Canada heads into day two of its Davis Cup World Group Playoff against the Netherlands with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five match tie after opening singles victories by Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic on Friday.
Shapovalov won his first career match from an 0-2 sets deficit, rallying to overcome Robin Haase 3-6, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in a thriller before 3,639 spectators at the Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto. By comparison Raonic’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Thiemo de Bakker was much more decisive and had an air of inevitability to it from midway in the opening set.
The Shapovalov win seemed implausible when he trailed by two sets and faced six break points at 5-all in the third set. He saved all of them with only one coming on a Haase error. There were two saved with good serves, one with an aggressive forcing forehand and two, the final two, with volleys. The sixth and last one was nothing less than a beauty, stone-cold backhand drop volley winner.
Haase, who had been in control, suddenly began to feel the full force of ‘Shapo’ tennis. In the following game he faltered and Shapovalov capitalized – breaking serve to 15, finishing with an emphatic overhead smash winner.
Up to that point, especially the first two sets, anyone not familiar with the rise of the 19-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., might have wondered what all the fuss was about. But the rest of the match was ‘exhibit A’ in why he is the most exciting young player in the sport today.
If saving six break points in the penultimate game of the third set wasn’t enough, he had to bounce back from down a service break at 1-3 in the fifth set to take five of the last six games. And he had to save two break points in the final game before putting away the skilled, determined 31-year-old Dutchman.
In that third pivotal third set, ‘break points converted’ told the story – Shapovalov was 1/1 and Haase 0/6.
It was a dazzling performance by Shapovalov and Tennis Canada’s vice-president of high performance Louis Borfiga, who once worked with emerging players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils while with the French Tennis Federation, declared, “once again we’ve seen what spirit Denis has, as well as his tennis talent. It showed in the important moments in the fifth set when he wasn’t afraid to dare. At 19 years old to do what he did is great, actually it’s extraordinary.”
It becomes increasingly clear by the day that Shapovalov (above tumbled in the arms of captain Frank Dancevic at the moment of victory on Friday), currently ranked No. 34 but with a career high of No. 23 in June, is special. The way he boldly saved those third-set break points in such a perilous situation brings to mind his breakthrough at the Rogers Cup in Montreal a year ago. It’s easy to forget but that magical run to the semi-finals – including wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal – would not have happened if he hadn’t saved four match points in the first round against unheralded, No. 64-ranked Rogerio Dutra Silva of Brazil.
There’s something about Shapovalov’s grit, showmanship and match-playing savvy that can’t be taught. Against the No. 44-ranked Haase, he made a little tactical adjustment when things were looking bleak late in the third set. He began looping balls to Haase in baseline rallies, hitting with more “air” in the current vernacular. “I just kind of felt that I was rushing too much, going for crazy shots,” he said. “He did a good job of making me go for a lot. So I decided, ‘let me just try the complete opposite. First just let’s have a couple of more rallies.’ And that’s what I talked to Frank (Dancevic) about – ‘extend the points a little bit more, get a feel for the balls.’ At the same time I was trying to mess him around just looking for a solution. I’m down two sets. I have nothing to lose. I’m just trying to find a way to win. I saw that threw him off a little bit and at the same time I got a better feel for it and after that I was able to kind of work the points more and I felt a lot more comfortable out there.”
Shapovalov also did an excellent of getting the crowd on board and riding its support. He expressed appreciation for its efforts during his post-match, on-court interview.
The so-called “Red and White Army” cheer squad occasionally overstepped the bounds – making noises when Haase was preparing to serve that led to warnings from American umpire Ali Nili.
Dutch captain Paul Haarhuis thought Nili should have exerted more control. But it really wasn’t excessive misbehaviour by Davis Cup standards. One Dutchman suggested it was actually fairly tame compared to what the Netherlands went through during a tie in Bosnia – Herzegovina last year.
