Photo Credit: Andrew Cowie/AFP
At the first of the year, if I were to have named the Canadian tennis player least likely to win a Wimbledon championship in 2014, I would have picked Vasek Pospisil – not because I don’t believe in his immense talent (more on that below), but because he was injured to the point where I was scared that his career was in jeopardy. He had injured his back in a tournament in India, then hobbled himself further at the Australian Open. From that point on, it was a game of hit and miss tennis from tournament to tournament right through the spring of the hard court season, the entire clay season and into the grass season. The incredible inroads he had made in 2013 were in danger of being completely wiped out. He looked defeated, in pain and completely bummed out. Then Jack Sock came calling.
When I heard that the two of them would be playing together, I thought it would be a good chance for Vasek to get some much needed games under his belt because he had played very little for months. As they started to knock off much more seasoned and experienced teams – those who played doubles tennis for a living instead of singles tennis, I knew that they had combined to create something very special. Vasek is more than adequate in doubles, given his experience playing doubles for Canada in Davis Cup and squeaking out fifth set victories with Daniel Nestor, so I knew that this team (playing together for the very first time) had a shot to go deep in the draw.
It was when Vasek and Jack got to within a match of playing Daniel and Nenad Zimonjic that I knew that they were on a roll. If Nestor and Zimonjic hadn’t lost their quarterfinal, they would have played Vasek and Jack in the semifinals and it would have guaranteed a Canadian in the final. I would have been happy with that result. As it turned out, it was almost a surreal march to the final and ultimately to the Wimbledon championship as Vasek and Jack (unseeded) took out the 8th, 2nd, 5th and 1st seeded teams in succession to take the title.
There was something about the Vasek/Jack team that brought out the very best in them. They used this aura of complete enjoyment and carefree tennis that surrounded them to play surreal tennis, as if they were playing in a bubble and no other team could beat them. It wasn’t cockiness. It was just plain old carefree, stress-less, two young guys out to play a game in the park kind of tennis that was refreshing and fun to watch. It was infectious. You could tell by the way the crowd reacted to their playing style that they were enjoying themselves just by playing carefree tennis.
They complement each other very well. Off the court, Vasek is as likeable a guy as you can find anywhere. On the court, he wants to win, but is level-headed and doesn’t let things bother him too much. Jack is a hothead, but this is tempered by Vasek’s calming personality. Oil and water do mix.
Ever since I first saw him play in 2010, I pegged Vasek to be a big tennis star. He has all the goods: the right attitude, immense talent, the drive, the competence, the physical attributes, the personality and the looks to be a popular Top 10 star. The stars are all aligned in his favour – and he’s Canadian. While Milos Raonic has made a deliberate climb up the rankings, I can see Vasek’s talent taking him to a more explosive height than Raonic. If he only stays healthy, he can be as big as he wants to be. If that doesn’t work out, there’s always doubles.
When the draw for Wimbledon 2014 first came out a week before the tournament began, I lowered my head in disappointment. The draws that all the Canadians received sucked, to put it bluntly. Even with the explosion in interest in Canadian tennis and the most recent success of Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard at the French Open, there were no breaks to be had at Wimbledon. Then a funny thing happened. Frank Dancevic, who made it into one of the rare main draw majors of his life, kicked things off in what was to be become the most successful tennis major in history for Canada.
Dancevic’s first opponent was Ivo Karlovic, a seeded player and one of the tallest and biggest servers on the tour. Dancevic won. It was an incredible moment for him, in what was one of the few main draw wins at a major for him. What he didn’t know was that upset win was the catalyst for what was to come for the Canadians. Although Aleksandra Wozniak had another heartbreaking, close loss, it was the forward momentum of Bouchard and Raonic that propelled Canada through the first week.
