Nestor second to none

BILL LANKHOF, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 11:12 AM ET

He is anonymity's child.

He's like the nice guy in the movies who never gets the girl. He has been overlooked with as much regularity as Susan Lucci on Emmy night. Daniel Nestor has spent his entire professional career playing best man to the sports world.

"Playing doubles is like being the warmup band at a concert. You're just an appetizer for the main event. Singles is the main attraction," Nestor said this week, from his off-season home in the Bahamas.

But in this, his 18th pro season, he made people notice. Nestor won nine tournament championships and, along with partner Nenad Zimonjic, repeated as Wimbledon champions. He spent 13 weeks as the No. 1 doubles player in the world. His 64 career championships are the most of any active player on the tour. Only seven players in the history of pro tennis have won more tournaments and his achievements have earned him the George Gross/Toronto Sun Sportsperson of the Year Award for 2009.

A $500 donation will be made in Nestor's honour to the charity of his choice. The Wimbledon champion beat out world-class hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and the Blue Jays' Aaron Hill for the sixth annual award, voted on by the Toronto Sun sports department.

Michael Downey, president and CEO of Tennis Canada says Nestor always has been underrated, partly because of the game he plays, partly because of his nature.

"He doesn't get recognition because doubles doesn't get the publicity, it doesn't get TV coverage even though it delivers phenomenal tennis," Downey said. "And he never gets the accolades he deserves because he's shy."

He is also modest. In a season during which he became the first Canadian to surpass $1 million in prize money in a single year, in a season in which he won at Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Cincinnati, to become the only player ever to win all nine Masters 1000 events, leave it to Nestor to find the cloud behind the silver lining.

"It has been an unbelievable year, but while you're going through it, it doesn't exactly feel like you're walking on Cloud 9," he said. "We won a lot but there were eight first-round losses and a loss in the semis of the French Open that we should've won. There are days of frustration."

He is a man seeking perfection in an imperfect profession.

"You play 30 tournaments a year, on average I'd win four maybe five. The other 25 weeks you're pretty miserable leaving those tournaments and that's what does a lot of people in -- you just get sick and tired of losing."

Nestor is a testament to survival. He could've quit in 1999 when shoulder problems meant surgery and reassessing a career that had seen him reach No. 58 in singles. He has beaten six No. 1-ranked singles players, including Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter.

"It was a tough decision leaving singles because that's where the attention is and I'd gotten a taste of it beating some top 10s. But I was 28, getting past the prime years for a singles player. I thought I'd get better results concentrating on doubles."

A year later, he teamed with Sebastien Lareau to win Olympic gold.

"He will have a legacy as the best Canadian male tennis player ever, even though he has spent the lion's share of his life in doubles," Downey said. "He's one of the best doubles players in the world. Ever. But he was also an outstanding singles player. This country today would kill to get a player ranked in the 50s."

In countries where the sports conscience reaches beyond a hockey puck, Nestor's accomplishments would become cause for national celebration. In Canada, Nestor's identity crisis is actually a reflection of an ennui facing the whole sport.

"We need to get more kids into the sport," Nestor said. "Until we get that, it's going to be very difficult to put Canadian tennis on the map. We need a top 20 (singles) player and we've never had that one guy.

"Most countries where tennis is booming and where there are lots of kids coming up it's because they've had that big-time player like Bjorn Borg in Sweden, or (Boris) Becker for Germany. We need to get better athletes involved in tennis in Canada so we could have players like that."

The highest-ranked Canadian male was Andrew Sznajder, No. 46 in 1989.

"Guys like myself, Grant Connell, Glenn Michibata, we had similar singles careers, ranked 50-60. Tennis is such a big world-class sport, that isn't good enough ... nobody is going to pay attention to that."

He can be self-deprecating, rarely controversial but -- occasionally -- refreshingly honest. He has told friends he would like to play through 2012, and his fifth Olympics.

"He'll be almost 40 but he's such a competitive guy and he fully expects to be there," Downey said.

Nestor demures. His professional career already spans John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and he might yet outlast Roger Federer. He does talk about being married now, family responsibilities, the birth of a daughter last December and the rigours of travel but the allure of finishing his career at the Games in London, the site of his greatest thrill -- winning Wimbledon -- is undeniable.

"If I was to lay out a plan ideally it would be go to the Olympics (but)," he said. "After that, at age 40 it would be bordering on embarrassing to still be playing."

And, one thing Daniel Nestor has never done is embarrass himself, his sport, or his country.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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