DAVIS CUP RUNNETH OVER
Singles matches kick off tennis tie with India
Game. Set. Match on, too.
If the idea of many fans was that India would be a walkover against Canada in this weekend’s Davis Cup tie, that notion disappeared from the get go.
It has to be a come-frombehind show.
Due to an injury to Vasek Pospisil, Canada sent two inexperienced tennis players, aged 18 and 22, into the fire — two kids who had never won a Davis Cup match before.
On their young shoulders was the pressure of extending Canada’s streak of consecutive appearances of qualifying for the 16-team World Group of the 117-year-old event also known as the World Cup of Tennis.
Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., in his first year on tour as a pro, had risen from No. 433 to No. 202 in the world rankings so far this year, had never played in a Davis Cup game before.
And Denis Shapovalov, of Richmond Hill, Ont., who went from No. 250 to No. 51 and had lost both of his matches to Great Britain — including the infamous implosion when he defaulted and the match was awarded to the visitors in February in Ottawa, when he batted a ball in frustration and struck chair umpire Arnaud Gabas of France, breaking a bone in the eye socket.
Actually, technically he did win one. It was a “dead rubber” last year against Chile, the fourth match of the tie Canada had already wrapped up 3-0.
So the correct phrasing would be that neither of them had won a “live match” at the Davis Cup before.
First up was Schnur, and for starters, the rookie looked like he was going to write a special story.
He won the first set and was in an excellent position to win the second. But three hours and 16 seconds after it began, he’d lost in four sets, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5 and 7-5, to India No. 1 Ramkumar Ramanathan.
Regrets? Schnur had a few. “Probably not converting on those two break points when I had it 6-5 and five-all in the second set,” said the kid who played college tennis in North Carolina until he decided to go on the tour this summer.
Schnur found out 10 minutes before the official draw at noon on Friday that he was to replace Pospisil. Canada’s trusted veteran Pospisil produced both wins in the 3-2 loss to Great Britain that put Canada on this cliff, facing the prospect of missing the World Group for the first time in seven years.
Schnur not only never had played in a Davis Cup before, but he’d never played in a best-offive series. He clearly faded as the torture test went on. He lost the unforced error competition, 41-22.
“It was my first one,” he said of the best-of-fives. “We only had best-of-threes in college.”
Was that a factor? “Yea,” he said.
“It was tough taking advice from my coaches. They all told me that it’s a long match. They told me the first set was very important. They said it was important to set your tone from the beginning.”
He did that.
“But there were times I wish I’d given it a little more energy.”
When it comes to the big picture, Schnur had the experience of his career.
“First of all, I had a lot of fun out there. That was the most fun I’ve had in tennis with that crowd,” he said.
“We have a great team and I think we’re going to pull this tie out,” he added before heading to the Canadian bench to watch the latest sensation of the nation, Shapovalov, go to work to try to save the Canadian bacon.
For starters, Shavovalov looked like he was picking up where he left off on his six-week magic carpet ride this summer.
He won his first two sets 7-6 (7-2) and 6-4 against India No. 2 Yuki Bhambri.
But the Indian proved to be a tough out.
He won the third set 7-6 (8-6) as Shapovalov started to come unravelled.
Bhambri won the fourth set 6-4 and suddenly Canada was in deep trouble going into a fifth set.
Despite having to wait about 10 minutes for Bhambri to return from the dressing room, the 18-year-old reached down and grabbed the game by the throat.
The kid absolutely dominated the final set of what turned out to be a 6-1 win in a match that lasted three hours, 52 minutes.
But that doesn’t mean Canada is out of the glue.
India is favoured in Saturday’s doubles match. And what we watched on Friday night will make Sunday’s single games no place for a nervous Canadian, regardless.
Mike Belkin has been the next great tennis player.
He has also seen the next great tennis player. And he has advice for the current next great tennis player, 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who headlines Canada’s Davis Cup team entering its tie with India in Edmonton.
“This kid, he can really play, but now the pressure is going to be on him, you understand?” Belkin said Thursday from his home in Key Biscayne, Fla. “He looks like the real deal, this guy. If he stays with it and keeps his nose clean, he’s going to be some tennis player this kid.
“What I’m afraid of is he might get caught up in all this, ‘Oh, you’re a great tennis player,’ stuff. He’s just going to have to be a tennis player, you understand? If he stays straight and is just a tennis player, he could be No. 1 in the world.”
More than 50 years ago, even more glowing praise was heaped upon a young Belkin, the transplanted Montrealer who took up the game at age 11 and quickly became the hottest thing on clay.
While living in Miami, he won the U.S. boys and junior championships and the prestigious Orange Bowl championship. As a wispy high schooler — he was five foot 11 and just 150 pounds — Belkin also took the Florida men’s title. By 1963, he’d won so often — 26 sanctioned tournaments in a row — that Sports Illustrated dispatched a writer of considerable repute to check out the wunderkind.
“You’re 16 or 17 years of age and Frank Deford is writing about you. You’ve heard of Frank Deford, right?” Belkin said.
“He flew in to see me in Miami and he did this article on me and everybody was calling me the next great player, because I was winning all the time. I never stopped winning.”
The piece, titled “A big word for a small boy,” hit the streets March 18, 1963, when Belkin was 17.
“Around national junior singles champion Mike Belkin, the word ‘greatest’ is used with much the same careless abandon and the same lack of point that it is around comedian Jackie Gleason,” Deford wrote.
Belkin was in the midst of augmenting his baseline game with a serve-and-volley component. He was entertaining multiple college offers and was chock full of the confidence that came with beating everyone.
“The way I’m going with my serve and volley now, I think I should be on top by the time I’m 20,” he told Deford. “Yeah, on top. That’s right, the greatest player in the world.”
He didn’t get there. While in his late 20s, right knee surgery derailed what had been a modest pro career. But he had been runner-up to Arthur Ashe in the 1965 NCAA tournament and was perennial Canadian champ in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
He coached for a couple of decades too.
“I made a nice living. I love the game and it’s been good to me. It kept me straight. It’s just a wonderful sport,” the 72-yearold Belkin said.
Some of his fondest recollections are attached to the Davis Cup. His sterling singles record of 14-7 gives him one of the best winning percentages in Canadian history and that’s a point of pride. Perhaps owing to his joyful experiences with baseball and hockey, he loved being part of a Davis Cup team in a pressurepacked environment like the one facing Shapovalov and his mates today.
“It’s the same old story,” Belkin said. “When you represent your country in something, there is a lot of pressure no matter what level. It’s amazing, the pressure in Davis Cup. All these guys getting ready to play in Edmonton, it’s all about the pressure, you understand? You want to win. It’s very difficult. And I feel the team at home has got a lot more pressure.
“I loved the pressure. Didn’t bother me. I liked it more than the other guys.”
What I’m afraid of is he might get caught up in all this, ‘Oh, you’re a great tennis player’ stuff.
Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont. stretches to return the ball against Yuki Bhambri of India during their Davis Cup match on Friday at Northlands Coliseum. Shapovalov won the match in five sets to pull Canada even after rookie Brayden Schnur dropped the opener.
Canada’s Brayden Schnur reaches out to return a serve to India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan during Davis Cup tennis action at Northlands Coliseum on Friday. Ramanathan won 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-5 to give India a 1-0 lead after the first rubber.