Before last year’s US Open, unless Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime were to become dominate players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the odds were that they might play once or twice over the course of their careers at the US Open.
And even if they were someday championship fixtures like Federer and Nadal, they might not ever play at Flushing Meadows – as is the case the case with the sublime Swiss and the splendid Spaniard.
But following last year’s shocker when the two young sensations of Canadian tennis drew each other in the first round, it has happened again and they will square off on Tuesday – the fourth match after a 11 a.m. start (so roughly somewhere between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) on 8,125-seat Grandstand.
A year ago, Shapovalov advanced to the second round when Auger-Aliassime had to retire trailing 7-5, 5-7, 4-1 when a racing heart made it impossible for him to continue.
Shapovalov was the first to learn this time that they were to meet again – Auger-Aliassime was at the gym and out of touch when he was contacted by his friend.
To quote Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime was like “‘are you serious?’ and I’m like “yeah man.”
A joking Shapovalov continued, “I texted him like ‘I think we’re going to be playing each other for the rest of our lives here. Regardless if we’re both seeded, they’re going to put us first round.”
Auger-Aliassime’s initial reaction was, “I didn’t understand because I still had the impression that he was seeded so we couldn’t play. Then I looked and he wasn’t seeded and we’re playing in the first round. It’s kind of funny but I’ve sort of gotten used to it because I played Vasek (Pospisil) twice in a row (Wimbledon and Rogers Cup this summer). It’s incredible what’s happening to me this year – to be playing so many Canadians in the first round. In a way I’ve gotten used to playing them.” Thinking ahead, he said, “I’ve just got to prepare as best as I can – I think it’s a match that’s motivating for me. It’s exciting for me and I don’t see anything negative about it.”
Shapovalov also put in context the long-shot chance that they would meet again. “Honestly, it is what it is,” he said. “It happens a lot of times. Stan (Wawrinka) has played Grigor (Dimitrov) this year (three times – Roland Garros, Rogers Cup and Cincinnati) in general. You saw Rogers Cup – Félix played Vasek several times this year. It does happen a lot. Obviously it’s unfortunate to play a guy from the same country so early in the tournament. I honestly just treat it as any other match. I think I’m playing well and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m coming in here in good shape and regardless of who I play, it’s going to get tough. But honestly the draw could be tougher – I could be playing Roger or Novak first round. So I’m looking at it in a positive way as well. It’s definitely going to be a tough one but an exciting match.”
Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam champion from Sweden, reacted this way to the second-year-in-a-row first-rounder, “That’s crazy – it’s not even fair. I think there should be a rule or something. I think it’s so sad that they’re playing.”
As for the actual match-up, he said, “I feel that Félix wins seven out of 10 because he’s too solid. At the same time, are they both really motivated when they play each other. I’m not so sure. When you’re good friends… When I played my best friend (Swedish compatriot and former world No. 4 Joakim Nystrom) on tour, I wasn’t motivated at all. I couldn’t even play against him. Sometimes I played and I tanked – and he’s like ‘you’re tanking,’ and I’m like ‘no I’m not’ and he said, ‘yeah you are, you’re tanking but I’m going to show what tanking is’ – and he tanked even more than me. (I did it) because I was making money and I wanted him to have the rankings points.”
There appears to be no chance of that occurring in Tuesday’s all-Canadian blockbuster. “I feel like it’s tougher for Denis to focus than it is for Félix because of the way he plays,” Wilander said. “And he’s a year older. I just feel it’s easier for Félix to be focused with his style of play because he relies on being solid.”
Wilander, 55, should know – he was the epitome of solid. It took him to No. 1 in the world in 1988.
After a four-month struggle following a semi-final showing (losing to Federer) at the Miami Open in March, Shapovalov (above practicing with new coach Mikhail Youzhny) gained badly-needed confidence by reaching the semi-final of the ATP 250 in Winston-Salem last week – defeating No. 73-ranked Tennys Sandgren, No. 49 Miomir Kecmanovic and No. 47 Andrey Rublev before losing 6-3, 6-4 to eventual winner No. 41 Hubert Hurkacz in the semi-final.
Auger-Aliassime enters the US Open after a disappointing 6-3, 6-3 first-round loss to Kecmanovic in Cincinnati.
But that came after an extremely emotional week on his return to Montreal for the first Rogers Cup of his career in his hometown where he beat Pospisil and Milos Raonic before losing to No. 8-ranked Karen Khachanov 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-3.
“The week in Montreal that was very emotional,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I experienced some magical moments on the court with my family and took a lot of energy, a lot of stress, a lot of nervous energy. After I was pretty tired for the tournament in Cincinnati and then coming here I took some time for rest. To re-charge the batteries and now I feel good. I’ve had good practice days here, I like the conditions and I feel I should be fresh and ready to go.”
