By Mike McIntyre
With tennis fans in Canada so enamoured at the moment by rising star Milos Raonic, it is easy to forget about some of the country's other professional tennis players who are also still on the scene. In doubles we have world number one Daniel Nestor who at the age of forty is still winning Grand Slams. In singles, Vasek Pospisil is flirting with a top-hundred ranking and upset world number twenty six Andreas Seppi in the first round of the Rogers Cup before falling in round two to a steady top-ten opponent in Juan Monaco.
You'll have to look a little bit further to find Frank Dancevic who held the title of Canadian number one for several years before back injuries, and the emergence of Raonic, pushed him down the ladder. Currently ranked a respectable 123rd in the world, Dancevic is trying to rebuild his career at the age of 27 and re-establish himself as a capable veteran who can still cause some damage.
Earlier this year it appeared that the Niagra Falls native was on his way to doing just that. At a challenger in Dallas he endured two qualification matches to make the main draw and then progressed all the way to the finals knocking off quality opponents such as Yen-Hsun Lu, Marin Cilic and then Igor Andreev to capture the title. He followed that up by qualifying for the Masters event in Miami before falling in the second round to Mardy Fish. Then his back acted-up again and brought his momentum to a grinding halt.
Dancevic was in the finals of a challenger event in Tallahassee when had to suddenly retire after popping some ligaments in his back and needing his opponent, American Tim Smyczek, and a trainer to carry him off the court. He would not play again for another month and a half.
When he returned, his body had clearly not healed as he was forced to retire again at Roland Garros after playing a mere four games in his opening match. Afterwards he said, "“I was petrified out there, I didn’t know what would happen. I started feeling twinges even during the warm-up and it only got worse during the match. I didn’t want to mess up my whole summer, it was just not worth it for me.”
A few weeks later at a grass-court tournament at Queen's Club Dancevic would try once more to comeback with disappointing results. He would retire after losing the opening set 6-1. The constant fear of re-injuring himself caused Dancevic to endure some hard times.
"Coming back and starting to train again was really difficult. I found that just practicing and going out for the first couple of weeks I was very tentative, very afraid of what was going to happen and if I would get hurt again and be out again," Dancevic said.
Only recently have things started to slowly improve for the unlucky Canuck. Last week at a challenger event in Vancouver he was able to put together a string of consistent matches before losing in the semi-finals. Then yesterday at the Rogers Cup, a tournament he was playing for the 10th time in his career, he was beaten in the first round by 69th ranked Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3, 7-5. Despite the loss, Dancevic remains cautiously optimistic that he can still get his game back to where it once was when he was ranked 65th in the world back in 2007.
"The fact that my conditioning is coming back and I played some good matches (in Vancouver) is a good sign. I think it's a matter of just staying healthy this year and staying on top of my body and hoping for the best," Dancevic said following the match against Kukushkin.
Back in '07, all hopes were on Dancevic to be the next big tennis phenom for a country that has been starved of such talent for as long as many of us can rememeber. Dancevic was well aware of that pressure and spoke about it candidly yesterday.
"I guess back in the day I was a talented junior. I was playing well. I feel like if I wasn't out - if I didn't hurt my back early in my career...I felt like who knows what could have happened, you know?"
Dancevic showed promise at various times back then. He was a finalist in Indianapolis in 2007 where he beat Andy Roddick in the semi-finals. He also made the quarter-finals that summer in Montreal before falling to Rafael Nadal in three tight sets. In 2009, he made the finals of his 2nd ATP tournament in Eastbourne on grass. In 2011, Dancevic became the first man to ever make it through qualifying at all four Grand Slam events in the same calendar year.
There still remains time for Dancevic to make something of his time as a tennis professional. While reaeching Raonic-like heights is not going to happen, a return into the top hundred in the world should be within his capabilities if he can remain healthy.
"I feel like if I put the pieces to the puzzle together I still have the game to be in the top 50. Realistically I feel like that."
Time will tell if Dancevic will be able to do it, but he certainly appears game to try.