MONTREAL–When you’re facing a six-foot-nine monster with the ability to hammer serves your way at 240 kilometres an hour, it’s hard to go from being the punching bag to the puncher.
Moreover, when it’s an experienced, high-quality player like John Isner of the United States doing the serving, it’s hard to bide your time and keep your best guess for just the right moment.
But Canada’s Vasek Pospisil did both of those things to the towering American, and in so doing engineered one of the biggest victories of his career on an historic day for Canadian tennis.
Geez, we’ve been having a few of those lately.
In Pospisil’s case, during a first-round match at the Rogers Cup in which he was basically trailing the entire way, he waited until deep in the third-set tiebreak to pounce on an opportunity he had hoped would come.
To that point in the match, Isner, a finalist in two ATP tourneys over the previous two weeks, had already hammered 24 aces past the 23-year-old Vancouverite. Many of those had been slicing, kicking serves out wide on the deuce court.
“I didn’t want to start covering that side too early because I knew if I started covering that, he would start mixing it up,” said Pospisil. “If he starts mixing it up, you’re in trouble. I was saving that for a big point.”
At 4-4 in the tiebreak, it was time. The serve kicked wide, Pospisil leapt to his right and slugged a hard, low return that landed at Isner’s feet. The big man tried to get out of the way, but could only bunt his return weakly into the net.
Pospisil then served out the match to the delight of an exuberant Uniprix Stadium crowd, winning the final five points to record a 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 triumph, the third Canadian singles win on the day and fourth in two days. Milos Raonic, with a spotty but winning performance a few hours later against France’s Jeremy Chardy, made it five, a record number of homebrews to advance past the first round of this tournament.
“It shows how far Canadian tennis has come along,” said Frank Dancevic, the oldest player among the Canadians and a three-set winner over Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei on Tuesday.
“It’s great to see. It’s really great to see. It’s been showing up more and more in all the tournaments, all the Grand Slams. There’s just more and more of us starting to go through.”
To add a little more evidence to the growing belief that, in North America, Canada is a tennis country on the rise while the U.S. is in sharp decline, Isner’s defeat meant he will fall out of the top 20 ranked players in the world.
It’s the first time since the rankings were first compiled 40 years ago that no American male has been among the highest-rated 20 players on the planet.
Canadians, meanwhile, have rarely had days at the tournament now known as the Rogers Cup like they had on Tuesday.
After Jesse Levine won Monday in his first match since declaring he will play for Canada internationally, 19-year-old Filip Peliwo split sets with Finnish veteran Jarkko Nieminen early Tuesday afternoon before Nieminen, ranked No. 39, retired with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Then Dancevic won. Then Pospisil. Then Raonic.
Now it gets really interesting for Canada, the country with the most players remaining in this tournament.
Raonic faces talented Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny, Dancevic takes on six-foot-eight Polish rifle Jerzy Janowicz and Levine will confront the great Rafael Nadal in Nadal’s first match since losing in the first round at Wimbledon in June.
Peliwo draws Dennis Istomin of Uzbekistan, while Pospisil takes on 34-year-old Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, a cagey and versatile veteran.
Five-for-five for Canada on Wednesday seems unlikely. Oh-for-five is possible.
We’ll see who’s still alive by Thursday.
Interestingly, while Raonic has received the greatest share of attention in the Canadian tennis world over the past two years, and for good reason, Pospisil’s win over Isner probably makes him the most confident player from the Great White North at the moment.
He followed up a semifinal in Colombia by winning a Challenger event in Vancouver last weekend, winning three matches in two days to move to No. 71 in the world, then hustled east to Montreal to take on Isner.
“Mentally it was a couple of very draining days but amazing at the same time,” he said.
At the end of an historic day on the courts, then, the intriguing angle was that a Raonic victory didn’t make him the biggest story for Canada on the day.
When Raonic wins and can’t get all the headlines, that is indeed good news for Canadian tennis.