Tennis logic had it that Canada and Slovakia would be tied at 1-1 after the opening day of their Davis Cup final qualifier in Bratislava. That would be each country’s No. 1 – Denis Shapovalov and Martin Klizan – winning their matches.
It was what actually occurred, with Shapovalov defeating Filip Horansky 6-4, 7-5 and Klizan beating Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-5, 6-3.
The agonizing part for Canadians fans was that Auger-Aliassime, 18, was close to wrapping up the first set against Klizan – leading 5-2 and love-30 on the 29-year-old Slovak’s serve.
But three missed forehands in a row and Klizan had a game point, which he won with an exclamation point – an ace.
It would not be the first time that a tennis match has turned around dramatically, or that an older, more experienced player used his savvy to overcome a sketchy start and get himself back into – and eventually in control of – a match.
Following Shapovalov’s opening-match victory and with Auger-Aliassime seemingly in charge against Klizan, the crowd in the National Tennis Centre arena was muted and uncomfortable. But the sudden momentum shift got them re-energized and Klizan rode the wave to win 20 of the last 23 points in the set.
The beginning had been ideal for Auger-Aliassime in his first ever Davis Cup match – a break in the second game of the match. He was striking the ball accurately and deep and Klizan appeared a little nervous.
“For a (Davis Cup) debut, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the match,” Auger-Aliassime would say later. “I think eventually he found his rhythm and made me play a little bit more and put a bit of pressure on me from the returns and from the serves, and mixing up the heights well. Then he kind of got the better of me at the end of the first set. After that it was tough to find the groove again. He was playing better and better. Overall, for a first experience, it was a great atmosphere and hopefully I can win my first match this weekend.”
That could be in Saturday’s doubles, when he and Shapovalov are slated to play the Slovak pairing of Igor Zelenay and Filip Polasek, or in a possible fifth-and-deciding singles match when he’s scheduled to meet Horansky – although all those match-ups are subject to changes by the respective captains. Slovak captain Dominik Hrbaty already suggesting he suspects his opposite number, Frank Dancevic, will substitute in the doubles.
“Today was Felix’s first time playing Davis Cup and I thought he did a great job of managing his emotions and everything,” Dancevic said at the conclusion of day one. “He did everything we told him to do – he played his gamestyle. Martin is a very experienced player. He’s been on tour for a long time and played many Davis Cup ties. This is a learning experience for Felix. It’s going to help us going into tomorrow. The matches, on paper, went as expected today. So today’s in the past and we’re moving on to tomorrow and getting ready for the doubles.”
The No. 38-ranked Klizan, now 26-9 in Davis Cup singles, commented through a translator about the match with Auger-Aliassime, “Felix startled me by his aggression and agility and deserved to jump into an early lead. We managed to adjust and I started playing more clay-court tennis and all of sudden I was back in the set carrying the right momentum.”
By the time Auger-Aliassime did his last interview at the site on Friday, it was 7:30 p.m. So that makes it a short 15 ½ hour turnaround before the doubles kicks off at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Dancevic said that he plans to stick with announced team of Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime. But, typical of Davis Cup intrigue, there’s speculation that Klizan could be inserted in the Slovak line-up, most likely for Polasek.
As for a nosebleed that Auger-Aliassime had during the first set, he said, “it bled a little but I’m feeling okay. In juniors it happened, but it doesn’t happen a lot. (It’s) nothing bad.”
Regarding his overall fitness, he said, “I’m feeling healthy. Obviously no one said it was going to be easy. It’s tough matches on clay, physically it’s going to be demanding. But I think I’m ready for the challenge tomorrow (Saturday). I’ve played singles and doubles in the same day before. We’ve got to bring our A-game.”
Watching the second set of the Auger-Aliassime match, one had the thought that a hard-fought battle back by the 18-year-old Montrealer might have been counter-productive in the over-all scheme of the two-day event – especially if he lost. As it was, he only spent an hour and 25 minutes on court – and fewer than 40 minutes in the second set. That should not be too taxing with doubles and a possible singles match awaiting him on Saturday.
Shapovalov’s opening match lasted an hour and a half and he had to battle to overcome a free-swinging Horansky who was playing his first ever Davis Cup match.
Canada’s team leader took the opening set after getting the service break at 3-all. The 26-year-old Slovak was able to play toe-to-toe with his Canadian opponent through some big ground-strokes rallies in the first six games. But it was taking more effort on his part and it showed in his heavy breathing and pale complexion after long points.
Shapovalov then held serve twice to close out the 38-minute first set, although neither of the holds was particularly straight forward. The 19-year-old Canadian had capitalized on one of his three break point chances while Horansky was 0/3.
The second set was similar to the first – a lot of well-disputed points but with Shapovalov always seeming like the superior player. He survived a single break point and then pounced at 5-all to get the crucial service break on his second break chance of the game before serving out the match to 15 in the 12th game.
“I just tried to play my game, stay aggressive,” Shapovalov said about the challenge of playing the little-known No. 219-ranked Horansky. “I think I do have another gear in me. I could have played a little more aggressive in the match. I could have stepped in a little bit more but at the same time he was doing a really good job to kind of stay on the baseline and dictate the points. So I tried to play a little bit smart and get the ball up to his backhand on the bigger points. I think that really helped me.”
The red-clay surface is not quite the impediment some anticipated it might be for the visiting Canadians. “It’s still pretty fast, you can really hit through the court,” Shapovalov said, “so I think it really suits me – off my serve I can really still go for big serves. It goes through – it kind of doesn’t grip so much.”
A Slovak reporter asked Shapovalov a rather blunt question: “how does it feel to be so young and to have so much pressure on your shoulders?”
After a brief chuckle, Shapovalov replied, “it’s fun for me just to be able to represent the country and be part of the team – it’s a dream come true. I think pressure is a privilege, a friend once told me that and I try to carry that with me. It’s a privilege to be on court being Canada’s No. 1 and just having that pressure today. It was really fun to be in a scenario like this with Filip playing so well and the tennis at such a high level. Every time I get a match like this it’s pure enjoyment.”
Near the end of his media conference, he was asked about Saturday’s doubles with the questioner suggesting that while he had done well in the juniors in doubles his record among the seniors was “kind of negative.” Shapovalov smiled and reacted, “Damn…definitely I haven’t focused too much on doubles in the pros but I’m fairly confident in my doubles game and I think I can play well – especially with Felix. We’ve had a lot of success. I’m confident playing with him.”
Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime will attempt to be the first teenagers to win a Davis Cup doubles match since Swedes Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson in 1981.
There has been much chatter on social media about Shapovalov losing his twitter account, and he set the record straight, providing an update. “It was deactivated for a little bit, there were some complications with my birth date,” he explained. “But it’s fine now. We’re good.”
This is a view in a mall not far from the Davis Cup site that has made the area of the city near the National Tennis Centre a much more active place than it was a decade or two ago.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz