One year ago, Canada's Davis Cup team was riding high after defeating Israel to return to the prestigious World Group of 16 countries in tennis's version of the World Cup. That feeling of euphoria was short-lived as the Canadian crew drew France, which easily won the first-round tie last winter. Milos Raonic was the only Canadian to pull off a win — a straight-sets victory over Julien Benneteau. The loss left Canada in a familiar position — too good for the second tier, but not good enough to hang with the top countries in the world.
The Canadian squad is hoping that this time history doesn't repeat itself. Raonic and Co. will square off with an undermanned and little-known South Africa team beginning Friday. A win will keep Canada in the World Group for at least another year. While victory can never be assured ahead of time, anything short of a Canadian sweep would be surprising.
The highest ranked singles player on the ATP Tour for the South African side is Izak Van der Merwe at 188. Then there's Raven Klaasen at 568 and Nikala Scholtz ranked 1435 in doubles. Compare that to Raonic who is up to No. 15 in the world, Vasek Pospisil at 116 and Frank Dancevic at 130. Then throw in Daniel Nestor who sits at third in the doubles rankings and considered one of the all-time greats in his craft, and it's hard to imagine South Africa pulling off an upset.
But what happens then? Is Canada destined for another World Group flame-out?
A closer look at last February's tie with France reveals that Canada may not have been as overmatched at the 1-4 result implies. Raonic was injured in a very close doubles match playing alongside Nestor. That forced reserve Dancevic into action against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With how close that doubles rubber was (the first two sets were decided by tie-breakers) and how evenly matched Raonic and Tsonga are, it very well could have been Canada moving on to the quarterfinals and not France.
It makes no sense, however, to think about what could have been; Canada needs to focus on the here and now. While South Africa will be without Kevin Anderson — the No. 37-ranked player in the world who is playing World Team Tennis instead of representing his country — and Rik de Voest (ranked 170 in the world) who is out with a wrist injury, captain Martin Laurendeau said they aren't taking the visitors for granted.
"It's unfortunate that South Africa will be without their top two players, but it doesn't change our approach to this weekend's tie," said Laurendeau. "Their team can play and we are preparing for a tough battle."
Pospisil, the hero of the Israeli tie with two singles victories and a doubles win with the veteran Nestor, will open against Van der Merwe on Friday afternoon. Raonic, coming off a fourth-round defeat to eventual champion Andy Murray at the U.S. Open, faces Scholtz in the second singles match. On Saturday, the Pospisil-Nestor duo takes on Klaasen and Van der Merwe. In Sunday's reverse singles, Raonic is scheduled to play Van der Merwe followed by Pospisil-Scholtz.
The South African tennis federation requested that the tie be held on Canadian courts because of financial problems. So, the Canadians will have a decided advantage playing in front of a hometown crowd on the hard courts of Uniprix Stadium. Sportsnet will carry Friday and Saturday's action while Sunday's matches can be seen on CityTv.
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