A long-limbed young man stands in the middle of an almost-unrecognizable, iceless Scotiabank Centre rink crowded with people. He’s wearing a baggy t-shirt and shorts with neon yellow shoes. He stares straight ahead, focused, despite all those who are literally building a tennis court around him: Two men on a scissor lift are wallpapering over sideboard ads with a red, tacky-backed banner proclaiming “Go Canada.” The young man does not acknowledge their presence, or the sighs of air the machine lets out. He also doesn’t acknowledge the workers lifting up temporary flooring around the court’s exterior. He hardly even seems aware of his coach and captain, Martin Laurendeau, standing off to the side and miming poses that look, to those who don’t know better, like some weird version of the “YMCA” dance that requires a tennis racket.
The young man is Canadian tennis star Vasek Pospisil, who never breaks his stare as he thwacks tennis balls that match his shoes over the net. He’s currently preparing for this weekend’s competition between Team Canada and Team Chile in the Davis Cup, which is like the World Cup of men’s tennis. A series of matches (or “ties,” as they’re called in Davis Cup speak) will be held between the two countries here in Halifax. And there’s a lot riding on this. The winner of the best-of-five ties (four singles, one doubles) gets to stay in the competitive Davis “World Group,” while the loser is relegated to the minor leagues with no chance to win the Cup in 2017.
All of this must be on Pospisil’s mind, as he tells reporters after the end of practice that he’s “never seen Chile’s team before. I have no idea what those guys play like.” That, plus Pospisil’s recently rocky status (falling from 25th player in the world to his current rank at 120), has the player speaking honestly: “I’m going through a tough patch in my career right now, but it’s behind me. I think I lost my way for quite a bit of this year, but I’m feeling better now.”
Add the Chilean team’s recent six-game hot streak and fans will be reminded that, while Canada looks better on paper—ranked 12th in the world versus Chile’s spot at 23—nothing’s a sure thing in the world of sports. Nothing’s a sure thing, except maybe the near-identical volleys Pospisil repeatedly recreates: Each ball arcs slightly over the net before breaking sharply to the ground with a loud thud, for although the arena-turning-tennis-court is full of people, it’s also oddly quiet. Even those who are working seem to be watching Pospisil from the corner of their eyes as he thwacks successive balls just clearing the net’s top.
As Laurendeau later explains, Pospisil and the rest of the team are re-adjusting to playing indoors, part of the “strategy” they have to ensure Chile’s hot streak doesn’t scorch them. He adds that while famed Team Canada player Milos Raonic is out injured (“There’s nothing much there to say,” he adds when asked), lots of promising young talent will be squaring off against Chile during the ties this weekend.
As Pospisil continues volleying, it’s easy to think his focus is so unbreakable because of his unknown opponents—which Laurendeau expects “to come after us…to come out swinging.” Or perhaps it’s simple as this: Nothing else in the entire rink could be louder than the neon of his shoes.
Davis Cup World Group Play-Offs
Friday, September 16, 2:45pm (two singles matches)
Saturday, September 17, 2pm (doubles match)
Sunday, September 18, 1pm (two singles matches)
Scotiabank Centre, 5284 Duke Street