“It’s a very important tournament for me with the Grand Slams,” he continued about Rogers Cup in Montreal. “I wanted to play well and on top of that I played Canadians at the start – moments that were stressful. All and all I think I can be happy with everything – my first time in Montreal and I still played a good match against Khachanov. It was good week, going in the right direction but the next week I was pretty tired emotionally. I think my emotional and psychological batteries were pretty empty.”
Looking ahead to Shapovalov – Auger-Aliassime II on the same Grandstand court as 2018, the 19-year-old Montrealer said, “I look at it as a chance for the two of us to give everything, play a really good tennis match. There’s no reason not to play our best or not have the desire to win. If we want to be honest with each other as we always want to be, we have to give our best and the best player will win. But I’m just as motivated for this match as I would be for any other match in a Grand Slam.”
Among the other Canadians in action on day two are women’s No. 15 seed Bianca Andreescu who will play American wild card and the winner of the 2019 U.S. under-18 junior title – 17-year-old Katie Volynets. Andreescu beat the Californian 6-2, 7-6(7) in the second round of the WTA $125K event she won in Newport Beach, California, in January. “She’s a tough competitor,” the 19-year-old Andreescu said about Volynets. “She gets to a lot of balls. So I’m not expecting anything easy.”
The match, on 1,104-seat Court 10, is second after an 11 a.m. start.
On 1,704-seat Court 12 in the second match after 11 a.m., Pospisil plays No. 9 seed Khachanov and Brayden Schnur takes on No. 29 seed Benoit Paire in 1,494-seat Court 7 in the fourth match after 11 a.m.
BOUCHARD OUT TO SEVASTOVA
Genie Bouchard managed to maintain her sense of humour after losing 6-3, 6-3 to No. 12 seed Anastasija Sevastova in Monday’s opening-day action at the US Open. She later joked that she had never played the first match at 11 a.m. at a Grand Slam on the first day and dreaded being the first player to exit the tournament.
She was spared that fate when Anna Bogdan of Romania defeated Harriet Dart of Great Britain 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 11 minutes – three minutes fewer than Bouchard vs. Sevastova. The quickest loser on day one came on the men’s side when Italian Marco Trungelliti had to retire with a shoulder injury against No. 7 seed Kei Nishikori – 6-1, 4-1 ret. after just 44 minutes of play.
Bouchard got off to a slow start against the 29-year-old Latvian, quickly finding herself on the wrong end of 4-0. But she won two games and was at deuce in the following game on Sevastova’s serve. She then hit a good deep approach shot only to watch as Sevastova hit a beautifully-angled backhand passing shot winner that was followed by a Bouchard service return error. That effectively sealed her fate in the first set.
In the second set, Bouchard again fell behind – 3-0 – but got back to 3-4 and seemed re-energized. But a backhand unforced error to give Sevastova a 5-3 lead basically turned out to be her last chance at a win.
As has been the case on this nightmare 12-match losing streak – seven of the 12 have been in three sets – Bouchard did not look out of place on the court. There were simply too many unforced errors. She had 15 winners to go with 27 unforced errors, while her Latvian opponent recorded 23 winners and 16 unforced errors.
“I think I was trying to figure out the balance of playing consistently but also being aggressive,” Bouchard said about the challenge she faced on Grandstand court. “How aggressive to be or not. It was tricky for me to find that balance because she was getting a lot of balls back.”
Bouchard was very solid on the backhand but her forehand wasn’t as good as it can be and her serving stats weren’t sound enough – she won 58 per cent of first serve points to 68 per cent for Sevastova and just 39 per cent of second-serve points to 59 per cent for the Latvian.
“I can’t wait to win a match,” Bouchard exclaimed. “I’m sick of losing. My coach (Jorge Todero from Argentina – above motioning to his player) told me that we’re kind of using the rest of this year as time to prepare for next year. I’m obviously still going to play tournaments this year but I’m going to try to really work physically. I think that’s lacking a little bit right now. Keeping working on my game, add tools and start next year really strong.”
Bouchard deserves praise for maintaining the faith after not winning a match since February in Dubai. “All players go through slumps and there have been huge comebacks in the past – even with players that have accomplished way more than I have. Look at (Andre) Agassi – things like that,” she said. “If you have it, there’s always that hope and that belief that you can get it back.”
The comparison with Agassi could be apt with Bouchard’s ranking now dropping about 26 points to No. 145, which happens to be four points below the No. 141 Agassi descended to in November, 1997. By June, 1999, at 29 years old, he was all the way back to No. 1. That might be a stretch for the 25-year-old Bouchard, who reached a career high of No. 5 in October, 2014, but it can certainly serve as an inspiration.
NEW YORK POST CARD
The New York Mets were at home for a National League baseball game on Sunday at CitiField, their home stadium across the train tracks from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. This family group, in Mets attire, were headed through the parking lot to the game.
(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)