Written by: Craig Mercer
***Craig Mercer is currently the Director of Operations at ACE Tennis and the Head Coach of ACE Tennis at the newly acquired Howard Park Tennis Club location. Ranked as high as #3 in Canadian junior tennis, Craig competed in more than 20 Junior Nationals for Team Atlantic and Team Quebec. Craig has a Masters of Sports Management, is a Tennis Canada Coach 2 and is currently pursuing his Coach 3. A Team Ontario provincial coach, Craig has a deep interest in the growth and development of our sport in this country. ***
A few weeks ago Irfan Shamasdin and I were the coaches for Team Ontario at the U14 Indoor Junior Canadian Nationals in Vancouver. This winter, when I realized that the U14 Nationals would be played at the same time and in the same city as Canada’s Davis Cup tie with Italy, bells started ringing! I suggested to Kartik Vyas at the Ontario Tennis Association (OTA) that we arrange for our players to experience Davis Cup. It turned out that Tennis Canada had the same idea. They decided to host the U14 Nationals at the UBC Tennis Centre which is next door to Thunderbird Stadium where the Davis Cup matches were to be played. Originally the U14 Nationals were to be hosted at Hollyburn Country Club; this was changed so that Hollyburn would host April 1-4, and UBC April 5-7.
In our pre-tournament meeting with Team Ontario players and parents I explained that the venue would shift to UBC for the weekend. This news was not received with the enthusiasm that I had anticipated. Only one of our nineteen players had ever seen Davis Cup action and, honestly, I think there were some kids who probably did not even know what Davis Cup was! I could see that, while some parents were excited about the move, there was apprehension about the travel, court change and other logistics. Some did not want to make the move. For me it was a no-brainer. Think about it, the best 12-14 year old tennis players in Canada will compete at the same time, right next door as the best Canadian professional players compete in the most important Davis Cup tie in Canadian tennis history! What an opportunity to inspire young players, to make them feel part of the experience, to fuel the dream of one day being on that stage! I was attuned to the logistics of the move to UBC and we could ensure that our team was prepared for matches. Having the players experience this special Davis Cup tie could be far more impactful to their long term development than the tournament they would play that week. The great thing was that Tennis Canada provided tickets for all players and coaches for all the Davis Cup matches! Hats off to Tennis Canada for this!
The first Davis Cup match of the weekend featured local boy Vasek Pospisil, ranked #128 vs. Andres Seppi, ranked #18. Despite the huge difference in their rankings, Pospisil had actually defeated Seppi in their last match. So the stage was set with Pospisil leading off the charge. Pospisil went up 2 sets to 0 but Seppi clawed his way back to win in five sets, a huge opportunity for Canada missed. The next match pitted #15 Raonic against #32 Fognini and this was no contest… straight sets, boom, boom, thank you very much.
“Epic”, “Amazing,” “Unbelievable,” “Incredible” !!!
These are the words that were used to describe the doubles match between Nestor/Pospisil and Bracciali/Fognini. This match embodied what Davis Cup is all about. The teams are tied at 1-1. The next singles match would be Raonic vs. Seppi, where most would put their money on Raonic. If Canada wins this doubles match their chances of beating Italy are very good. If Italy wins the doubles and Seppi loses against Raonic it will come down to one singles match for the win. Also, in this doubles match you have Nestor (aka “Legend”) with Pospisil taking on a pair who are among the best doubles players in the world. So, as it should for the expected drama, the match went the distance with very high quality play and very big hearts on display.
