Cam Cole: Milos Raonic at Davis Cup ‘because I want to be’

VANCOUVER – Playing for your country in the Davis Cup doesn’t pay the bills. The financial upside, compared to the physical toll of two — or in the case of Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil, potentially three — best-of-five matches in a weekend, is negligible.

Yet time after time, the best show up.

Milos Raonic is here for Canada’s first-round, World Group tie with Japan, Friday through Sunday at UBC, because … well, that’s not a bad question.

Why is the No. 6-ranked player in the world putting his body on the line a week before the season’s first Masters tournament, with its juicy $6.27-million purse, at Indian Wells, Calif.?

“I’m here because I want to be here,” Raonic said Thursday, at the draw for this weekend’s tie — he opens the competition against Japan’s No. 2 singles nominee, Tatsuma Ito, Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., and kicks off Sunday afternoon’s final day against world No. 4 Kei Nishikori.

“I don’t have anybody telling me I need to be here,” Raonic said. “I want to succeed at this event, and I want to succeed representing Canada.”

Earlier this year, the great Roger Federer declined to play for defending champion Switzerland in this year’s World Group matches, saying Davis Cup had come to feel like a duty, and the pressure on him to play felt like a guilt trip being laid on by his country’s federation and the International Tennis Federation.

Genie Bouchard, Canada’s rising female star, declined to play in last month’s Federation Cup matches against the Czechs at Laval University. She had other priorities, and unlike Davis Cup, the female equivalent doesn’t offer world ranking points.

But it can be lonely at the top. Like Mike Weir in the 1990s, carrying the flag for a whole country on the PGA Tour, the spotlight can be unforgiving.

Raonic said he can understand where Federer, at least, is coming from, which isn’t to say that he empathizes.

“I believe the scheduling this year is a lot tougher than it was last year, but here I am, playing,” Raonic said, in a rare quiet moment Thursday.

“It’s tough to be the week before Indian Wells, and then if we get through, the toughest week is right after Wimbledon because then you have a busy summer. You’re playing five Masters, two Grand Slams, two more Masters and one Grand Slam with really no break.

“So there’s always a balance, but I’m here to win it. Then who knows what happens after that.”

Federer finally won for Switzerland last year. If Canada were to win, Raonic admitted his feelings might change.

“It is a demanding structure,” he said. “We could have had to play, I don’t know … in Australia, and imagine having to go back to Australia a second time and then go straight to Indian Wells.

“But really, the way I have it set out, I want to win this specific event. And then who knows what the story line is after that. But for me, that victory is the most important thing.”

Daniel Nestor, who is playing in a staggering 48th Davis Cup tie, admits it’s not the same kind of grind for a doubles player.

“For me, it’s a little more pleasure (than obligation). I enjoy the team atmosphere,” said the 42-year-old. “Obviously being a doubles player, you’re not really sacrificing your body as much as these singles guys, worried about your schedule, and Milos and Vasek have goals of winning Grand Slams and Masters and all these other events.

“They have to be pretty careful about how they schedule their tournaments. For me it’s a bit different. As you get older, you appreciate these things a little bit more.”

Raonic had to withdraw before last year’s tie in Japan with ankle problems, and scratched prior to his Sunday match against France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here in 2012 with a knee problem.

He played, and won, the ATP tournament in San Jose the following week, leading to more than a bit of sniping about money versus country. But rare is the professional athlete who will ignore an injury to wave the flag.

Nestor is a star in his own right, having won each of tennis’s four Grand Slam titles (a total of eight in all) and an Olympic gold in Sydney, but nobody gets into tennis dreaming of being a fabulous doubles player one day.

Raonic is living the real dream. He is the show here, at least for Canadian fans, and we might as well celebrate the fact that for him, desire and obligation are still running approximately neck-and-neck when it comes to the Davis Cup.

“If you say to me, ‘You’re playing Davis Cup this year, and you’re going to finish the season (ranked) 15th in the world, it’s hard to swallow,” he said.

“But for me, I believe I can do both. I feel I can achieve being the best player in the world and win the Davis Cup at that same moment. And it’s important. It’s a big part of the motivation, and I think Davis Cup is a big step towards that.”

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