© Patrice Lapointe/Tennis Canada

Daniel Nestor retired last season. He first competed at the Coupe Rogers in 1989.

Canadian Legend Nestor On Felix, Shapovalov & Raonic

Doubles icon reflects on state of tennis in his country

The atmosphere at the Coupe Rogers is always special, but there’s even more excitement in the air of Montreal this year with three of the top 32 players in the world hailing from Canada. For every practice and appearance, crowds gather en masse to catch even a peek of #NextGenATP stars Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov as well as former World No. 3 Milos Raonic.

“It’s great. The sport is doing really well at all levels. Participation is very high. It’s just very popular. It has a lot to do with our pros playing really well,” former doubles World No. 1 Daniel Nestor told ATPTour.com. “There are so many great results and so much to look forward to. There’s high expectations, too, which is pretty unique for Canadian tennis.”

Nestor, who competed at the Canadian ATP Masters 1000 tournament 30 times before retiring last year, was long an icon for tennis in this country, capturing 91 tour-level doubles titles. But he is excited about what is to come, with Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov in particular not only taking Canadian tennis by storm, but the ATP Tour as well.

Two years ago, Shapovalov went on a magical run in Montreal, where he advanced to his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final thanks to victories over Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro. Felix, on the other hand, has reached his first three ATP Tour finals this season and advanced to his first Masters 1000 semi-final in Miami, where Shapovalov also made the last four. That has only increased the expectations from the public.

“I think it will be tough for both of them, because obviously Denis, it’s going to be hard for him to duplicate what he did. I don’t think he’s playing his best. So it’d be nice to see him just come out here and perform well, keep his head up and play the level he’s capable of,” said Nestor of Shapovalov, who is on a five-match losing streak. “For Felix, it’s his first time really with a little more expectations on his shoulders now. He’s Top 25 and he’s playing at home, so people obviously have big hopes for him. But it’s important just to go out there and play, put all that aside when you’re out there and really focus on your goals and what you have to do. It’s easier said than done, but if they’re capable of doing that, then I think everyone will be happy.”

It’s easy to group these #NextGenATP stars together, especially considering they are close friends and just more than one year apart. But they bring different assets to the court, presenting different challenges to opponents.

“Felix is playing more of a defensive-minded game style, but with the ability to attack, too,” Nestor said. “Denis is more of the aggressive type and the shot-maker. He’s going big and hopefully he gets hot and when he gets hot, he’s a Top 5 player. Hopefully, it’ll be this week and this summer for him.”

Nestor didn’t know Auger-Aliassime too well when he was younger, but he did know Shapovalov, having first met him in 2015. The doubles legend was hitting with his fellow lefty and afterwards, when speaking to Martin Laurendeau, who was then Shapovalov’s coach, he asked if he was 18, when he was actually 15.

“I was very impressed,” Nestor said. “That was a pretty big game for a 15-year-old. I remember practising with him later that year indoors. We were playing in December in Toronto and I still, at that time, was playing pretty well. If I’m playing well indoors on fast courts I still consider myself a pretty good player, whether it’s singles or doubles. He was just playing so well and I was like, ‘I can’t believe how good this kid is.’ I was very impressed with him right away. And obviously hearing about how good Felix was from a young age, nobody was surprised to see him do well.”

This year’s Miami Open presented by Itau was the first time two Canadians reached the semi-finals of the same Masters 1000 tournament since 2013 Montreal, when Raonic and Vasek Pospisil did it. It’s giving Nestor and other Canadians reason to believe an even bigger breakthrough could come sooner rather than later.

“The ultimate goal is to have an all-Canadian Grand Slam final, so that’ll be what everyone wants to see. Obviously, we’d like to have a Grand Slam singles champion. That’s the ultimate goal,” Nestor said. “I foresee in the near future perhaps an all-Canadian Grand Slam quarter-final, semi-final, maybe even a final.”

With the #NextGenATP stars shining bright, it’s easy to forget that Raonic is still doing well, too, remaining the Canadian No. 1. The 28-year-old has remained in the Top 50 since entering in February 2011, and much of that time has come inside the Top 20.

“I think he’s doing really well. I think we’re all amazed at how well he does considering how little he plays… every time he plays he seems to be in the semi-finals or doing fairly well,” Nestor said. “I think he’s obviously got goals of winning a Grand Slam and he’s going to be very careful about his body in some of the tournaments that may not be as important to him. So I think if people have taken him for granted, that’s too bad because I think he still has the best chance of all of them to win a Grand Slam for now.”

Nestor, who won 1,062 tour-level doubles matches in his career, says he had a lot of success with a sports psychologist who helped him stay in the present. The 46-year-old knows that’s not something that can be done all the time, but that’s part of the advice he’d give these #NextGenATP stars.

“For sure to be patient, especially when you’ve had that much success. If you’ve had that much success early on, they probably expect a lot from themselves and maybe put too much pressure on themselves,” Nestor said. “Just do the right things every day, make the right decisions and try and get better every day. Then, when you go into matches, you’re prepared for everything and you just go out there, try to put the emotions aside and just play tennis and play their game style and know what their game style is, and just go for it.”