Hard-serving Milos Raonic joined his Canadian tennis teammates in the Middle East this past weekend in preparation for Friday’s Davis Cup tangle against Israel.
This matchup will mark the first time the two countries have met in Davis Cup action, but Canada’s path to this point wasn’t easy.
The team’s last tie resulted in a 3-2 victory against Ecuador in the Americas Zone Group I final. But Canada went into Day 2 down 2-0 before finally pulling out wins in its three remaining matches without dropping a single set.
The Canadians have been practising all week hoping to land in the 16-team World Group for the first time since 2004, while Israel was relegated in 2010 after three-straight years in the top tier.
Canada hopes that Raonic, who is the highest ever ranked Canadian male despite dropping from 25th to 31st after suffering a hip injury at Wimbledon, will give the team the lift needed to get through the weekend.
But no one is more excited than the Maple Leaf Missile.
“I feel good and I feel proud to be able to represent Canada, especially in a big moment like this to make World Group and it’s important for me,” Raonic told Israeli press. “I feel like I’m anxious and ready to play.”
While it remains to be seen what contributions the 20-year-old Raonic will make in the tournament, the team is happy to have him back after three months away from the court.
“We’re fortunate to even have Raonic on the team,” Canada’s captain Martin Laurendeau told the Toronto Star. “A much longer rehab was planned, but he really wanted to play in this event. Genetics, youth and a good rehab program made the difference.”
Raonic may appear in as many as two singles matches and could potentially play alongside the world’s fifth-ranked doubles player, Daniel Nestor, but his first match is against No. 182 Amir Weintraub.
Nestor,39, who is at least 17 years older than any of his teammates, provides a young Canadian team with a veteran presences, and is the only member of Canada’s squad who was around for the team’s last World Group appearance in 2004.
Raonic may be the one making headlines after his return from surgery, but Canada will need to be sharp if it wants to come away victorious.
Joining Nestor and Raonic overseas are Vasek Pospisil, Peter Polansky and Philip Bester.
The 20-year-old Pospisil is another up-and-comer to watch as he continues to climb the ATP ranks in 2011, jumping to No. 123. He will be relied on to put together a strong performance for his country.
All eyes will be on Raonic and Pospisil to carry Canada through its singles matches while Nestor will provide experience and strength with whoever he partners with in doubles.
The Israel team is far from a group of pushovers and despite lacking significant star power is ranked No. 10, while Canada sits at No. 21.
Israel earned its World Group playoff spot after defeating Poland 3-2 at home in the Europe/Africa Zone Group I second round in Ramat Hasharon.
After winning the first two ties of the first day, the Israelis secured the victory on Day 2 with the experienced doubles duo of Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich clinching the third point.
Accompanying Ram and Erlich this weekend will be the team’s youngest players, 25-year-old Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, who will be celebrating his 24th birthday on Friday.
A fitting coincidence in this weekend’s tie lies in the name of the venue as the contest will be played in the heart of Israel at Canada Stadium.
But with an antagonistic crowd that has nearly rioted in past years, mixed with grueling weather, the young Canadians are heading into what may feel more like the Coliseum in Rome.
Journalists traveling around the world to cover events such as this one know firsthand the difficulties that come with such an endeavour.
“First, they’ve got to be able to handle the heat and the hostility,” Damien Cox, a writer who is in Israel covering the Davis Cup for the Toronto Star, told the Toronto Observer. “It’s about 35-40 degrees here, less in the afternoon. Matches start at 2 p.m. ET, so weather will be a factor.
“Also, other than Nestor, none of the Canadians have faced anything like they’re likely to encounter in terms of an unfriendly crowd…very different from the ATP tour.”
While many are looking to Raonic to lead the Canucks through battle, it will likely be the calm and collective demeanor of Nestor that allows Pospisil to shine.
“He’s moved up to 124th in the world and is really finding out how good he can be,” said Cox about Pospisil’s role going forward. “But he’s got to find that desire, and he’s got to stay healthy. He’s a key variable heading into this weekend.”