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Thursday, September 28, 2000

Duo gambled for gold

Tennis partners dumped for Olympics


 SYDNEY -- He broke the news to his doubles partner just days after their greatest victory. Sebastien Lareau told Alex O'Brien they were through.

 All his life, he had wanted to win a championship and there he was, partnered with O'Brien, celebrating at Flushing Meadow -- doubles champions at the U.S. Open, of all amazing places.

 But there was something else on Lareau's mind, something that wouldn't earn him money or points, which is what professional tennis players play for.

 In the back of his mind, there was this other goal, a dream that wouldn't go away; from way back when he was a kid watching television, this dream he needed to fulfill.

 He wanted to win at the Olympic Games.

 The plan had begun. O'Brien, being an American, couldn't be his partner at the Olympics, but Daniel Nestor could.

 There was only one problem with Lareau's logic. Nestor, the kid from Earl Haig Collegiate, was living in the Bahamas, playing doubles on the circuit with the Bahamian, Mark Knowles, making a decent living and having some success.

 "I convinced him to switch partners," Lareau said, wearing his gold medal, smirking as he told the story. "I really wanted to play in the Olympics. I knew if I played with Daniel, I'd have a good shot."

 Nestor didn't know what to think when he was approached by Lareau, so he said nothing. His initial reaction was to say no. The two had known each other since they were kids, the best young player from Ontario and one of the best young players from Quebec. They would see each other at national championships, training camps, Davis Cups, but they had never been partners and they were never what you would call friends.

 "Mark Knowles is one of my closest friends," Nestor said. "We were doing well. I didn't want that to end."

 However, Lareau sold it, Nestor bought in and, somehow, a gold-medal team was born. Now, fast forward a year to September, and at an Olympics that has seen Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Troy Amos Ross and Tanya Dubnicoff, medal contenders all, barely show up for their events.

 A medal was expected from Nestor-Lareau. Just not gold.

 And this medal was no gimme. They had to beat Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, the Australians best known as the Woodies. They are the most decorated doubles team in history. You name a tournament, the Woodies have won it.

 And this was their swansong -- decorated in silver. Woodforde is 35 years old and ready for retirement. The pressure to "keep up with the kids" is more than he wants to endure. This was to be their goodbye to the world, playing at home and saying 'thank-you' one last time.

 And then, two little known Canadians spoiled the farewell party. There was no "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi" heard in the Sydney night. Just the way Lareau had dreamt it.

 Every once in a while, and every couple of years, it seems Daniel Nestor does something that defies sporting logic. He is a major headline caught between a whole lot of sports flashes. His career has been a lot of last lines in newspaper articles: In doubles news yesterday, Daniel Nestor advanced to the next round with his partner ...

 Once, way back in 1992, as the 238th ranked player in the world, he beat the No. 1 ranked Stefan Edberg. After that, he wasn't heard from for about five years.

 In Australia, he was heard from: In singles play, he knocked off the very popular Patrick Rafter, before being the dominant player on the Canadian gold medal team.

 "Nestor was brilliant today," Woodbridge said after losing the gold medal to the Canadians in four sets, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6. "He played an incredible match. If I didn't have a new partner, I'd be looking for someone just like him."

 At the on-court medal ceremony and in the parade around the stadium afterward, it was the Woodies who were all emotional and the Canadians who were especially stoic.

 "That's them," Canadian coach Louis Cayer said. "They're both introverts. It wasn't that they weren't excited, it's just not their way to show it. I know those guys, inside they were emotional."

 From the outside, they looked like professional tennis players winning another title: Happy, just not Olympian.

 "You don't think professionals want to be here?" Cayer said. "I saw players in the locker room crying, shaking after they lost. You don't see that on the tour. They care."

 Sebastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor cared enough to break up successful professional relationships for one great gamble -- a decision that ended with gold.