MONTREAL–It was a day when the massively celebrated champion of Wimbledon, Andy Murray, went down meekly in his first tournament since winning at the All England Club.
And that wasn’t the lead story. Not even close.
It will be in the United Kingdom, of course. But in Canada, a burgeoning tennis country that matters a lot more these days than it used to, Murray’s surprise ouster was a story played out slightly offstage.
The headlines across Canada, naturally, will be about our own tennis stars, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, and the upsets they delivered on Thursday to make the 2013 Rogers Cup a historic one.
Better start getting your head around the idea that one of these kids could actually win this thing.
Raonic outslugged the No. 7 player in the world, Juan Martin del Potro, while Pospisil stunned the sixth-ranked player, Tomas Berdych. That meant that together the two hard-serving Canadians marched off arm-in-arm to the quarter-finals on Friday.
That hasn’t happened since 1989 – neither Raonic nor Pospisil had been born yet – when Grant Connell and Andrew Sznajder pulled it off. They lost to a pair of big-time stars, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi, respectively, and the good news for Raonic and Pospisil is that no such heavyweights await them this week.
In fact, there’s a solid chance they could meet in a semifinal on Saturday, which would mean a Canadian would make the men’s Rogers Cup final for the first time in history in the same year the country has for the first time qualified for the semifinals of the prestigious Davis Cup.
Raonic, the 11th seed in this tournament, faces the enigmatic Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, the extraordinarily streaky player who knocked off Murray and is equally capable of brilliance or disaster on any given day.
Ranked 38th in the world, Gulbis has played Raonic three times and lost three times, failing to win a set on each occasion, including earlier this year in Barcelona.
Pospisil, the native of Vernon, B.C., with an incredible appetite for dramatic moments, had Parc Jarry rocking before Raonic even took the court. After two hours and 37 minutes, a Berdych forehand sailed wide, and Pospisil had his first victory ever over a top 10 player.
“It was definitely the most emotional match of my career,” said the apple-cheeked, 23-year-old Pospisil, a Davis Cup hero for Canada in recent years.
He’ll now face 32-year-old Russian veteran Nikolai Davydenko, a player once ranked No. 3 in the world but now in the twilight of a very good career in which he has won 21 tournaments.
So Raonic, providing he can recover from a neck muscle problem that was causing numbness in his right arm during his match against del Potro, will be a solid favourite against Gulbis, while Pospisil is no worse than even money to defeat Davydenko.
A Canadian finalist in the Rogers Cup is then, for the first time ever, really, a realistic possibility.
The clash between Raonic and del Potro was a battle of two hurting big men that included some controversy. The big Argentine was struggling with back pain and served 60 km/h below his top speed all match, while Raonic served out the third game of the match to lead 2-1 then began complaining of a “dead feeling” in his arm.
As his concerned parents looked on, Raonic received a 12-minute injury timeout for treatment on his neck that peeved del Potro, who would have reason for more peevishness later.
Raonic won the first set, and with the second set on serve at 4-4, Raonic benefitted from what appeared to be a violation of the rule that says a player cannot touch the net until a shot has bounced twice and is out of play.
Umpire Mohamed Lahyani, however, blew the call, ruling that the ball had bounced twice on del Potro’s side, resulting in a bitter protest from the six-foot-six Wimbledon semifinalist.
Del Potro lost the argument, and then didn’t win another point the rest of the way.
“I was fortunate that the line judge didn’t see it,” said Raonic, acknowledging the violation. “It’s a lucky thing for me in my sense, unlucky for him.
“It was hard to sort of be able to take this point on such a big point.”
The Maple Leaf Missile said he doesn’t believe the neck injury could prevent him from facing Gulbis on Friday.
“No, I think it’s something I’ve got under control,” he said. “If not, I’m prepared to play anyway. This is that important to me.”
A tournament that began with a record five Canadians emerging from the first round now has a chance to acquire some much greater historical significance.
The rest of the world has owned this competition ever since it became more than a national championship.
A couple of Canadians now have a real chance to change that.