The Davis Cup is in town again and it will almost certainly feature a match between Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Canada’s Milos Raonic, ranked fourth and sixth in the world, respectively.
Both players currently sit higher in the rankings than any other man from their respective country ever has, and they’ve faced each other five times in the past year. As the two have never faced each other outside of the ATP World Tour, the rivalry is only increased by the added undertone of national pride here at the Davis Cup.
If this weekend’s showdown is anything like their four-and-a-half hour marathon match at the 2014 US Open, it will set the tone for what looks to be a closely contested World Group tie between Canada and Japan.
Each Davis Cup ‘tie’ (read: round) is decided on the best of five ‘rubbers’ (read: matches).
Thursday’s official draw determined that Raonic will face Japan’s Tatsuma Ito in the first match on Friday, followed by Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil against Nishikori. Pospisil will then team up with Daniel Nestor in Saturday’s doubles against Go Soeda and Yasutaka Uchiyama, followed by the reverse singles matches on Sunday.
Raonic didn’t think there were any surprises with the draw, but looks forward to the challenge of facing Nishikori in Sunday's fourth rubber. “I think we’ve played so much, we’ve watched each other play so much, and we know each other pretty well so it’s about going out there and battling,” he said.
It is worth noting, however, that “official” is a loose term here, and team captains can still make strategic changes after the draw.
For Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau, a tough decision awaits regarding Pospisil. As a reigning Wimbledon doubles champion and Canada’s second-highest ranked singles player, the 24-year-old is slated to play three matches this weekend.
“[Vasek’s] put himself in that position to play Davis Cup for Canada and to play number two singles,” said Laurendeau. "His body’s fine, he’s confident, he’s playing well and we need to win with our top guys.”
Pospisil knows he has his hands full. “I’m definitely the underdog here [against Nishikori], there’s no doubt about that. I’m not going to lie to myself or anybody there. But at the same time I do think that I can win,” he said. “He’s number four in the world so I know it’s going to be extremely tough. But at the same time playing at home in Canada, if I go out there and play my best tennis, anything can happen.”
There is some speculation, though, that since the lone doubles match is often the deciding factor in Davis Cup play, and since Nishikori is capable of winning both of his singles matches, Laurendeau could play veteran Frank Dancevic on Friday in order to rest Pospisil for the doubles match and what could be the clinching fifth rubber singles match on Sunday.
Japanese captain Minoru Ueda said he would decide whether or not to insert Nishikori into the doubles depending on how Friday’s matches go.
Clearly, the mystery is part of the intrigue of the Davis Cup.
Raonic, who already has a gruelling competition schedule and lofty individual goals, made it clear that he wasn’t here because of any obligation. “I’m here ‘cause I want to be here. I don’t have anybody telling me I need to be here. I have the desire to be here. I want to succeed at this event and I want to succeed representing Canada.”
The rising 24-year-old sees the Davis Cup as an important step towards his goal of becoming world number one, as well as growing the game here in Canada.
“I think the growth has happened naturally. I think the best way to promote anything is through success, and fortunately I’ve been able to have that and we’ve had great success here at UBC,” said Raonic. “It’s a great time spending the week here before the matches because you train in the gym and see all these different athletes around. It’s really nice to see how much effort they're putting in to represent their university. It’s great seeing the turn-out from students to the rest of Vancouver and people from all over the country that come to watch us play here and get rowdy.”