“At the end of the day,” Shapovalov said, “it’s Davis Cup and there are going to be fans… it’s not Wimbledon. This is what the event’s about. It’s about people cheering, and playing the drums – and it wasn’t that bad. There were a couple of people yelling out before the serve. Nobody is yelling right before he served. It’s when he’s bouncing the ball. It just feels like when we were in Croatia (in February) it was five times worse and we didn’t say anything.
“I get that it’s frustrating, and that it’s tough to play away. But I feel that that’s what makes Davis Cup so great. It’s Davis Cup – the event is meant for fans to go out and cheer like it’s a basketball game, it’s a football game. It’s a different event.”
During the last three change-overs in the match, Shapovalov was treated by team physio Stéphane Lamy. Post-match he explained, “I just had a little bit of a sore (right quadriceps) muscle. It’s getting better now. I think for that match (3 hours, 32 minutes), with all the emotions and pressures, I came out pretty good physically.”
It was unfortunate the dramatics of Shapovalov – Haase overshadowed Raonic’s clinical dismantling of De Bakker in the opening match. After a couple of shaky games at the beginning, he simply had too much for the nearly 30-year-old Dutchman, winning in an hour and 42 minutes.
In this reporter’s notebook, as the match evolved, it was scribbled about de Bakker, “he’s a big guy (6-foot-4) but he doesn’t have that big a game.” Raonic, 6-foot-5, is also a big guy but he undeniably has a big game – both serving and pounding his forehand.
Afterward, De Bakker, who won only 48 per cent of his first serve points and 46 per cent of his second, said, “I was very surprised by the quality of Raonic’s (service) returns. I had to go for bigger second serves returns because of his returns.”
Captain Dancevic summed up the Raonic performance, saying, “he played solid the whole match. He played aggressive, served well. He started off struggling with his serve a little bit in the first couple of games but then found it really quick around 3-all in the first set. It was pretty much on cruise control after that. I thought he was putting lots of pressure on the guy playing a big game, making the other guy fall apart a little bit and search for answers he didn’t have.”
Now 11-1 in Davis Cup matches at home, Raonic talked about his role on the team and his relationship with Shapovalov and 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal, making his debut of the team this week. “There’s a camaraderie,” the 27-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., said, “we sort of discuss things back and forth – what tournaments we’re going to play and so forth. But as much advice as one person can give, a lot of the things you face on the tennis court you have to go through on your own to really learn. It’s nice to be around and see them both and maybe I can point out a few things. But those guys are doing just fine on their own.”
There was an unlikely face in the crowd – for a short spell during the Shapovalov-Haase encounter – Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS who accommodated a few selfie takers as he departed.
On Saturday, Canada will attempt to win the doubles to wrap up the World Group Playoff and assure itself of a seeded position for next February’s 24-team qualifying round for the new year-end 18-team Davis Cup 2019 grand finale. It’s slated to be 46-year-old Daniel Nestor, in his final match of his storied career, and Vasek Pospisil versus Matwe Middelcoop and Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands. But most insiders expect Haase to be substituted, likely for Middelcoop, because Rojer is the Dutch team’s best and most experienced doubles guy.
“We’re two matches to love up and we’ve still got three matches to play” Dancevic said, “and we’re going to go out there with intent 100 per cent from the first point. Daniel has been feeling great all week. He’s been practicing well and he’s been getting in shape for this match, the last match of his career. So he’s looking forward to it tomorrow (Saturday) and we’re excited to watch him play out there.”
The final word after the opening day goes to Shapovalov, expressing himself about playing Davis Cup and winning. “You really feel you’re not just playing for yourself or the team,” he said, “you’re playing for the nation. So it really felt amazing out there. I wore the little Canadian flag on my chest really proudly today. I did everything I could to get our team, get our country the win. So I’m just ecstatic.”
For years this news car, bolting out of the CTV building, has been a curiosity for passers-by on Queen Street West. And, by the way, the front wheels on the vehicle just keep on spinning.
Toronto is located on one of the Great Lakes – Lake Ontario. Across the city’s harbour there are islands that are connected to the city by ferries, which are sometimes watched by Canada geese.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)