North Vancouver's Philip Bester and the rest of Canada's Davis Cup team overcame a terrible start, hostile crowds and even gunfire to win a thrilling comeback victory over Ecuador last weekend in the worldwide tennis tournament that pits nation against nation.
Bester won the event's fifth and deciding match Sunday against Ivan Endara 6-2, 7-6(4), 6-4 to clinch the win for Canada in the Americas Zone Group I second-round tie. Canada now moves on to play in Israel in September with a spot in the top-flight World Group on the line. The Canadian team has not played in the World Group since 2004 and last made the zone playoff round in 2005.
"It was amazing," Bester told the North Shore News one day after landing back in Canada. "To be the guy that clinches for the team in the fifth match is obviously something that's extra special."
It didn't look likely that Canada would be doing any celebrating after the first two matches were played on Friday, July 8 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C. opened with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 loss to Endara before Bester battled hard but ultimately fell 7-6(4), 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-2 to JulioCesar Campozano to put Canada in an 0-2 hole in the best-offive series.
Despite being the favourite coming into their matchup against Ecuador, the Canadian team faced an onslaught on the court and off it.
"I was heckled and fans were trying to get under my skin with personal comments, but unfortunately that's what Davis Cup is in some countries in the world," said Bester.
During Bester's opening match the event took a bizarre turn as gunshots erupted outside of the stadium. Reports came that a gang with ties to a soccer club was trying to break into the stadium to start trouble with a rival gang that they had seen on TV watching the match.
"We huddled in the corner and no one really knew what was going on," said Bester. "There were gunshots and some of the crowd kind of sprawled all over the place when it happened. It's stuff like that that you don't really expect to deal with as a tennis player and yet you go to Ecuador and it's kind of, this is what happens."
The match supervisor came over as the situation was settling down and instructed Bester to resume play.
"We were all really surprised," he said. "Anywhere else in the world if there were gunshots fired you're basically done for the day."
Regardless of the explosive atmosphere in and around the stadium, the Canadian team felt deflated after going down 0-2, said Bester. The comeback, however, began on Saturday as Daniel Nestor, one of the world's best doubles players, teamed with Pospisil for a straight sets victory over Roberto Quiroz and Emilio Gomez.
"We were very lucky that Daniel Nestor has committed to play Davis Cup as much as he does," said Bester. "It's really great that we have him on the team."
That win set the stage for two Sunday singles showdowns with Bester and Pospisil back in the spotlight needing to sweep the day to win the tie.
Pospisil got the ball rolling with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 win over Campozano. That left Bester to play the hero and he came through in resounding fashion.
"I won the match in straight sets and I have to say that going into the match I was very calm," he said. "I knew that there was a good prize at the end and I had the opportunity to complete a great comeback. I stuck to the process, I really believed deep down that I could win this match no matter what and I was better than my opponent. I was reminded by the captain and the coach to just go out there and play my game, and that's what I did."
The moment hit Bester as he clinched match point. "If anybody saw my reaction at the end of the match when I just fell to the ground, it would show that it was one of the biggest wins of my career," he said. "Any time you're put in a situation where you're playing the deciding match in Davis Cup, it's always going to be a memorable victory if you win. There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders to complete the comeback and win."
A raucous celebration, hidden from the Ecuadorian faithful, ensued. "When we won we all kind of agreed to take the celebration into the locker room," Bester said with a laugh, adding that the team aspect of Davis Cup adds a special element not normally found in tennis.
"We were huddling and jumping and singing na na na goodbye and then somebody threw a bucket of cold water and ice all over us. It was really cool. It's hard to put it into words when you're celebrating with your team. It's tennis. You don't celebrate like that when you win a match in grand slams. Here you do it all as a group so it was really cool to be able to celebrate as a team."
It was a feeling the 22-year-old Bester had not experienced since 2006, his last appearance in Davis Cup play.
"I really missed it. Davis Cup has always been a big priority on my list, I've always wanted to be on the Davis Cup team. I'm really passionate about representing Canada."
The win set him up for a strong run the rest of the summer, including an appearance at the Hollyburn-hosted Odlum Brown Vancouver Open as well as shots at the big stages of the Roger's Cup and U.S. Open before he rejoins the Davis Cup team in Israel.
"What I went through this last weekend has pretty much set me for the rest of the year in terms of being mentally tough," he said. "Everything else is going to be so much easier after the matches that I played down in Ecuador. As much as it was a tough and a rough week, it was a great experience at the same time."