By Mike McIntyre
Canada finds itself in unfamiliar territory as they play in their first ever Davis Cup quarter-final on Friday against Italy. Even more surprising is perhaps the fact that they will be considered by many to be the favourite in this match-up.
Led by rising star and current world number 16 Milos Raonic, the Canadian team will be hoping to use their home crowd and home surface to advance to the semi-finals in September.
The Thunderbird Arena on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver might have a tennis court instead of an ice surface on the floor but it will definitely feel more like a hockey game thanks to the increased level of support a home crowd is expected to provide during Davis Cup play. Warning: this is not your typical tennis environment.
The hard court surface has been chosen yet again and this should come as no surprise given the extra pop it will give Raonic on his ATP World Tour leading serve. While I do not have any statistical evidence to support the ferociousness of his serve, ask anyone on the tour right now whose serve they would most like to avoid and I guaranteed Milos gets the bulk of the votes.
The hard court being used will also put Team Italy at their most vulnerable given that most of their players prefer to play on the red clay that is more commonly associated with tennis back in Europe. The Italians used such clay to defeat the Croatians in their opening round victory back in February.
The team rosters and schedule of play was just released today and revealed one change from each team from what was previously expected. For the Canadians it will be Vasek Pospisil and not Frank Dancevic who will join Raonic as our second singles player. Dancevic was a late scratch due to pain he was experiencing in his left knee. Pospisil is currently ranked 140th in the world and while it was Dancevic who gave the Canucks the extra win they needed to dispatch Spain two months ago, the younger Pospisil is also quite capable of coming through in Davis Cup play. It was his heroics in Israel late in 2011 that allowed Canada to jump back into the world group of the Davis Cup.
For Italy, doubles specialist Simone Bolelli has been forced to bow out due to a wrist injury he sustained recently. Instead of playing doubles with his regular partner Fabio Fognini, the Italians have opted to go with the duo of Paolo Lorenzi and Daniele Bracciali. They will face-off against Canadian legend Daniel Nestor and Pospisil.
Pospisil will in fact kick-off the tie against Italy on Friday against world number 18 Andreas Seppi. The two have played each other before with Pospisil scoring the upset last summer in Toronto at the Rogers Cup and Seppi winning their first encounter in 2011 in St. Petersburg by a close scoreline of 7-5, 7-6. Despite the large gap in their rankings, expect Pospisil to give Seppi a good challenge with either player capable of scoring the initial victory.
Raonic will play second against the flamboyant but often enigmatic Fabio Fognini. More known for his clay court prowess, this match on paper should be a routine win for Canada's top gun. Raonic says he is 100% ready to go after having to withdraw from the Masters 1000 event in Miami two week's ago due to strep throat. The 25 year old Fognini is currently ranked 31st in the world rankings but will have to play the match of his life in order to score the upset in this one. I remember Fognini arriving to play the Rogers Cup a couple of summers ago and he only had his clay court shoes with him. While I don't think he'll make that mistake this time around, I wouldn't expect it would make much of a difference against Raonic anyway.
With Raonic the overwhelming favourite in both of his singles matches and Pospisil in theory the underdog, the result in Vancouver may likely be determined by the doubles match on the second day of competition. For all of his past doubles glory, including victories at the Olympics and all four of the Grand Slams, Daniel Nestor needs to step up and overcome some recent Davis Cup struggles to get the win on Saturday. Nestor has looked ordinary of late and has never really established a huge rapport with Pospisil as his partner.
I'm still going to go with Canada in this one due to their home crowd, choice of surface and the fact that they seem to have such an emerging team camaraderie as they begin to truly believe that they belong amongst some of the top tennis countries in the world right now.
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