As they worked their way through the first week and into the second, two things became apparent: they had the talent (both mental and physical) to get there and like all top-ranked players that came before them, they got and worked with the luck of the draw to go even further. I don’t care how big of a tennis star you are, how many titles you have won or how many weeks at number one you have stayed – successful tennis players need a lot of luck to go along with their talent to get to where they eventually end up. You don’t think that Roger Federer or Serena Williams benefitted from easy draws, withdrawals, fate, luck or injured opponents to get where they are? They did. They used these things along with their talent to enter and stay within the upper echelon of the game. They saw an advantage, took it and used it. A lot of players would wilt or succumb to such circumstances. It’s like regular working stiffs who make names for themselves in the work world: no one gets to the top without a break or some sort of luck. That’s what happens in tennis. That’s what happened to Canada at Wimbledon. It’s not a bad thing or a knock against their performance. It’s just the way things go. They seized the opportunity and made the most of it, like all great champions do.
This law of the tennis Gods worked especially well for Bouchard. As Raonic worked his way through a pretty even draw, Bouchard gained considerable momentum by having other players knock out the heavyweights that she would have to play. Sharapova: gone. Serena Williams: gone. Li Na: gone. You may call this luck. Yes it was, but Bouchard seized it and ran through the rest of her draw as if she was on a mission. Her opponents were no slouches: Cornet, Petkovic, Kerber and Halep. When she got to the final, it was as if it was mission accomplished. In the final, Kvitova was just too good. She may have won the title, but the women’s tournament belonged to Bouchard.
Raonic was so steady throughout the tournament, that it seemed like it was destiny that he make his seeding. He did one better and got to the semifinals. Like Bouchard, he came to an opponent who could do no wrong in Federer. Also like Bouchard, he completely re-wrote the Canadian tennis history books.
The surprise of Wimbledon was Vasek Pospisil. He and his partner Jack Sock ran through the men’s doubles tournament like two carefree, free-swinging club players on a Saturday afternoon. It was a complete joy to watch. As they kept knocking off seeded teams, what they were doing was becoming more and more unbelievable. In the final against the legendary Bryan brothers, they played as if they had played together since birth. For Vasek, it was a complete turnaround, taking into account his back issues since the start of the year. Seeing him lift the trophy was a great moment.
For the first time in a couple decades, Daniel Nestor was NOT the last Canadian standing at a major. What a tournament for Canada.
Up until this year, no Canadian singles player had made it past the fourth round in the Open Era at Wimbledon. Carling Bassett, Patricia Hy and Daniel Nestor were the only Canadians to make it as far as the round of 16. Days ago, Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic were added to that list. Today, both made Canadian tennis history by becoming the first Canadians to make it to the elite quarterfinals.
What is happening at Wimbledon for Canada is simply unprecedented. Not only have Bouchard and Raonic caused a stir, they have created a palpable sense of victory. It is easy to get swept up in what they have done, but with what has happened to other players in the tournament and how things are falling into place for both of them, is it wrong to dare to think that either one of them could win Wimbledon? It’s an aura that I’ve never felt before – the feeling of the ultimate victory being so close that you can actually feel it about to happen. It’s a nervous, proud feeling. The only other time I can remember remotely feeling this way was the day when Mike Weir won the Masters. The stars just aligned for him and they are aligning for Bouchard and Raonic.
You can’t talk about Bouchard and Raonic without talking about Daniel Nestor. He has singlehandedly held Canadian tennis aloft for over 20 years – and he’s still achieving. He’s alive in both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles quarterfinals at Wimbledon – titles that he has won multiple times over the years.
With all this unprecedented success that Bouchard and Raonic are having, you have to think that all of this will have to rub off on the Canadian players below them in the rankings. Vasek Pospisil is also making a deep run in men’s doubles at Wimbledon with American Jack Sock. Now healthy after back problems, his success can only help his singles play. Aleksandra Wozniak, now healthy after arm and shoulder injuries has recently cut her ranking from the 250s to just outside the top 100. Both have the talent to join Bouchard and Raonic in the top 20.
I never thought I’d witness the day when Canada would overtake the United States as the more successful tennis nation. Never. These are giddy, can-you-believe-it, what is going to happen next, exciting, sit-back-and-enjoy-the-ride times for Canadian tennis. It has been a long time coming, but what a payoff.
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