada took the first two sets and appeared to be in full control, only to see the Italians battle back to turn the match from a best-of-five-sets affair into a one-set—one really long set, as it turned out—winner-take-all.
And as the match wore on and the stakes were raised, the Vernon-born, Vancouver-raised Pospisil had no choice but to find a mental state in which he simply refused to lose.
“It’s tough because you have to stay so concentrated,” he said in his post-match news conference of the mindset he developed as the afternoon wore on. “There are really small windows of opportunity. If you drop your concentration for one or two points, that can be the deciding factor, so it was important to stay sharp and, fortunately, we were able to keep our level until the end. I was really happy I was able to raise my level in the fifth set and play as well as I did to help us win.”
The Canadian pair ultimately prevailed after breaking Fognini’s serve in the 27th game of the final set. That allowed Pospisil to serve out the victory and finally exhale as he celebrated with the delirious home crowd that at times likely feared the worst but ultimately was rewarded with the outcome it was hoping for.
“It was the best home-crowd support I’ve ever experienced, and I’d be surprised if anything could ever top that,” Pospisil added. “It was an incredible experience to be out there playing in front of a crowd like that.”
The Pospisil-Nestor pairing is an interesting blend. Nestor, at 40, is the grand old man of Canadian tennis, with Grand Slam titles on his résumé and decades of experience, yet with a body that’s starting to show signs of betrayal. After the match, he revealed that he had considered withdrawing from the competition with a calf injury he suffered only a week earlier. The 22-year-old Pospisil, on the other hand, had the stamina to play on if necessary, but he had very little left to draw on.
Together, they figured out a way to do what they needed to do.
“When you’ve played for 20 years, you’ve played in a lot of tough matches, and this was one of the most gruelling, most important I’ve ever been a part of, and I feel fortunate to get a win,” Nestor said before praising his partner’s performance. “He definitely won the match for us at the end. He played a ridiculous fifth set. I can’t say enough about him. He showed his true character and, hopefully, it ignites something going forward for him.”
Sitting courtside through all the twists and turns of the match was Martin Laurendeau, a veteran of Davis Cup battles—first as a player for Canada and for the past nine years as the team’s captain.
Knowing he had his best player, Milos Raonic, waiting for a chance to clinch the battle if the doubles team could find a way to scratch out a victory, Laurendeau provided as much encouragement as he could while knowing that the outcome was out of his hands.
“It was a great Davis Cup match, and this is why the Davis Cup is the competition it is, with the ups and downs,” the relieved captain said later. “One minute you’re winning; the next, you think you’re going to lose. That’s the beauty of Davis Cup. But mentally, they [Nestor and Pospisil] did a phenomenal job to stay poised in that fifth set, and it was a fantastic win for the boys.”
In the end, the Canadians were the big winners on the day. But the fans fortunate enough to be there to see tennis played the way it should be—at its very highest level—have to feel like they were winners too.