RIO DE JANEIRO – Late Saturday night in Rio, Vasek Pospisil was as disappointed in his performance as he may have ever been in his career when he went down meekly to Gaël Monfils on the Olympic centre court.
Less than 24 hours later, he was on a doubles court at the other end of the venue with countryman Daniel Nestor in the first round of doubles, just a deep breath away from elimination there, too, against an able but unheralded pair from New Zealand.
Since that great escape – 9-7 in the third-set tiebreak – Pospisil and Nestor have soared.
Their 6-3, 6-1 victory over Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini of Italy Tuesday night means they're now in medal territory.
“Honestly, It was a really quick turnaround. I don’t know; that’s one of the fastest turnarounds, being as disappointed as I was with my performance (Saturday) that I remember. It was because we were at the Olympics. (Sunday) morning was tough when I woke up I wasn’t feeling very good, as soon as I got here and started talking to Daniel, he’s funny, I felt better,” Pospisil said after that first great escape. “It was really positive that I was able to come out and perform pretty well. I still definitely had some hangover effects, I felt, in some moments, but overall it was okay.”
The Canadians will face Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez of Spain in the semi-finals of the Olympics doubles today – weather permitting – knowing that regardless of result, their medal hopes are still alive.
If they win, they’ll go for the gold. If they lose, they can still play for a bronze.
The Rio tennis gods have been smiling on the Canadians so far this week for several reasons. The first is that they didn't get a big team from the outset, as well as Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus played.
First is that the weather hasn’t been unbearable and even if it were, they have played late in the evening when conditions were more than acceptable for two players who admittedly struggle in the heat and humidity.
Second, they have reaped the benefits in their last two matches of having an opponent who just got through a really tough, emotional singles match before having to return to the court for doubles.
In the second round, it was Joao Sousa and Gastao Elias of Portugal after Sousa – the crowd favourite by virtue of his nationality in Portuguese-speaking Brazil – lost a tough three-setter to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina.
That one was a fairly routine 6-1, 6-4 win for the Canadians.
In the quarter-finals Tuesday, they faced the Italian Fabio Fognini, who had gone through much the same wringer in a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over the equally (Crazy? Dramatic? Slightly unhinged?) Benoit Paire of France before coming out on court.
(As an aside, it was announced shortly after that that Paire had been expulsed from the French team for what we can only infer were late-night antics at the village, no doubt distracting and interfering with his teammates’ abilities to concentrate on the task at hand).
With a third-round match against Andy Murray coming up, Fognini clearly wasn’t up to giving it a focused, intense effort. He allowed himself to get distracted by anything from the slow-reacting ball persons to close line calls to a mosquito landing on someone’s nose three courts away.
Still, the high-level skills are there and the Canadian pair’s 6-3, 6-1 victory was as much due to their relentless net attack as anything the Italians did or didn’t do. They lost just five points on serve.
“We’re hitting the ball great, both of us. We were all over them. We didn’t take the foot off the (gas) pedal. That was the best part,” said Nestor, who reaches the Olympic semi-finals 16 years after he first did it in Sydney, Australia on his way to a gold medal with Sébastian Lareau.
“I thought we played extraordinary. Those guys are good returners. I don’t think they played bad, I just thought we played really well. That’s a great stat against a team that returns well like they do,” he added.
Pospisil looked ready to chuck his bag of sweaty shirts and wristbands, racquets and socks into Guanabara Bay after the loss to Monfils. In a season of disappointments, this one topped them all because of all that the Olympics represents in addition to the individual success.
He needed to put it into perspective and with the help of Nestor and Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau, it seems he has.
“At the end of the day that’s kind of why we’re here. The realistic shot at a medal is doubles anyway, right? I knew that coming here, but at the same time I’m still focused on singles in my career, though maybe not at this event,” Pospisil said. “So that loss (in singles) was extremely disappointing, probably one of the more disappointing losses of my career.”
All is fist bumps and fist pumps for Pospisil now; he’s so amped up he’s even getting to Nestor, who has dropped a few fist pumps and big smiles of his own. The youthful exuberance is coming back now, after a season of struggle during which he often has looked as though he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The confidence has always been there in doubles, but the singles struggles certainly threatened to spill over before the last few days have made all right again. Those clutch returns Pospisil has failed to put in play during some of his singles struggles are going into the court now – confidently, crisply, without any doubt or second thought.
Nestor said at the beginning of the Olympics tournament that there were 15-20 teams out of the 32 in the draw that could win medals, and that he and Pospisil were one of those teams.
Early on, there were notable upsets, including the No. 1 team of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert and the sibling pair of Andy and Jamie Murray, seeded No. 2.
Of those remaining, the unseeded duo of Jack Sock and Steve Johnson are probably the most surprising given their limited experience together and the fact that Sock came into this Olympics with a case of walking pneumonia. The Americans play the No. 5 Romanians, Horia Tecau and Florin Mergea.
Pospisil and Nestor, seeded No. 7, will play No. 6 seeds Nadal and Lopez, lifelong friends who don’t play together often but usually post impressive results when they do.
Again, the opponents will feature a player who played a singles match earlier in the day, as Nadal – who was out with a wrist injury for several months before making his return here – plays Gilles Simon of France in the third round of singles.
Playing Simon on a vast, slow court isn’t likely to be a quick process, regardless of result. Nadal also is scheduled to play his first round of mixed doubles with Garbiñe Muguruza after the men’s doubles.
That match is likely to be postponed both because of the dodgy forecast as well as the notion of playing three matches in a day for one of the event’s few remaining marquee players.
“Obviously one is a French Open champ (in doubles) from this year, and the other a nine-time French Open singles champion. They’re going to play similar to our last two opponents but better, higher quality,” Nestor said. “I don’t think they want to get into big hitting. They want to feel comfortable, take their time and all that. Our game is to take that away from them, and go after them and not let them breathe,” Nestor said.
As for his partner, the 43-year-old doesn’t appear worried about the long-term future of the man he now calls “Silky”.
“He wanted to come here and win a medal in doubles and get some confidence in singles. He’s still got some big tournaments ahead of him in Cincinnati and US Open,” Nestor said. “If he understands that he’s in the position he’s in and accepts it, and plays to his capabilities, he’ll be fine.”
“We’re a team right now, we’re playing really well together, and we’re excited about our form,” Pospisil said.