GRANT Connell calls it the highlight of his career.
It was September of 1990 and Canada was taking on the Netherlands at Toronto's National Tennis Centre with a berth in the Davis Cup's elite World Group on the line. Through almost a century of Davis Cup play Canada had never before earned a place in the World Group but now they were three wins away from finding a place among the top 16 countries in the world.
Connell, born in Regina but raised in North Vancouver, beat Paul Haarhuis in his opening singles match and then teamed up with Glen Michibata to knock off Haarhuis and Mark Koevermans in doubles play. The Netherlands won two matches as well, setting up a final-day showdown between Connell and Koevermans to decide it all.
"There wasn't a huge crowd in Toronto in the Stadium but it was pretty vocal crowd," Connell recalls. "My parents were watching."
Connell was facing a player who was about 30 spots higher than him in the world rankings and he knew he had to take his best shot at a knockout punch rather than allowing the match to drag on.
"If I didn't win in three sets I was never in good enough shape to win," he says with a laugh. "So I usually won in three sets or lost in three."
This time, it was a win. A huge win. Connell blasted Koevermans 7-6(5), 7-6(5), 6-3 and Canada was on its way to the World Group.
With memories like that, Connell must have really loved Davis Cup play. Right?
"I don't know," Connell says with a chuckle. "I often think about that, whether I liked it or not. Certainly when you had big wins - and I was fortunate that I had a couple of situations where I was able to take us into the World Group with the final win - but did I like it? I don't know. I think it was just a little bit too nerve-wracking to really say you like it. You sort of survive it."
Connell is getting ready to serve as the honorary chairman of this weekend's Davis Cup tie at UBC's Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre between Canada and Spain. With shooting star Milos Roanic leading the charge, Canada has worked its way back into the World Group. This weekend the team will be looking to set another Canadian milestone - make it past the first round of the World Group. There's a lot of pressure on these players - now depended on as part of a team instead of the lone wolves of tour tennis - and Connell knows just what that pressure can do to a player. That's why he has a hard time saying that he "loved" his time playing for his country even though he scored more than
his share of big wins for Canada.
"Davis Cup is weird - it can be the best time of your tennis year or the very worst," says Connell. "There's nothing worse than playing horrific in a Davis Cup match, especially at home. . . . When you're playing for your own country it just brings a whole different slew of emotions. It can be an absolutely miserable experience or it can be the highlight of your career."
Connell recalls the plight of Chris Pridham, a former teammate who was as successful as any other Canadian on tour at the time but didn't fare as well in the pressure-packed team competition.
"He was just as good as us outside Davis Cup but he would just choke like you couldn't imagine," says Connell. "He'd hit balls off of every piece of his racket except the strings."
Connell, however, not only survived in Davis Cup action. He thrived. This weekend he'll be honoured, along with Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau, with Davis Cup Commitment Awards in an on-court ceremony prior to the doubles match on Saturday. The new International Tennis Federation award is presented to players who have appeared in at least 20 Davis Cup ties in their careers.
"I joke with them - I say that must have been invented by some guy in a suit who needs to kill some time on Saturday," says Connell with a laugh. His record, though, is no joke.
Connell first played a Davis Cup match in 1987 and racked up 21 ties in all. Playing singles and doubles, he won 23 matches while losing just nine. After retiring as a player he returned to Davis Cup action seven times as Canada's team captain.
"I seemed to be able to rise to the occasion for Davis Cup matches. I probably played better than my ranking said," says Connell, adding with a laugh that he "wasn't that good" outside of Davis Cup play.
Connell, obviously not one to mince words, says his role as the honorary chairman at this weekend's event is a purely ceremonial one.
"I'm kind of like the Queen of England, I don't really have anything to do. It's just a title." Even so, he's still fired up to see Canada take on the powerhouse Spanish team despite the news that world top-10 players Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer will not be in attendance.
"I wish Nadal and Ferrer were coming - obviously, as do a lot of people - but I think people are going to be stunned at how strong the depth of the Spanish team is," he says, adding that even without Nadal, a Canadian upset would be difficult to pull off but sweet to experience. "We've never won a first round match in the World Group. It doesn't matter how you get there, it would just be great if we could do that, another milestone for Tennis Canada."
Connell, who now lives in West Vancouver and is a Realtor with Angell Hasman and Associates, has mostly stepped back from the sport but has a lot of praise for the folks in charge of the game in Canada these days.
"I'm really impressed with Tennis Canada," he says. "It's kind of nice to be able to say that about your national body - usually you just hear complaints and criticism. Michael Downie, who is the CEO of Tennis Canada and has been for a few years now, has done just a remarkable job in taking risks and giving them time to flourish and not succumbing to the pressures of the politics of it all. He's got some great coaches and great coaching centres. The high performance program is just fantastic, they're doing better than they ever have. It's hard to believe it's only been 20 years since the thought of even getting into the World Group was a joke. Guys couldn't beat themselves out of two levels below. It's come a long way. It may not seem like it to the general public but tennis in Canada from a pro level, especially on the men's side, has just gone through the roof. It's basically been legitimized."
And the future seems even brighter. Connell marvels at the exploits of fellow North Van product Filip Peliwo who won two junior Grand Slam singles titles last year and will be hanging out with the Canadian team as a practice partner this week.
"It's sensational - it's absolutely fantastic," says Connell. "I couldn't even, as a junior, get past the qualifying for a Grand Slam singles tournament. He's just so good."