Milos Raonic and Team Canada stand one victory away from global legitimacy.
Entering this weekend's World Group Playoff at Canada Stadium -- talk about a great facility name for the visitors -- in Israel, Canada's Davis Cup team has a tremendous opportunity to advance to the big dance, wherein only the world's Top 16 tennis nations get invited and the remaining 109 get relegated to zonal play in the hope of getting another shot at competing with the big boys in the distant future.
With the return of world No. 31 Raonic -- our highest-ranked men's singles player ever -- to official competition and the emergence of Vasek Pospisil, Canada has to be the favourite to move on. It's a lot of pressure for a mostly inexperienced roster, to be sure. But now is the time for Raonic to resume his climb to stardom and for Canada to slip on its dancing shoes.
Not having played competitive tennis since a nasty spill forced him out of Wimbledon on June 22, Raonic made the mature decision to rest and rehabilitate with patience following hip surgery. His timely return to the lineup provides Canada with an instant edge.
However, it's a real test for the rising star from Thornhill, Ont., because his comeback starts with five-set rubbers found only in Davis Cup and Grand Slams. Toss in a bout of a stomach virus and Raonic's return represents a major challenge.
"He has had a bit of a bug back since Wednesday night," Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau said. "He is in the process of recovering and getting his strength back.
"If he continues to progress the way he is [Thursday], he should be good to play if he wants to [Friday]."
'Very fortunate to have Milos'
The key for Raonic on court is his newfound maturity. He must utilize his weapons yet realize it's going to be a long grind. Raonic can serve upward of 241 kph, but a match cannot be won with a couple of aces in the opening set.
Playing Davis Cup on the road is not unlike playing NHL hockey in the opposition barn -- stick to your game plan and let the initial hoopla subside, no matter how successful your opponent at the outset. Even not match ready, Raonic, if healthy, should defeat Israelis Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub in singles.
"We're very fortunate to have Milos on the team," Laurendeau noted. "It really looked bad after the first few months from his injury.
"But he had Davis Cup on the top of his calendar, his agenda. He has done everything he could.
"He really wanted to be here for this chance to make this World Group and lead the team to get another win. I think the key success for him was having this target date.
"This date forced him to really push hard [and] it's really paid off for him. He has put himself in this position where his hip is not a factor."
Raonic not alone
The good news for Canadian tennis fans is that Raonic is not alone. He has a decent group of singles players behind him, including Pospisil. The soft-spoken, 21-year-old from Vernon, B.C., has enjoyed a nice run himself this season and is riding great momentum heading into the weekend.
Pospisil not only qualified for the U.S. Open but reached the second round before losing to world No. 26 Feliciano Lopez of Spain in four sets, the last two in tiebreaks. Earlier this summer, Pospisil upset No. 24 Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round of the Rogers Cup and advanced to the semifinals at the Vancouver Open.
I remember being with Canada when Pospisil was thrown into a dead rubber (that's what tennis folk call matches that are played despite the overall outcome having already been decided) against Mexico in 2008. A red-faced 17-year-old, he was so emotional after losing the match in the deciding set that it broke my heart.
Once thought of as maybe another Canadian doubles specialist, Pospisil has a fantastic serve and incredible hands at the net. He has since risen to No. 124 in the world in singles and has helped make Canada the only tennis nation with two men under 22 years of age in the Top 125.
Peter Polansky, also of Thornhill and attempting another comeback, rounds out the singles crew.
With the veteran duo of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, Israel is one of a select few countries that could give Canada a run for its money in the doubles department (the Bryan brothers from the U.S. being another tandem that comes to mind).
Erlich and Ram pose a real threat to the Canadians, who have often assumed an easy victory in the middle rubber, thanks to ageless wonder Daniel Nestor. The Torontonian remains one of the best doubles specialists in the game, but has seen his ranking drop to No. 5 -- the lowest in more than four years.
Nestor's commitment to the national program is unwavering and is a story within itself. The buzz of a pro-Israeli crowd won't frighten Nestor, who's seen, heard and done it all in tennis. While Erlich and Ram are no spring chickens either, I rate the doubles rubber a toss-up.
Another sign of importance for Canada has been the media coverage heading into this tie.
When I was still a staff member at Tennis Canada, there would be no way national media would invest in travel to cover the team. Then again, we didn't deserve it. With a World Group berth at stake this weekend, there are multiple Canadian media sources in Tel Aviv waiting to tell their story of how the event unfolds. It's a true indication that Raonic -- and Canada, potentially -- are a big deal in tennis.
It's been seven years since Canada found itself in World Group play. Led by Raonic, the maple leaf might find itself among the tennis elite for a long time.
How important is Davis Cup?
Ask Roger Federer, who flew to Australia to join his Swiss teammates. Ask top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia or U.S. Open finalist Rafael Nadal of Spain, both of whom plan on competing for their native lands.
Despite mostly North American opponents, Davis Cup is still very special for Canadian tennis. So this weekend is big.