BAIE-MAHAULT, Guadeloupe – The Canadian Davis Cup team is, as captain Martin Laurendeau put it Thursday after the official draw ceremony, “a big underdog” against a powerhouse French squad.
Even with Milos Raonic and Daniel Nestor, who had to skip the tie, that still wouldn’t have been far from the truth.
Add in the outdoor red clay – the preferred surface of exactly none of the Canadians – the hot, humid conditions that particularly affect the team’s No. 1 player, Vasek Pospisil, the lack of a home-court advantage that can be the fifth player in Davis Cup, and it could be over quickly.
Or, there could be some Davis Cup magic because in over 100 years of this team competition, the stories of lower-ranked players coming up with career performances are legend.
That’s what Frank Dancevic, the current world No. 245, will have to do.
“When Milos pulled out of Acapulco (the ATP Tour event scheduled last week), there was a fair chance that I was going to play. I started hitting early on the clay,” said Dancevic, who will kick things off against French No. 1 Gaël Monfils. “I did everything I could to prepare for this. Obviously these are not my favourite conditions, on the clay and in the heat. The French did everything they could to make it difficult on us - no matter what the budget was. They went all out.”
Dancevic said he was excited to meet Monfils, chosen over the more highly ranked Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to play No. 1 singles. “He’s a showman on court. He can play from 30 feet behind the baseline and run for three hours, or he can start hitting drop shots for three games in a row. You really don’t know what to expect,” Dancevic said. “I think it’s going to be very important for me to stay aggressive, try to stay on the top of the points and get him moving, if that’s possible. And finish the points.”
Monfils called Dancevic “tricky”. “He’s a great player, has a very good game, very aggressive,” he said.
The second singles on Friday will pit Canadian No. 1 Pospisil against French No. 2 Gilles Simon, a rematch of their first-round match at the Australian Open less than two months ago.
Pospisil was far from his best in that match; indeed, he has struggled to find consistent form all season. But he still managed to take a set in a four-set defeat.
“I wasn’t sure who I would end up playing on the first day, but I had a feeling it could be Gilles. I know enough about his game, I’ve played him twice, I know his weaknesses and I know what I’ll have to do to win,” Pospisil said. “Executing that game plan is another thing. This isn’t my preferred surface or conditions, so it definitely plays into his favour. But having said that I think I have enough weapons to disturb him.”
As with Dancevic, Pospisil is going to have to put pedal to metal; Simon is a grinder, willing to stay out there for hours, putting as many balls as he needs to in play. “I have to give him different looks. I have to mix it up, throw him off guard a little bit. Definitely take a few more risks off the return right from the first shot, throw in a few serve and volley points. It’s not enough to stay back and play an aggressive baseline game,” he said. “There are ways to shorten the points, they will usually end up with an error or a winner. I’ll try not to get into that red zone physically, which will be tough.”
The draw took place at the Mémorial ACTe; the "Centre caribéen d'expressions et de mémoire de la Traite et de l'Esclavage" was inaugurated less than a year ago as a constant reminder of the slave trade that existed on the island. It's also a museum and arts/convention centre.
The doubles teams, as revealed during the draw, will be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet for France, and Pospisil and Philip Bester for Canada. Both captains have the option of making changes up to an hour before the doubles match Saturday afternoon.
As he has done before in the absence of Raonic, Pospisil may well have to do triple duty: two singles and the doubles. Of course, if France wins both singles Friday and then takes Saturday’s doubles, they will clinch the tie, and Pospisil will be off the hook for the reverse singles Sunday.
“It’s one thing playing all three, but now, there’s added pressure to win two of those three, or all three. For sure, it’s a tough situation to be in,” Pospisil said. “But at the same time there’s no pressure. All the pressure’s on them. They’re playing a home tie, on a surface they should absolutely not lose against Canada on – especially without our top guy. And I still feel if I can keep the points short, and stay fresh physically throughout the whole match, then I absolutely have a shot to beat these guys.”
Laurendeau said this was the best team Canada has ever faced in Davis Cup. They have played teams with a top-five player, such as the Kei Nishikori-led Japanese or the Serbs, led by Novak Djokovic. But there typically is a drop-off in level to the No. 2 singles player. All four players on the French team this weekend are ranked in the top 20 in singles.
“We’re such underdogs at this stage that we’re in a position where we can let it go, enjoy the moment, with everything to gain. And that usually allows guys to bring the level of play up a notch or two – at least, play better than their current ranking, bridge the gap between the rankings,” Laurendeau said. “We’ve seen Frank really do incredible things with his racquet. The times he’s seen action the last few years he got us a big point and if it’s his day, it’s his day. And Vasek has the skills and the tools to play well on any surface."
Dancevic, always good for an epic quote, painted quite a picture with this one.
"I know it’s a big challenge for me, on paper he’s a much better player. On his favourite surface, with the conditions. He’s got the advantage going in. I’m just going to have to come up with something really special. Come up with some magic. But it will be entertaining," he said. "All the odds are in their favour, but I’m a fighter, I’m not just going to roll over on my belly and say. 'Hey, Gael, it’s been nice, buddy. Step on me. Squash me.'
"That’s not going to happen. I’ll fight to the end, I’ve always fought to the end in Davis Cup."