Raonic must lead Canada without Nestor

Canada faces Mexico this weekend in Davis Cup without its most reliable star in Daniel Nestor, who is forced to miss a Davis Cup tie for the first time since 2001. Enter serving phenom Milos Raonic.

Canada faces Mexico this weekend in Davis Cup without its most reliable star in Daniel Nestor, who is forced to miss a Davis Cup tie for the first time since 2001. The Toronton native and Order of Canada recipient is suffering from an inflamed Achilles tendon requiring rest before a busy spring season.

That said, all the talk in tennis is about 20-year-old serving phenom Milos Raonic, meaning it's time for the young cannon from Thornhill, Ont., to take hold of the reins and truly become the new face of Canadian tennis.

Whether Raonic is ready for the challenge will be answered in the coming days. Many would think that his recent run of success — a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open, his first ATP title at San Jose and a second-place finish to Andy Roddick in Memphis — would be enough to hush any doubters, but this is Davis Cup.

Tour experience holds little weight here.

Davis Cup Quotes         

"I'm very disappointed that I can't be in Mexico with the team, but resting and treating my foot is the priority so that I ensure I don't miss any time. It's obviously tough for me as I haven't missed a Davis Cup tie in about 10 years and I consider it a very important part of my schedule, but I believe that the guys will do great and hopefully give me a chance to come back for a second round tie against Ecuador in July." — Daniel Nestor

"Unfortunately, for one of the few times in his 19 years of Davis Cup play, Daniel will not be able to join the team as he must tend to this injury. Daniel has always prioritized Davis Cup in his calendar and I know it is hard for him to not be part of the team here in Mexico … Daniel is a great leader and he will be missed, but I believe that we have amazing depth on this team that will carry us to a win this weekend." — Martin Laurendeau, captain

Aside from, say, the Olympics, Davis Cup is the only competition on the tennis calendar where country comes first and name is secondary. The pressure of this event is very different from life on the ATP World Tour.

Mexico is hosting this weekend's tie on red clay courts in an attempt to slow down the tempo of Canadian-style, hard court tennis — not to mention the lethal serve of Raonic. However, the Mexican team includes Daniel Garza, Manuel Sanchez, Luis Diaz-Barriga and Miguel-Angel Reyes-Varela — none of whom rank in the Top 400 in singles.

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On paper, this should be a blowout, but Canadian tennis history reminds us of the power Davis Cup has on a player's psyche.

It was Jan. 31, 1992, and Raonic was just 13 months old when Nestor made international headlines by defeating former world's No. 1 Stefan Edberg in his Davis Cup debut at Vancouver. Nestor was ranked 238th at the time.

Fast forward nearly two decades and Nestor stands as Canada's most decorated tennis player. He has represented our country valiantly and without ever turning down Tennis Canada's call to duty. Serving as a player/coach, Nestor has also taken Raonic under his wing in recent years and the student could not ask for a better Davis Cup teacher. Despite his recent success, Raonic still has a lot to learn.

I was the play-by-play voice for the Davis Cup tie between Canada and Dominican Republic last fall. After Peter Polansky won the first rubber, Raonic squared off against 230th-ranked Victor Estrella.

This should have been no contest. The Canadian was the superior player — 10 years younger than his opponent — and playing in front of family and friends on Grandstand Court at the Rexall Centre in Toronto. The final score in the gruelling marathon was 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 9-7 in favour of Raonic. The Canadian needed every ounce of will to win and to not crack on court.

You see, Davis Cup brings a pressure like no other tennis event. It read Canada on the scoreboard, not Raonic. The victory was Raonic's first in three Davis Cup singles matches (he and Nestor paired to win a doubles rubber over Colombia earlier in 2010), and proved to be yet another test in his rapid growth as a global tennis sensation.

Canada is currently ranked No. 32 in the world as a tennis nation, behind Poland and ahead of China (quick, name a tour player from either country). There can be no five-setters this weekend in Mexico. To be taken seriously, Canada needs to win with ease over its much weaker opponent.  

The pressure falls squarely on the broad shoulders of Raonic to accept the torch from Nestor and lead Canada into a new generation of tennis success. He has grown a great deal over the past three months, as both a player and a man.

Today, Raonic stands as the 37th best tennis player on the planet and, if Canada is to earn international respect in Davis Cup, he needs to carry the weight of the country on his shoulders — not only this weekend, but in the foreseeable future.

I’ve seen all I need to from him in order to believe.

 DAVIS CUP, Group 1, Americas Zone

 Club Deportivo La Asuncion, Estado de Mexico, Mexico

 Canada  Mexico
R1  Frank Dancevic (202)  Daniel Garza (439)
R2  Milos Raonic (37)  Manuel Sanchez (546)
R3  Vasek Pospisil (346) & Milos Raonic  Luis Diaz Barriga (673) & Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela (732)
R4  Milos Raonic  Daniel Garza
R5  Frank Dancevic  Manuel Sanchez