Canada Roars Past South Africa
MONTREAL--It was only three years ago, but for two tennis players, it could be better measured in where the sport has taken them since.
Milos Raonic and Izak Van Der Merve had met once before today, back in 2009 in the qualifying portion of a tournament in Sacramento. Raonic was 18, Van Der Merve a 25-year-old South African who had attended Old Dominion University in Virgina and been an all-American three times.
That day, with no fences between the various courts, balls rolling from one match to another and one umpire per contest, it was Van Der Merve who won in two sets. Raonic, not yet the Maple Leaf Missile, had three aces and four double faults in the loss.
Fast forward to today at Uniprix Stadium and the pivotal fourth rubber of a Davis Cup tie between Canada and South Africa, and it was clear that while Van Der Merve might have been better back then, he, like the rest of the tennis world, has watched Raonic's meteoric rise to become one of the young stars in the world while his own fortunes haven't changed that much.
Van Der Merve, No. 188 in the world, simply had no chance against Raonic, No. 15, who swamped the South African in three overwhelming sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 to keep Canada in the 16-country Davis Cup World Group for 2013.
Raonic is now the ace of one of the world's rising tennis powers, while Van Der Merwe was the best South Africa could muster this weekend, signs of a former tennis power in decline.
If you're a little confused because the Czech Republic and Spain will collide in November to see which country wins the '12 Davis Cup, well, that's the nature of this international competition. At the same time the Cup is being fought for most of the other countries in the world are trying to position themselves to take a shot the following year, and that's what Raonic and Canada accomplished on Sunday by beating South Africa.
Canada will find out on Wednesday the identity of their opponent next winter, and with any luck, it might not be as difficult as it was when they played France last February in Vancouver and were beaten handily. It could be on the road or in Canada, but after the weekend tie in drew disappointing crowds in the 4,500 grandstand court, you can bet that if Canada hosts in February in won't be in Montreal. Indeed, Tennis Canada seemed oddly ill-prepared for this tie with little in the way of concessions or Team Canada merchandise, and until the Raonic match today, the gathered audiences were surprisingly small.
For Raonic, winning both of his singles matches should, one would think, end any and all debate over where Davis Cup and playing for his country fits on his priority list.
He not only wants to play for Canada, he wants to lead Canada, and while the ageless Daniel Nestor isn't done yet, Raonic isn't only the future any more. He's the present, and in both dominating his opponents on the weekend and loudly cheering his teammates on when he wasn't playing, he showed that he's deserving and capable of the leadership role.
Canada could have clinched the tie on Saturday after sweeping both singles matches on Friday, but Vasek Pospisil and Nestor had a dismal day in the doubles, losing in straight sets.
That put Raonic, a 21-year-old many Canadian have been losing to make a big breakthrough against one of the game's elites, in the position of getting to put South Africa away.
This was, don't forget, a tie that was supposed to take place in South Africa but didn't for financial reasons, and then South Africa lost its two top players, Kevin Anderson and Rik De Voest, before the competition even began. Anderson wouldn't play because Tennis South Africa refused to come up with enough money, while De Voest was injured last Thursday, the day before the tie was to begin.
Raonic, however, was in no mood to be either charitable or merciful. He broke a nervous Van Der Merve's serve in the first game of the match, then used all his weapons in demolishing the South African as if to demonstrate to his critics that he has more to offer than just a monster serve.
By the time he'd won a set and was up 4-0 in the second, it was clear this was going to be a one-sided affair and Canada would be moving on, with South Africa, a nation that won the Davis Cup in '74, kept out of the World Group for a 15th straight year.
It won't replace a victory against Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, but it was a must-win situation before an expectant home crowd, and Raonic came through brilliantly. Frank Dancevic then played the meaningless fifth rubber against Nik Scholz, ending the tie.