A Man With Great Hands, Golden Touch
Daniel Nestor has a gift for making some of the hardest shots in tennis look easy.
In what has been described as the greatest singles performance by a Canadian by no less an expert than former national coach Josef Brabenec Sr., Nestor defeated Gustavo Kuerten 6-7(7), 7-6(0), 6-3, 6-7(7), 7-5 in a crucial Davis Cup match in 2003 that eventually enabled Canada to beat Brazil and qualify for the World Group.
Facing break point at 3-3 in the fifth set against Kuerten, Daniel Nestor moved forward near the net and faced a shot dipping low to his backhand. With an uncanny cool, the lanky lefthander put his racquet down and guided a half volley diagonally to the farthest corner of the court. He wound up winning the point and eventually the match to give Canada a 1-1 split after the opening day of play.
Over the years whenever that inspired stroke has been mentioned to him, he simply shrugs and downplays the difficulty of hitting such a delicate shot under the most extreme pressure.
Superb touch and improvisation have become signatures of the Nestor repertoire, and his volleying skills are among the finest tennis has seen over the past 20 years. For most of the past 10 years, his shotmaking brilliance has been on exhibit mostly in doubles and many of his fellow competitors, for example veterans Dick Norman and Wesley Moodie, have expressed the view that he is indeed the best doubles player in the world.
Those opinions can be debated but there is no doubt that the talent that has taken him to 800 wins on the tour and to 72 career titles is unique and has delighted doubles aficionados ever since he won his first title with long-time partner - 40 titles together - Mark Knowles in 1994.
Away from the court, Nestor, who turns 39 in September, is a fine ambassador for his sport and one of the most popular characters among his peers.
From the painfully shy 19-year-old who upset world No. 1 Stefan Edberg in a Davis Cup match in Vancouver in 1992, he has matured into an individual who was honoured with the prestigious member of the Order of Canada award on January 1 of this year.
Closer to home, with his mother Anna, father Ray and four-years-older brother Alex, he has shared the spoils of his success. While Daniel was of necessity the object of much of the family's sacrifices as he strived to become a successful professional tennis player, Alex was sometimes relegated to a secondary role. But Daniel was well aware of that and did what he could by helping pay for his big brother get a masters degree at Northeastern University in Boston and then go through law school at the University of California at Santa Clara. Today Alex is a lawyer living in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters (with a son on the way).
Daniel has a family of his own with wife Natasha and two and half year old daughter Tiana. He is an extremely proud papa and the epitome of a doting dad.
Nestor's generosity - he has been very giving in terms of making himself available to promote tennis in his home country - and good-natured personality have surely been part of his success in doubles. He has played with more than 30 partners in his years on the tour. Along with Knowles, Nenad Zimonjic, with whom he won 21 titles including three Grand Slams, and current partner Max Mirnyi, they include a wide range of players - Anders Jarryd, Paul Haarhuis, Alex O'Brien and Leander Paes as well as a lengthy roster of fellow-Canadians such as Sebastien Lareau, Frederic Niemeyer, Grant Connell, Glenn Michibata and even, at the ATP Masters event in Montreal in 1991, Greg Rusedski. That callow teenaged pairing lost 6-4, 6-4 to Patrick McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
Nestor's storied doubles career began with a victory in Bogota, Colombia, after Knowles asked him to play at the tournament which followed the 1994 US Open, an event he did not realize he had entered. "I didn't even know I was on the acceptance list and didn't want to go from the US Open to clay at altitude in Bogota," Nestor remembers. "I remember yelling at my dad for entering me - he was doing all my entries at the time. But we won the doubles and then (four months later) made the final of the Australian Open in our first Grand Slam together."
Except for a period before and after the 2000 Olympics, he and Knowles were partners from 1994 until they split in 2007 after winning three Grand Slams together.
In singles, Nestor reached a career high of No. 58 in 1999 and likes to have it be known that over his career he defeated five players - Edberg, Thomas Muster, Patrick Rafter, Kuerten and Marcelo Rios - who have ranked No. 1 in singles.
"When I was about 14, my coach wanted me to switch to a one-handed backhand," he once recalled. "I'm sure if I'd switched to a one-hander it would have been better for my game, especially singles. I don't think guys that don't move that well should have two-handers."
If that is one regret, there are remarkably few for the Belgrade-born Canadian who has lived in Toronto since 1976. Closing in on $10 million in career prize money, Nestor has held the No. 1 ranking in doubles for a grand total of 90 weeks.
Picking out a doubles highlight for him is not easy, but he fondly remembers one match in 1995. "The first time I played on Centre Court (with Knowles) at Wimbledon, we beat Guy Forget and Jakob Hlasek, and I served four aces to win the match. That was kind of cool."
There were his back-to-back titles with Zimonjic at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2009 and, of course, the Olympic gold medal he won with Lareau in Sydney in 2000.
"There was no secret to us winning," Nestor has said about the partnership with his compatriot. "I thought we always played well together. It's unfortunate that Sébastien didn't really want to play more.
After the Olympics, he decided to focus more on singles. I thought we would have done really well together."
Over his 20-year career, Nestor has had a lifetime of experiences in tennis - from playing an exhibition match against Swedish legend Bjorn Borg in Toronto in 1993, facing Tim Henman in the inaugural match on Wimbledon's new Court One in 1997, losing the longest US Open tiebreak (20-18) to Goran Ivanisevic in 1993 and winning the longest doubles match (with Knowles) in six hours and nine minutes (23-21 in the fifth set) at Wimbledon in 2006.
Through it all, he has earned the respect and friendship of his fellow players. And he can give as good as he gets with the best of them in terms of banter.
A few years ago, following a mixed doubles match at the Australian Open, Nestor walked into the locker room and remarked to Roger Federer, "that was one of the best matches I've ever played - singles, doubles or mixed."
The ever-mischievous Federer responded, "You played singles?"