Canada's chance to join the tennis elite

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

The Davis Cup is to tennis playing nations what the Stanley Cup is to hockey countries.

Canada, high on the hockey side of international competition, has enjoyed fair to low results on the world tennis stage over the years, climbing as high as the top World Group and falling back among the also-runs.

Next week, Sept. 23-25 to be exact, Canada meets the strong Belarus team at the Rexall Centre at York University for the right to climb back into the elite group.

It won't be an easy task with the Belarussians boasting such experienced players as Max Mirnyi and Vladimir Voltchkov. However, Canadian Davis Cuppers have shown in the past that they can manage to beat even bigger names.

Perhaps the biggest singles win of all was Toronto's Daniel Nestor beating the then No. 1 player in the world, Stefan Edberg, in the Sweden-Canada classic in 1992. Nestor also defeated Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, who also was ranked No. 1 in the world, in 2003.

These individual triumphs by the formidable doubles player in singles competition were not the only major achievements by a Canadian tennis player. Vancouver's Grant Connell, once ranked the No. 1 doubles player in the world in concert with his partner Glenn Michibata of Toronto, brought glory to Canada in 1990 by beating the favoured Dutch team of Paul Haarhuis and Mark Koevermans and advancing to the elite 16-nation World Group.

The deciding victory that year in Toronto was the one posted by Connell over Koevermans with the Davis Cup series tied 2-2. Cheered on by the vocal home crowd, (cheering is allowed in Davis Cup ties, but not in Grand Slam tournaments) Connell downed Koevermans 7-6(7-5), 7-6(7-5), 6-3 in as dramatic a match as Toronto fans had seen.

Pierre Lamarche, the captain of Canada's Davis Cup team at the time and a fine tennis player himself, still remembers that Davis Cup tie rather vividly.

"When I was hired as Davis Cup captain by Tennis Canada, I said that one day we will make history," Lamarache told me yesterday. "Connell's sensational win helped propel us into the World Group for the first time in nearly 80 years.

"I watched the Dutch team work out and noticed that they were having trouble playing on the hard surface of the old York University tennis courts. I also remembered that in most Davis Cup ties a team that wins the doubles usually wins the whole shooting match. We did it by beating Holland and we also beat Paraguay away from home, breaking the hearts of their fanatic fans. When they played our anthem after those matches, I was so moved that I cried."

Connell, who succeeded Lamarche as Davis Cup captain and more recently was elected to the board of directors of Tennis Canada, downplayed his importance in the Dutch series even though he accounted for all three Canadian points by wining singles against Haarhuis and Koevermans and teaming up with Michibata in the doubles to conquer the representatives of the country of tulips.

"Michibata never got the credit he deserved," said Connell. "He played brilliantly in that doubles match and helped us win. Maybe we Canadians as a whole didn't have much success in the Davis Cup, but still, we had some outstanding victories. I mean, particularly, Daniel (Nestor) beating Edberg when the latter was on top of the world."

Next week Nestor will have to pull off another of his patented shock victories by beating the Belarus lion -- Max Mirnyi.

Tennis Canada president Michael Downey is hopeful.

"I'm hopeful that we can win," Downey said. "It would move us into the World Group, which would do wonders for tennis in Canada. That would also have an inspirational and financial impact on the health of our sport.

"We'll certainly help the fans to cheer on our players by supplying every fan with a Canadian flag and noise makers so they can let their emotions fly."

Hopefully, Mirnyi and company won't be able to stop them.


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