The partisan crowd came to see Milos Raonic. But on Friday in Vancouver it was Frank Dancevic, the world's No. 166 ranked player in a white ballcap worn backward, who seized the mantle of hero for Canada on an astounding day of Davis Cup tennis against perennial power Spain.
The raucous fans came wearing hockey jerseys, Canadian red, with names of gold medalists like Luongo and Toews on the back. On this day, the name Dancevic trumped them all.
Playing the best tennis of his life, Dancevic conjured magic against Spain's Marcel Granollers, the No. 34 player in the world, winning a tour-de-force of a match in straight sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, as he demolished his heavily favoured rival. The victory was sealed in an extended and intense final game where the two men battled in a long deuce before Dancevic triumphed on his serve, fell to his knees and pumped his fists.
The victory vaults Canada to the precipice of its first-ever ascension to the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup world group. Suddenly up 2-0 in a best-of-five contest that runs Saturday and Sunday, all that is now needed is for Raonic to win his singles match on Sunday against Granollers.
Here's just one snapshot of Dancevic conjuring magic on Friday as afternoon ebbed to evening. Up two sets to none against Granollers, it's early in the third set. Granollers is desperate to come back and Dancevic is fighting to hold his serve and leaps near the net, spinning 360 degrees, his racket outstretched above him – and Dancevic manages to reach the ball, and deliver a backhand winner. He goes on to hold serve.
"Even though I was going for some crazy shots, some shots that I don't usually go for, they were going in today," Dancevic told reporters after his win. "And I just said, 'Hey, if they're going in, why not? Just keep going for them.'"
The 28-year-old from Niagara Falls said he was buoyed by the loud crowd and had goosebumps when he first stepped on to the court. Asked how the ball felt coming off his racket, he said, "It felt awesome," and then paused, before looking up and smiling, "how did it look?" -- sparking much laughter.
Before the wildly unlikely events unfurled, however, a trumpet rang out O Canada, an early anthemic explanation point after a roaring crowd celebrated the at-times-uncertain four-set victory of Raonic over Spaniard Albert Ramos, the world No. 51. The win was expected, and came in the first match of this weekend's Davis Cup against No. 1 ranked, -yet-depleted Spain.
On a day when Raonic was the main attraction for Canadian tennis fans at the University of British Columbia, it was the unheralded and mostly unknown Dancevic who propelled Canada to a major upset against a depleted Spain, which is without the likes of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer and has won three of the past five Davis Cups.
It was not something a single person had predicted, or even would be crazy enough to suggest, and most reporters were in a press conference room for Ramos and then Raonic as Dancevic started to started his wire-to-wire win, with the roar of the crowd ringing through to the room under the stands.
Dancevic was unrelenting through his match, breaking the Spaniard early and never slowing. In one of many exclamation points, he punctuated the second-set win with an ace, a Raonic-like blast of more than 200 kilometres per hour. This all came from a man whose career-high ranking was No. 65 in the world, six years ago, and has a career record of 57-88 on the ATP world tour and grand slams.
Canada, in fact, could clinch victory on Saturday, in doubles, though Spain is heavily favoured, Granollers and Marc Lopez against Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil – though late changes are allowed and Raonic could play.
With the Dancevic win, it was a complete reversal of a day that looked like it could go backward for Canada. Raonic struggled against Ramos at first, not unlike Raonic's troubles in the early going of the past two major tournaments, Australia and the U.S. Open. Raonic had three chances to break Ramos in the opening game but could not. Then, in the tie break, Raonic opened with a cannon ace, 231 kilometres an hour, and was up 5-3 before going down 7-5, ceding the set.
But Raonic managed to break Ramos the next three sets – though for the match he was just three for 18 on break points. It was enough to win, a victory spiked with a 224-kilometre-per-hour ace. He took the near-three-hour match 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
After the win, Raonic told reporters he was "grateful to get by today."
"I played well but I could play better," said Raonic, who added he was buoyed by the crowd, in particular pointing to a dozen university-age fans in section 117, a raucous group who made the most consistent ruckus. Raonic said he was happy to see tennis fans who did not fit the stereotype of old, white and country club.
"It's great," said Raonic, "to see a very young section."
Unlike the often-constrained confines of the white-washed Wimbledon, Davis Cup is specifically supposed to be a little unruly, though the home country can be punished with the loss of a point if fans are too indecorous during the visitor's serve.
Still, it is tennis unlike most you will ever see: heckling won't get you thrown out. "We need more of that," said one enthusiastic fan in section 117 after Ramos faulted on his first serve during a deuce.
Later, with Raonic ahead, a man in section 117 bellowed a cry: "Roll this guy." Through it all, the arena announcer calmly pleaded for the sometimes too-boisterous to quiet their enthusiasm as players, Spain especially, readied to serve. "Please," the announcer said, as fans quelled their final excitement.