Davis Cup squad pumped up

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

The Davis Cup is to tennis what that lovable, yet rapscallion, uncle is to the family reunion.

It is the one time when raucous replaces sedate, when bluster and back-slapping and familial ties rule over decorum.

It is the one time everyone is hootin' and hollerin' for a home team.

"It's the only time you play for your country. Otherwise, essentially you are out there for yourself," said Martin Laurendeau, captain of the Canadian team, as it prepared for this weekend's first-round Americas Zone qualifying tournament.

For players, it is the one time when nationalism trumps prize money. For fans, it is the one time when passion can turn normally sane people into scalawags.

"You're in one of the world's biggest sports events, 165 countries I think, representing an entire country.

"There's a great passion," Laurendeau said.

Sometimes it can get too testy. Laurendeau recalled one year, playing in Santiago, Chile. "The crowd got carried away ... we couldn't even play the last match, it got so dangerous. The referee even sought refuge in our dressing room because he and his wife had death threats during the match. It turned ugly."

Things aren't likely to get quite that rambunctious this weekend as the Canadian team plays at home for the first time since 2005. Canadian fans, he noted, tend to be just as supportive, but maybe less vociferous, than their South American counterparts -- which might not be a bad thing. All 1,200 tickets to each of the three days of competition against Ecuador at the Rexall Centre's indoor facility have been sold.

"Ask the players and ... Grand Slams and the Davis Cup are at the top of everyone's list," Laurendeau said. "The crowd is really into it. Even Wimbledon doesn't have that passion because, if it's not a Brit, the crowd is often neutral. You don't know whose side they're on."

That shouldn't be a question this weekend.

"To understand the Davis Cup you have to come and see and feel it," said Frederic Niemeyer, who has combined with Daniel Nestor, to become Canada's best doubles team in Davis Cup history.

"The atmosphere when you enter the court and the crowd is cheering, whether it's for or against you, is the kind of adrenalin every athlete feeds off. It's like hockey, sometimes the crowd can give you that extra push."

The Canadians, including Nestor, Frank Dancevic, Niemeyer and Milos Raonic are favoured, but only slightly. The loss yesterday of Peter Polansky, who was expected to play singles matches, will hurt Canada's chance of advancing.

He withdrew after being diagnosed with tears in his right rotator cuff and labrum.

That pushes Raonic, an 18-year-old from Thornhill who won the national Under-18 indoor championship, into his Davis Cup debut.

The Canadians face an Ecuador team which, unlike most South American teams, is comprised of players who don't mind the faster hard-court surface. It is led by the LaPentti brothers, Nicolas and Giovanni. "We'll have our hands full," said Laurendeau. Nicolas is a former Top 10 player. As well, the fact the matches are five-set affairs could be in Ecuador's favor considering they practise and live at high altitude giving them, potentially, a fitness-advantage in the longer matches.

That's where the Canadians hope the home crowd might give them a lift. It often has. Dancevic has an 8-2 record on Canadian soil. Niemeyer is 10-2 at home. In doubles, Nestor and Niemeyer, have combined for a 10-1 record. "Personally, my biggest thrill was Wimbledon. It's the biggest tournament in the world but," said Niemeyer, "I've probably played my best tennis in Davis Cup." He has an overall Davis Cup record of 20-10.

A win for Canada would set up at second-round tie in May in Peru -- with the winner there advancing to the elite 16-country World Group playoff for the Davis Cup.

"When you're playing not just for yourself but the country there's pressure but that also is what makes it special," said Niemeyer. "The whole atmosphere gets your adrenalin going."

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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