While the Thunderbird arena was bouncing, there were two young warriors doing battle in the UBC tennis centre right next door. The boys’ U14 Nationals semi-finals were on court at the same time. Two Ontario boys (both of whom I was coaching and managing for the week) were playing an epic match of their own. Jack Minje Lin and Victor Krustev showed great heart, determination and patience in this match, exemplary mental and physical endurance. It was like watching a lightweight boxing match with both players jabbing away and looking to wear the other down for the KO. One rally was so long that I probably could have walked over to Thunderbird arena, watched a couple of games of doubles, walked back and the boys would still be fighting for that point. The point was going on for so long that I decided to start counting shots, from which point they hit 57 more shots. As I only started counting maybe three quarters of the way through the point, I estimate that 150 shots were hit in that rally! Victor won the point, but unfortunately for him he lost the match. Jack just kept tenaciously plugging. Really, both players deserved to win this 4 hour and 45 minute marathon.
Okay, back to “Legend” and Pospisil competing in the most epic tennis match in Canadian Davis Cup history. At 3-3 in the 5th set I walked into the stadium with Irfan. When we sat down I could feel the electricity surging through the crowd and the Canadian team on the bench. I said to Irfan “We’re going to do it”. Notice, I say “we” as if I had something to do with their success. But the fact is that there was a great sense that everyone was part of the team. The crowd was roaring between every point and Raonic was off the bench waving his arms up to the crowd, encouraging everyone to make noise.
The match just went on and on and the crowd only got louder. It was clear that Fognini especially was affected by the noise and one Canadian fan in particular got under his skin. Bracciali was playing some of the best doubles I have ever seen; covering everything that came through the middle of the court he would finish the point with conviction. It was clear that “Legend” was struggling physically as the 5th set went on; his calf taped up, he looked as though he was struggling with his movement. But, hanging tough, he still managed to come up with some clutch returns and passing shots on huge points. Meanwhile, Pospisil was serving lights out! Not only was he serving 87% of first serves in, but he was going full tilt! I was sitting close to the court and heard Fognini mutter to himself that “this guy is zoning”! Canada defeated Italy 15-13 in the 5th!
An anecdote to share is that, after the doubles match, some of the U14 Ontario team girls were smitten with Pospisil. They were begging Irfan to get his brother (Adil – practice partner on the team) to get Vasek’s autograph for them and they could not stop talking about Vasek for the rest of the weekend!
The final day of the Nationals was also the final day of the Davis Cup tie. Canada was up 2-1 with Raonic on deck to play Seppi for the win. There was a major buzz that day around the tennis community with many believing that this could be the day that the Canadian Davis Cup team makes history.
The U14 Nationals boys and girls singles finals were played in the morning. On the boys side #2 seed Jack Mingje Lin from Ontario would take on #1 seed Benjamin Sigouin from British Columbia. On the girls side #1 seed Charlotte Robillard-Millette from Quebec would play #3 seed Brindtha Ramasamy from Ontario. Sigouin won the boys final in a tough three set match and Robillard-Millette took the title for the girls in straight sets. While these finals were taking place at the UBC Tennis Centre, Canada’s #2 ranked men’s doubles player Adil Shamasdin and former Junior Wimbledon and Junior US Open Champion Filip Peliwo were practicing on the far court; both players practice with Canada’s Davis Cup team.
After the finals, players, parents and coaches hurried to the Thunderbird Stadium. Tennis Canada had arranged the awards presentations for the U14 winners and runners up on stadium court. It was a special moment for the players.
Soon afterwards Seppi and Raonic took to the court. We were not able to stay for more than a few games before Team Ontario and Team Quebec had to head to the airport to catch our flights home. While we were waiting at the gate Victor’s mom put the match on her laptop and some of us gathered around to watch. We were lucky enough to see Raonic win and propel Canada into the final four! Within a few minutes our flight was boarding and we were grateful to have been able to witness the victory!
Tennis Canada certainly did the right thing in providing the opportunity for our juniors to be a part of the Davis Cup experience. From seeing our kids cheering, to our girls in awe of Pospisil, from the awards presentation on stadium court to Jack and Victor battling in unison with our doubles heroes, this was an opportunity that simply could not be missed. It was a busy week for all involved with Davis Cup and Nationals! I want to thank everyone involved for providing this great opportunity for the kids. I know that the experience was inspirational for many players and will help “Fuel the Dream”.