Read & Watch: The Ageless Wonder, Nestor Begins Final Chapter
Father Time waits for no one. Not even Daniel Nestor, the tactician with a killer left-handed serve and great variety, who was the first doubles player to pass the 1,000 match wins milestone. This week, the 45-year-old comes full circle, 29 years after his ATP World Tour debut.
Little did he know as a 16-year-old, on 15 August 1989, when he was getting ready to play his second professional tennis match, at the Rogers Cup as a wild card, that in 2018 he would still be competing at the highest level. All Nestor could think about that day was the opponent who was looming in the next round.
“I just remember the opportunity to play [John] McEnroe in the second round if I won,” Nestor told ATPWorldTour.com. “I don’t know why I was thinking ahead because the guy I was playing was obviously better than me, so I was freaked out about something that probably wasn’t going to happen, which is funny looking back.”
American Ned Caswell, who never climbed past No. 213 in the ATP Rankings, beat the youngster 6-3, 6-3. Nestor would also play two opponents who had both cracked the Top 25 of the ATP Rankings, Miloslav Mecir and Milan Srejber, in doubles, pushing the duo to three sets alongside compatriot Chris Pridham. “That probably paved the way early on feeling comfortable playing against these top guys at age 16,” the left-hander said.
But that was just the beginning. Now 45, Nestor will be playing his 30th and final Rogers Cup — alongside Vasek Pospisil — a tournament that he has won twice in doubles. And while 29 years ago, he was looking forward to play a left-handed superstar in McEnroe, the Canadian has paved his own path to the record books.
His resume speaks for itself: 91 tour-level doubles titles, 10 stints at the top of the ATP Doubles Rankings, more than 15 years in the Top 10 and plenty more accolades to celebrate. For nearly 24 consecutive years, from April 1994 until April of this year, Nestor remained inside the Top 100 in doubles. On 11 January 2016, he became the first player in ATP World Tour history to record 1,000 doubles match wins.
“It’s been a long 25-plus year career and it will be sad in September,” Nestor said. “You also have to be reasonable and understand when your time is up and that’s what I’m feeling now.”
There wasn’t a moment that forced the father of two to call it quits. Over time, the he has simply realised that while he has not dropped off in his training, he can’t maintain his best level every day like he used to. Pending his selection, Nestor plans on playing his last match in Canada’s Davis Cup tie against The Netherlands on home soil this September.
“It’s been a gradual thing in the back of my mind… It’s just a feeling you get, you’re not able to do certain things like you used to and you realise that. I only really started feeling things like that somewhat recently,” Nestor said. “But at the same time it’s tricky, because I played a Davis Cup match against Croatia [in February] and I felt great on the court… It’s not like I can’t play at a high level. I’m not sure I can play at a high level for six, seven straight matches.”
But Nestor certainly hasn’t lost the respect of his peers. Mike Bryan, the current No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings, remembers his early days on the ATP World Tour with twin brother Bob Bryan. Twenty-one years ago, the Bryans faced the Canadian for the first time, in San Jose. Nestor and Mark Knowles beat the Americans 6-1, 6-2.
“He was so talented and was just so imposing. I was like, ‘Wow, we need to try to catch up to this level’,” Bryan, who has competed against Nestor in 31 tour-level finals, told ATPWorldTour.com. “I didn’t think he’d last this long because no one expects to play over 25 years. But he’s kind of like Roger Federer, where he plays so easy and relaxed, and it’s not very strenuous on his body, so he could get a lot of longevity out of it. He’s kind of set the bar for everyone in terms of longevity and we’re all looking up to him to see if we could play a little bit longer.”
The only players who have captured more tour-level doubles titles than Nestor are the Bryan brothers — Mike with 119 and Bob with 116 — who have remained a pair throughout their careers. Nestor, meanwhile, has triumphed with 11 different partners.
Nestor’s most successful partnership came with Knowles. The pair claimed 40 tour-level doubles championships together. And while the team created countless great memories, their first Grand Slam win at the 2002 Australian Open and their second at the 2004 US Open, six years after losing two match points in the final at Flushing Meadows, stick out.
So what made Nestor such a good partner to the Bahamian?
“Being left-handed was a good start,” Knowles told ATP WorldTour.com. “He had a great serve and was a dynamic player. We also had very similar goals and got along very well on and off the court. We both were primarily singles players that happened to excel more on the doubles court. We shared a lot of successes and failures together and that made our bond quite strong.”
Nestor was also victorious eight times with Belarusian Max Mirnyi, with whom he won back-to-back Roland Garros trophies in 2011-12. Mirnyi told ATPWorldTour.com, “When the opportunity came about, it was a great chance to get close to greatness because he has achieved so much more than I have, particularly prior to us teaming up together. It was a great experience to just be alongside and learn from him in many different ways.
“He continues to amaze all of us on the circuit to still be out here, still thriving, still pushing everybody… He’s still on the front lines and it’s great to see. He’s certainly a great value to the doubles tour. Many youngsters look up to him the same way I did when we began playing.”
But it’s easy to forget that, like every pro, Nestor started out as a singles player. He owns four Top 10 wins — including a victory against then-World No. 1 Stefan Edberg in Davis Cup 26 years ago — and climbed as high as No. 58 in the ATP Rankings.
“I think [of myself] along the lines of being a great tennis player or a good tennis player rather than just a doubles player, because I think that’s a little bit frustrating,” Nestor said. “Obviously I was better at doubles, there’s no question about that… I think just in general if you’re able to be at the highest level, whether it’s doubles or singles, you should be considered a great tennis player.”
And the eight-time men’s doubles major winner has maintained his level for longer than many active players have been alive. In fact, Nestor won his first title with Mark Knowles in September 1994, before 21 members of the current ATP Rankings’ Top 100 were born. Yet he has still captured nine trophies since turning 40.
“Daniel has had an incredible career," Knowles said. "He has achieved everything that there is to achieve on the doubles court. He should be celebrated for his incredible success and dedication to the sport."
Nestor has come a long way since his first Rogers Cup 29 years ago. He became a player who was simultaneously feared and revered. Perhaps Bryan said it best: “If we had to say one player on tour we wouldn’t want to face, it would be Daniel Nestor.”