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Thursday, September 28, 2000

Tennis duo's get-together fleeting but golden

 Jilted partners, intrigue in the Orient, opposites attracting, the story of Canada's second Olympic gold medal makes you question the plausibility of the yarn.

 You'd be tempted to call tennis pair Sebastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor the Odd Couple or the Orient Express.

 Except both have already been used and this train is off the tracks already.

 Tennis tour stars Lareau and Nestor, a couple of dozen Canadian teammates cheering them on, scored a major upset over guys the Aussies call the Woodies Wednesday with an aggressive approach culminating in a fourth-set tie-breaker.

 Lareau-Nestor beat Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 in the best-of-five match.

 Though solid, they were hardly favoured to get past the world's top pair, who had gone undefeated this year with two Grand Slam and six ATP tournament wins.

 If Lareau, from Boucherville, Que., hadn't Shanghaied the Toronto native, it wouldn't have happened.

 "I asked him (to become his Olympic partner) in Shanghai and he came back to me two weeks later in Singapore and agreed," Lareau said.

 What it meant was both would be kissing off current partners, Lareau dropping American Alex O'Brien, Nestor jettisoning Bahamian Mark Knowles.

 "Mark wasn't happy," Nestor said. "There was nobody he could fall back on. But we're friends and broke up on a good note."

 Neither was O'Brien pleased, Lareau said.

 "It was hard when I brought it up to him, like splitting up with a mate."

 Nestor felt it wasn't quite like that.

 "I see it a little differently," he said. "Usually when you break up with a girlfriend you don't want to see her any more."

 This relationship, though golden, is a matter of ships passing in the night.

 Lareau says they might play together one more time before he devotes all his time to singles.

 It was a sad finale for the Aussies, as well, since Woodforde will be retiring. Had Woodbridge not double-faulted the final set, maybe a gold would have kept him around longer.

 While it was a devastating defeat for the long-reigning pairs kings, any notions of collegiality is lost on professionals.

 "It's the last international match they'll ever play together; it was good to send them out with a loss," Nestor said.

 You can usually count on professionals to do things professionally, a fact not lost on Canadian coach Louis Cayer.

 "I didn't tell them anything all week," he said. "I just gave them the balls."

 The aggression was already there in equal parts in the laid-back Nestor and tightly wound Lareau. Their plan was to come right at their opponents.

 And they did. While the Woodies looked as though they walked off the pages of Esquire, the Canadians appeared to have strolled off a police blotter with their shirts hanging out and Lareau with his hat on backward. They were loose.

 "We learned a lesson at Wimbledon when we played it too safe," Nestor said. "We knew the only way was to go for it."

 Nestor kept them in it at the outset, which helped explain Lareau's decision in the first place.

 "The Olympics have always been a dream of mine and I knew Daniel meant a chance to win a medal," Lareau said.

 Shanghai, Singapore and now Sydney, the ships have passed in the night and the Orient express came in with the gold.