As Canada’s star player Milos Raonic stepped up to the baseline to take his serve on Friday afternoon, the cheers started to die down. But as everything quieted to a hush, I heard a howl of “RAONIC!” from Section 117 of UBC’s Thunderbird Arena.
“Please,” said the stadium announcer, exasperated. He said it many more times before the end of the Davis Cup international tennis tie, which Canada won over Spain with a straight sets win by Raonic on Sunday. It was Canada’s third win of the weekend, which gave them the edge in the best-of-five series.
A dedicated core of tennis supporters tried to make the atmosphere for this weekend-long team tournament qualifier a bit more like the raucous atmosphere of tennis matches in Europe.
I was introduced to this crowd without expecting it; I bought my ticket through my membership with the Southsiders, a supporter group of the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team. The Southsiders came into possession of several blocks of tickets to the Davis Cup matches — a lucky occurrence, since tickets sold out rapidly on the open market.
Or maybe not just luck: I learned the blocks of tickets came from Petr Pospisil, brother to Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian Davis Cup team member ranked 120th in the world. According to the Southsiders member I bought my ticket from, Petr Pospisil attended the 2012 women’s soccer Olympic qualifiers in Vancouver and wanted to draft the rowdy soccer fans into his red-and-white army of long-time tennis supporters.
11 a.m. on Friday, Pospisil’s group of tennis fans sat clustered around a table in the Gallery Lounge, painting their faces. The uniform varied: rugby shirts, hockey jerseys, red shirts, white blazers, a Canadian flag wrapped and knotted into a tube top. One fan even sported a Manchester United kit. All of them wore identical red Canada scarves, bought by Pospisil in bulk for both the tennis fans and the Southsiders.
More than one of the crew identified themselves as friends of Pospisil’s. The group had, at least in part, been following the games for two years, starting at the Odlum Brown VanOpen in North Vancouver. “My brother was playing there,” Pospisil said. “I got these guys…. We basically all dressed in red and turned it into a soccer match. I thought we were going to get kicked out, but they liked it.”
We marched over from the SUB on Friday and Saturday morning, singing from a chant sheet of Southsiders songs rewritten for tennis by Dan Nadir, an organizer of a local tennis league and Whitecaps season-ticket holder. One man had a set of five plastic trumpets, all joined together and painted with Canada flags; he played the opening bars to the old Hockey Night in Canada theme. Pospisil was dressed in Canada flag pants and a flag T-shirt, half his face painted white and a maple leaf on one cheek. He had supplied the group with small flags and several 25-five-foot banners to wave during the anthems.
Once in the stadium, those of us that were Southsiders split from Pospisil and his crew. We had a great view of the group bouncing along and rewriting songs on the fly to fit the short breaks in tennis play.
As I sang, I thought about how, in soccer, pressure from front offices and quieter ticket holders can make rowdy soccer fans feel like outsiders in their own game. It was interesting to see the form adopted by real outsiders.
But Pospisil reminded me that cheering and chanting is not really that foreign to tennis, and that the organizers were warm to the crew’s antics. “Security doesn’t like us, but the organizers are pretty happy about it, because all over the world the Davis Cup is a complete gong show; everyone is always crazy and North America is a little quieter,” he said. “The Davis Cup is not about that. A lot of people are happy to have the opportunity to cheer and hit drums and they don’t want to be the only ones in the stadium doing it, so we kind of provide everyone a chance to do it.”
In the arena, the crowd seemed to be mostly Canadians who were aware of top-level tennis but not engaged fans.
“I think we’re proud about anything if we’re successful in something,” said Mark Richard, a spectator in his late 20s who described himself as a fan of the ATP Tour games. “If you see that Raonic is doing well, if we have someone we can get behind, I think we will pull for it.”
All over the world the Davis Cup is a complete gong show, everyone is always crazy and North America is a little quieter.”
Scott Malo, a UBC geology student and member of the Thunderbirds golf team, said that part of the appeal was just to see top-level tennis live. “I’ve always been a tennis fan, and they came to UBC, so here I am,” he said.
Another fan, a Land and Food Systems student named Emily Hunn, said the Davis Cup galvanized Canadian fans. “This tournament makes it possible to … root for a country rather than a singles player individually,” she said.
The tournament has gone well for Canada, to say the least. Canada’s win against Spain can only be categorized as an upset, anchored by 165th-ranked Frank Dancevic’s victory over Marcel Granollers, a Spanish player ranked over 130 spots above him. The average fan’s idea of Canada’s chances was not great. But one of the favourite chants of Pospisil’s crew is a call-and-response number, shouting out each word of the phrase, “I believe that we will win.”
I saw Pospisil and Nadir approach the stadium for Sunday’s games. Pospisil’s voice was hoarse and his facepaint was worn down to just the memory of a maple leaf, but he had a smile on his face.
I asked him how he felt about the tournament. “Frank [Dancevic] the Tank was amazing, man. Pretty much lights out. Just closed his eyes, swinging away,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “He would have beat anybody. It was awesome. He would have beat Federer.”
They never doubted it for one second.