In the end Vasek Pospisil could only watch, on all fours in the Belgrade clay. His volley was bounding into open space, and Janko Tipsarevic was chasing it down, and if Pospisil got up he would stave off a fifth match point, maybe get to a fourth set. But he couldn’t get up because he ankle had gone pop, and Tipsarevic was moving fast, and all he could do was watch. Tipsarevic got there. Pospisil dropped to the red dust.
“When he collapsed, that was the end, you know?” said Canada’s team captain, Martin Laurendeau, on the phone from Belgrade. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Canada came into Sunday leading Serbia 2-1 in the best-of-five Davis Cup semi-final. The tournament is the only time nations put their best men’s tennis players together and play a team game for their countries, and Daniel Nestor and Pospisil had won their tense doubles match on Saturday night, 10-8 in the fifth set. The 11th-ranked Milos Raonic had already been dismantled by world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets; Raonic was playing on a sprained ankle, but Djokovic was a hammer and crowbar.
“I thought he played a perfect match today,” said Laurendeau.
So it was Pospisil against Janko Tipsarevic, the kind of lifetime-hardened tennis pro that world champions have. Tipsarevic played in his first Davis Cup when he was 15; he was a top 10 player from late 2011 until May of this year, when he started struggling. He had lost to 11 players in 2013 that were ranked below Pospisil’s No. 41, so there was a chance.
But it was clay, in Belgrade. The Vernon, B.C. native took Tipsarevic to a nervy tiebreak, then faltered just enough to lose it. The Serb began to move Pospisil around, to serve better, and Pospisil made mistakes trying to keep up. The 29-year-old Tipsarevic played like a top-10 guy. Tennis is such a mental game, even when you’ve got a team cheering you on. Tipsarevic played like a guy who was sure of himself, and Pospisil played like he was trying to hope.
With Tipsarevic serving for the match Pospisil broke back, then fought off four match points in the third-set tiebreak. On the fifth match point he had delivered a terrific serve, and that sharp volley, and then his ankle rolled. And that was how it ended, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.
“We were facing a guy like Novak, and so many of the guys in the world group are 26, 27, 28, 29, 31 [years old], and we’ve got a couple of singles guys that are 22, 23,” Laurendeau said. “I mean, they’re the youngest singles guys by far; they’re four or five years behind the rest of the world for their top two Davis Cup players. So what they showed, it was awesome. They were willing to die out there.”
Canada doesn’t really love tennis, because we’ve never had a moment to truly love. Raonic is our best player ever, as difficult as it is to fall in love with him. Pospisil is rising to an uncertain place. On the women’s side 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard of Montreal is nearing the top 50. A generation is both coming, departing – Nestor cannot be great forever – and here.
“We’ve got a top-10 player, we’ve got a top-40 player, we’ve got a legend of the game that’s still playing that got us two legendary wins, one 15-13 against Italy, and a 10-8 in fifth set here,” Laurendeau said. “He’s 41 years old, and these moments are just so fantastic. You know, it’s just great for the game, and for all of Canada to be able to share these moments. And I think they’re great moments for the game and for this country.
“We have our best players playing on centre court, playing on TV, playing the giants of the game. And Davis Cup, we’re beating teams ranked ahead of us, we’re giving this Serbian team a good run. Even a great tennis nation like Argentina is out in three games, and we made it to the fifth match.
“Hopefully Daniel can keep it up just a little bit longer. Maybe we can give it another go.”
When it was done they draped a towel over Pospisil’s head, which he held in his hands as tried not to cry, and the formalities began. Sportsnet’s Arash Madani asked Laurendeau what he thought was accomplished this year, and Laurendeau started, “Well, to me it goes beyond words,” and then he couldn’t speak. He breathed in an unsteady breath, his worn and craggy face unguarded, and he dipped his head. His lower lip trembled. He opened his mouth, but there weren’t words.
Laurendeau was thinking about this team playing ties in Mexico, in Israel, in Ecuador without Raonic. He thought about losing to France in 2012, and beating South Africa and Spain (without Nadal) and Italy, and all the tension freighted in those matches. He thought about how Pospisil said after the match he would have tried to keep playing on his ankle, which rested below him wrapped in ice. He thought of his first six years as Canada’s Davis Cup coach, when playing in the world group at all was a distant goal.
He thought about the tie against Israel in 2011 that brought them back here, back when Raonic was ranked 31st and Pospisil was ranked 124th. He thought about Nestor, and about how the team was on TV now, in newspapers, being talked about. He thought about how after Canada spent 70 years out of the Davis Cup, and how after 30 years of being around this thing he might never get to this place again, and how a Davis Cup final would have been against the Czechs at home. He had been waiting for that kind of moment his whole life. He couldn’t talk. The Serbian crowd kept celebrating, all around him. He stood in the red dust.
“Anyway,” Laurendeau said, eventually, “I think we’ve come a long way. And I’m really proud of my boys.”