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Finland beats defending champion Canada 2-1 in Davis Cup quarterfinal

MÁLAGA, Spain — Finland went with the hot hand in Otto Virtanen for its Davis Cup quarterfinal against defending champion Canada on Tuesday. It paid off with the country's first-ever berth in the semifinals of the men's team tennis competition.
Canada's Vasek Pospisil, right, and Canada's Alexis Galarneau react after winning a point against Finland's Harri Heliovaara and Finland's Patrik Niklas-Salminen during a Davis Cup quarterfinal tennis match between Canada and Finland in Malaga, Spain, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manu Fernandez

MÁLAGA, Spain — Finland went with the hot hand in Otto Virtanen for its Davis Cup quarterfinal against defending champion Canada on Tuesday.

It paid off with the country's first-ever berth in the semifinals of the men's team tennis competition.

Virtanen pulled Finland even in the best-of-three tie with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Montreal's Gabriel Diallo. He then returned to court — as a late addition to the doubles lineup — and teamed with Harri Heliovaara for a 7-5, 6-3 win over Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C., and Alexis Galarneau of Laval, Que.

Finland will play the winner of Wednesday's quarterfinal between Czechia and Australia in the semifinal on Friday.

Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime clinched Canada's first-ever Davis Cup title last year but he remained on the bench this time around due to a lower-body issue. 

Instead, Milos Raonic of Thornhil, Ont., was pressed into singles action in his first Davis Cup appearance since 2018. He opened with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Finland's Patrick Kaukovalta.

"The Finnish team played extremely well," said Canada captain Frank Dancevic "Ultimately when you have injured players on one side, fresh guys who are confident on the other side who have never been in that situation before, they're hungry, they had a big crowd, they ended up playing well in the end and getting through."

Teams are allowed to make doubles lineup changes after the singles matches are complete. Canada went with its original lineup while Virtanen replaced Patrik Niklas-Salminen.

Pospisil received treatment on his right shoulder and neck area late in the first set. He returned after a short delay and had his serve broken as Finland converted its second set point.

"I was in a lot of pain," Pospisil said. "It's not fun playing in pain."

"I would have rather not played if we had somebody that was healthy and willing to go, but I was healthy enough," he added. "My goal now is just to be healthy for next year."

The Canadians needed 10 minutes to complete a hold at 1-1 in the second set, saving six break points along the way. But the Finnish duo kept the pressure on and broke Pospisil's serve again for a 5-3 lead before closing out the match.

In the bottom half of the Final 8 draw, Italy will play the Netherlands and Serbia will take on Britain. The final was scheduled for Sunday.

Raonic came out firing in the opener by winning his first four points with aces, losing just one point on serve in the opening set. The former world No. 3, who returned to the ATP Tour this season after an extended injury absence, closed out the win in a tidy 67 minutes.

"To be here alongside these guys, contributing and trying to just enjoy it, you appreciate these moments a lot more once there is not as many of them," said the 32-year-old Raonic, who made his Davis Cup debut in 2010.

At No. 29, Auger-Aliassime was the lone Canadian player ranked in the top 100. Finland's highest-ranked singles player — No. 69 Emil Ruusuvuori — was unavailable due to a shoulder injury.

Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., who won the opening match in last year's final, was also unavailable. He's still recovering from a knee injury and wasn't nominated to the roster.

Auger-Aliassime reached a career-best No. 6 last year but his ranking has slipped due to a middling 2023 campaign. However, he showed strong form in successfully defending his Swiss Indoors title last month in Basel.

Raonic, the world No. 318, had his ranking plummet after a Tour absence of nearly two years. 

He returned in June and showed he could still hang at the top level when he upset American Frances Tiafoe — then ranked 10th in the world — at the National Bank Open in August. 

On Tuesday, Raonic was given the official word on his playing status about an hour before match time. Kaukovalta, the world No. 782, had no answer for the Canadian's booming serve.

"I took care of my serve and I created quite a few opportunities," Raonic said. "Just kept putting myself in good positions and it worked out pretty well."

The 139th-ranked Diallo, an up-and-coming player who has enjoyed success on the lower-level Challenger circuit, was overpowered at times by the 170th-ranked Virtanen, who was encouraged by a vocal contingent of Finnish supporters in the crowd. 

"Either you win or you learn," Diallo said. "Today I learned."

Canada beat Finland 4-1 in 1966 on outdoor clay at Helsinki in their only previous Davis Cup matchup.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023. 

The Canadian Press