What Daniel Nestor learned from his best doubles partnerships
Canadian tennis icon reflects on the 3 pairings that defined his brilliant career
Daniel Nestor's brilliant tennis career has seen him thrive on the sport's biggest stages.
The 45-year-old Canadian is an Olympic champion, a winner of 12 Grand Slam doubles titles — eight men's and four mixed — and owns a title from all nine ATP Masters 1000 events.
But when Nestor took the podium on Sunday evening and began addressing the crowd gathered at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall to mark his induction into the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame, you could hardly tell this was a world-class performer. Nestor was flustered and nervous. At several points during his speech, he paused and combed his hands through his hair as he fought back tears.
Last night was perfect Daniel Nestor celebration. Congrats, <a href="https://twitter.com/danielnestor?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@danielnestor</a>. <br><br>Congrats on everything. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NightofNestor?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NightofNestor</a><br><br>(📷: Peter Figura) <a href="https://t.co/mR9Kaa6jjq">pic.twitter.com/mR9Kaa6jjq</a>—@TennisCanada
Nestor appeared vulnerable — just as he's been these past couple of years on the tour as Father Time closed in and his skills eroded. With his court movement diminished in the 2017 season, Nestor failed to win a tournament for the first time since 1993, and he hasn't won in 2018 either.
"It's tough in the sense that everything has been like that for the past year — struggling to find partners, rankings dropping, so that's not fun. But that's all part of it, that's to be expected," says Nestor, who had 10 different stints as a world No.1 in doubles.
In April, Nestor saw his steak of 1,134 consecutive weeks ranked in the top 100 in doubles come to an end. The Toronto resident needed a wild card to gain entry into the main draws of the last two Grand Slams and, on another occasion, even went through qualifying because his ranking was so low.
It's a far cry from the days when Nestor formed some of the most successful pairings in men's doubles over the better part of two decades. His best results came during his stints with Mark Knowles, Nenad Zimonjic and Max Mirnyi.
While winning helped those partnerships stay together for extended periods, it was more than just that.
"Respect, communication has to be important — not things that I was very good at originally but something that I've learned as I went along," Nestor recalls. "There's definitely been times where I've jumped ship too early in other partnerships other than those three, and I think that's too common nowadays in doubles — grass is greener on the other side type of thing and it doesn't end up being that way."
Alongside the Bahamian Knowles, Nestor won three Grand Slams, but they went just 1-6 in their first seven finals. It was through the heartbreaking defeats that the pairing developed the mental fortitude that eluded them for years.
After dropping the opening set of the 2007 French Open final, Nestor says he refused to think about their previous two championship losses at Roland Garros, instead focusing only on the task at hand. That allowed Nestor to come through for the team, just as Knowles had in the 2004 U.S. Open final.
"While Mark was the MVP a few years back in New York City, I felt on this day that I was able to step up and lead us back to victory. It was a turning point in my career," Nestor says.
Ups and downs
In 2008, Nestor joined forces with the Serbian Zimonjic, who, like Knowles, was very solid at the net. They gelled almost immediately — something Nestor believes is a necessity for the top doubles teams — and together won three majors in as many years, including back-to-back Wimbledon titles. Along the way, Nestor completed the career Grand Slam.
With Zimonjic's huge serve combined with Nestor's excellent hand-eye coordination, the duo were neck-and-neck with the Bryan brothers for the world's top doubles team.
Yet things weren't always smooth sailing behind the scenes. Nestor had to manage the ego of Zimonjic, who, despite having never won a men's doubles Grand Slam before joining Nestor, was trying to prove on a daily basis that he was the superior player. Their frequent blowups and disagreements eventually led to a split in 2010 even though they had enjoyed great success they enjoyed on the court. Their run to the 2008 Wimbledon championship was typical of their ups and downs and teammates.
"Nenad sprained his opposite wrist in our semifinal match that we narrowly escaped after a typical argument ensued because my level wasn't up to his standards," recalls Nestor. "He was very worried about how I might perform in the finals even though I had already won [men's doubles] Slams and he hadn't.
"We managed to get it all off our chest and play an amazing final with Nenad putting on one of the greatest serving exhibitions in the entire tournament."
After parting with Zimonjic, Nestor found similar success — and fewer headaches — with Mirnyi.
The Belarusian's easy-going personality was a refreshing change for Nestor as they won back-to-back French Opens (2011, 2012) and the year-end ATP World Tour Finals (2011).
But before the end of the 2012 season, Nestor made the surprising decision to split with Mirnyi. An elbow injury put Mirnyi's 2013 season in jeopardy and Nestor didn't want to be left in limbo without a partner.
It's a decision he admits to jumping the gun on.
"I made the mistake of splitting with Max at the end of 2012 and unfortunately would not find the consistency in my previous three partnerships in the years that followed," Nestor says.
Next month, Nestor's career will come to an end when Canada hosts the Netherlands in Davis Cup play in Toronto. It was 26 years ago that Nestor introduced himself to the tennis world with a stunning upset of world No.1 Stefan Edberg in a Davis Cup singles tie, and it will be on the same stage that Nestor says goodbye as one of the most decorated doubles players of all time.
"I think I learned some valuable lessons from not maybe maximizing my singles abilities and it transferred over to maximizing my doubles abilities," Nestor says. "I feel like I did as well as I could in doubles but it was definitely a learning lesson the first five, 10 years of my career and I think that's maybe one of the reasons why I ended up playing quite a long time. I was maybe making up for some previous mistakes and learning as I go too."