Photo: Martin Sidorjak
It just never happened for Team Canada presented by Sobeys at the 2021 Davis Cup Finals in Madrid.
That extended from Steven Diez leading 4-1 in set one of the first match against Sweden on Thursday right up until Brayden Schnur came so close in a three-set, Group B elimination loss to Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan in the opening singles on Sunday.
It was never going to be easy without Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov not available, and then with team leader Vasek Pospisil unable to really find his best tennis.
Still there were faint hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals as a best-record, second-place group finisher when Schnur took to the court in the Pavilion Madrid Arena against the veteran Kukushkin.
Schnur saved three match points with Kukushkin serving at 6-5 in the second set – one with a blistering backhand, second-serve return winner. He then proceeded to win the ensuing tiebreak 7-5 with aggressive play, forcing a third set.
When he broke serve to lead 1-0 in the decider everything was going his way and the 33-year-old Kazakh looked fatigued and vulnerable, particularly in light of his tough two-set loss to Elias Ymer of Sweden on Saturday.
But Kukushkin broke right back to 15 to even matters at 1-all.
The rest of the set went on serve with Schnur the more dominant player and Kukushkin looking to be physically ailing with a leg issue.
It appeared the match would come down to final-set tiebreak when Schnur served at 40-30 in the 12th game. But a couple of forehand errors and Kukushkin sealed a 6-3, 6-7(5), 7-5 victory in a grueling two hours and 55 minutes.
Asked about that second game of the third set when he immediately got broken back, Schnur said, “that’s probably my only regret. I think it’s the only sloppy game I played in the match. The first set I don’t think I played great but it takes some time to adjust to his ball, everything is pretty much underspin on a wooden (support structure) court that’s bouncing low already and very slow. I have zero regrets about the first set, it just took me a little while to find my groove. Outside of that I played great, but I regret that second game of the third set.”
Summing up he said, “credit to him (Kukushkin), he really didn’t crack. He didn’t give me much. So it was a really high level and it came down to a couple of points at the end.”
Asked about whether he had been ready to play the first singles match on Thursday, a day or two after feeling “under the weather”, Schnur replied, “I was 100 per cent ready.”
As for the immediate future, he said, “I’m going to take some time off. I’m probably not going to think about tennis for the next seven to 10 days, rest my body. I’m going to spend some time with my family, my girlfriend, which I have not had a lot of the last two years. I’ve been forced to travel and play and travel and play and been unable to return home (Pickering, Ontario). So I’m really going to enjoy my time at home.”
As for 2022, it will begin with him playing on the Canadian team at the ATP Cup in Sydney followed by the Australian Open qualifying in Melbourne.
The coup de grace for the Kazakhs was the ending of the second singles match, which didn’t affect Canada’s position but would enable its opponents to win Group B. It took place after Pospisil had rallied from a poor opening set to reach two set points leading Alexander Bublik 6-4 in the second-set tiebreak. The unpredictable Kazakh saved the first set point on his serve and then engaged in an extended, up-tempo, side-to-side rally that he dramatically ended with an outrageous shot – a forehand, sliced, cross-court, angled drop shot from the baseline that Pospisil couldn’t reach.
Two points later, after Pospisil misfired with a forehand wide, Bublik, whose bag of tricks includes underhand serves, ended the match with his 19th ace – on a second serve! Final score 6-2, 7-6(6) for the World No. 36, sending his team into the quarter-finals.
“He served well, I didn’t play my best, it’s disappointing,” Pospisil summed up about the match. “(I) just feel that I’m not as sharp the last few weeks on the court as I would like to be.”
As for that ridiculous shot Bublik pulled off to save the second set point in the tiebreak, captain Dancevic said, “if you can come up with shots like that at 6-5 in the tiebreaker – a drop shot, cross-court, clearing the net by three millimetres on the outside of the line to win the point – then too good. You just have to say too good.
“I thought Vasek fought really well and he turned the match around in the second set. His competitive spirit came out, his Davis Cup spirit shined in the second set and he was in there. I really felt that if he got through that second set – Bublik was starting to think about it.”
Dancevic gave his overview of the ties with Sweden and Kazakhstan, saying, “going in we went from being the favourites in this group (with Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov) to having a tough task ahead of us. It was definitely a tough week – we had a little bit of a shaky start in the first tie against Sweden. The guys weren’t really sharp going into the matches and today (Sunday) I thought they played great. Staring with Brayden, I though he played an incredible match – had chances and it could have gone either way in my opinion.
“Same with Vasek, Bublik came up with some incredible shots in the tiebreaker to finish that match. And I feel like if we could have pushed that to a third set anything could have happened. And then, with the doubles, we would probably have put in Brayden and Vasek.
“Overall, I thought the guys gave their hearts out there this week. We’ll keep our heads up and re-group, assess a few things from this week, and move forward.”
The official final score for the Canada – Kazakhstan tie was 3-0 after Andrey Golubev and Alexander Nedovyesov defeated Schnur and Peter Polansky 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-1.
The loss means that in 2022 Canada will not be assured of a spot in the Davis Cup Finals after eight consecutive years in the World Group dating back to 2012.
Next year, unless it gets one of two wild cards available, Canada will play in the Qualifiers round the week of February 28th in a home or away tie to earn a spot in the 16-team Davis Cup Finals, which has become the de facto equivalent of the former World Group. The draw for the 2022 Qualifiers will take place next Sunday, the 5th, in Madrid at 1:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. ET).
Total prize money for the 2021 Davis Cup Finals is $10 million (US) for the players, as well as $5.3 million to be divided among the 18 participating nations.
A nice consolation prize for the four Canadian players will be about $100,000 per man. That should be a good start on Christmas shopping – as well helping to cover expenses for the upcoming 2022 season.