DAVIS CUP RUNNETH OVER

Sin­gles matches kick off tennis tie with In­dia

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - TERRY JONES

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.

GREG SOUTHAM

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.

JA­SON FRANSON/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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