There had never been a high-profile a meeting of two young Canadian players like the one between Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime in Monday’s first round at the US Open.
Shapovalov, 19 and ranked No. 32, and Auger-Aliassime, 18 and ranked No. 117, have shown exceptional promise since 2016 when Shapovalov won the Wimbledon junior boys championship and Auger-Aliassime followed suit with the title at the US Open.
A year ago Shapovalov, fresh from a semi-final finish at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, qualified and reached the round-of-16 at the US Open and this year it was his pal Auger-Aliassime who won three qualifying matches to make his first main draw at a Grand Slam event.
For two sets in the 8,125-seat Grandstand stadium on Monday, the two played sometimes erratic, sometimes spectacular tennis, living up to the hype that has grown around them.
What was building to a fascinating finish came crashing down when Auger-Aliassime had a sudden incident trailing 2-0 in the third set.
“I bended down for something in my bag and my heart started going,” he explained to Shapovalov post-match. “I almost fainted. I was thinking maybe I could play a couple games and could play the fourth but then I talked to my team.”
That courtside team consisted principally of his coach Guillaume Marx from the national training centre in Montreal, trainer Bernard Perrot and Felix’s father Sam.
It was a frightening sight to suddenly see Auger-Aliassime flat on his back with his feet up on his bench as he struggled to get his breath. When he eventually stood up an official, who seemed to be a doctor, splashed a little bit of water over his head in an effort to get his racing heart rate down on a day when conditions included 29 degree temperatures and 71 per cent humidity.
Auger-Aliassime, who was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia issue two years ago but had appeared to be over the condition, won the first game serving once play resumed. But it was clear he was not well and two games later he tearfully made the decision to stop. So the final score read 7-5, 5-7, 4-1 ret. for Shapovalov. After two hours and 29 minutes, Auger-Aliassime and he embraced at the net with the older of the two subsequently saying in the post-match on-court interview, “I told him we’re going to be back, we’re going to be playing in the final. This is just one match – we’re going to have so many of these. I know how frustrating it can be.”
What did we learn from the tennis that we did see? There’s no question both are gifted players – and exceptional athletes as well. In the fifth game of the second set, Shapovalov made a leaping one-handed backhand that he absolutely crushed cross-court for a winner – leaving spectators gasping.
All and all there’s a sense that the friendship between the two probably worked against the younger Auger-Aliassime.
“I kind of like being the veteran out there,” Shapovalov admitted afterward. “It gave me that kind of sense of confidence that ‘he’s new to this, he’s never played a three-out-of-five (set match).’ I knew, even if he takes the early lead (Auger-Aliassime led 5-2 in the first set), in the long run I’ll have a little bit more experience in long matches. It’s kind of a cool sensation.”
There was a telling moment before the match even began when Auger-Aliassime’s inexperience, or maybe just being too nice a guy, showed. Following the coin toss, Shapovalov chose to start on the opposite side and the two crossed around the net going to their respective ends. When they did, Auger-Aliassime initiated a fist bump. As well as they get along, this was a moment to forget friendship and become a hard-hearted competitor.
In French they have a great expression – faire abstraction – which basically means to make an abstraction of something – or to ignore something. In the future Felix will surely learn to faire abstraction about friend Denis, to just play against him as he would against any other player. Generations of players – sometimes even family members – have learned to leave personal feelings behind and compete just as hard as they would against anyone else.
There was another factor in play between the two. Shapovalov is 19 years and four months old, while Auger-Aliassime is just three weeks past his 18th birthday.
It feels as if Shapovalov made his initial breakthrough at the professional level when he qualified for Queen’s Club in June, 2017, going on to upset No. 47 Kyle Edmund before losing a highly-competitive match 7-6(4), 6-7(4), 7-5 to world No. 14 Tomas Berdych. That’s ignoring the aberration of his upset of a lethargic, disinterested No. 19-ranked Nick Kyrgios at the Rogers Cup in Toronto almost a year earlier.
In Auger-Alassime’s case, his breakthrough might be considered to have occurred when he qualified at Indian Wells in March and then won his first ATP match – 6-2, 7-6(4) over No. 75-ranked Vasek Pospisil – before losing 6-4, 6-4 to No. 38 Milos Raonic.
By those measures Shapovalov is a more mature, seasoned professional of 14 months – one tour, including six Grand Slams, around the worldwide circuit – while it’s more like five months and just one Grand Slam for Auger-Aliassime.
Monday’s premature ending was also tough on Shapovalov, who said about the awkward situation, “at the beginning I was playing really good, then towards the end he picked it up. What happened in the third set, it’s tough to see a friend go down like that. When I saw that he was struggling, I still had to keep trying to win, keep kind of pounding it on him. It wasn’t easy for me.”
Shapovalov was generous in his praise of Auger-Alassime, who veteran ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert claimed has a bigger upside career-wise than Shapovalov. “He’s such a talented player,” Shapovalov said about Auger-Aliassime. “He goes for his shots, which I really like. He doesn’t hold back. He’s got a huge serve. When it’s on, it’s unreadable and untouchable. I think he’s going to be an unbelievable player in the next couple years coming up.”
Giving some background on their friendship, Shapovalov said, “I think I’ve known him since I was seven or eight. Our whole lives we’ve known each other. It’s been a pretty crazy ride with him. I remember playing him at Nationals, under-10s, under-18s junior tournaments. Now we are here playing at a Grand Slam.”
Expressing his feelings about the highly-anticipated and hyped clash between two precocious tennis talents, Shapovalov said, “it’s actually a pretty tough match for both of us. It’s been a crazy ride with him. Hopefully it continues.”
Milos Raonic got his 2018 US Open off to a positive start on Monday, defeating qualifier Carlos Berlocq of Argentina 7-6(4), 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in two hours and 41 minutes.
It was not the smoothest of outings by the No. 25 seed on 1,154-capacity Court 5. “A little bit too much up and down,” Raonic conceded about his level of play in a match where he had 26 aces but also 16 double faults. “(I) lacked a bit of discipline on my service games. Otherwise I got the job done and have to be happy with that. When there was sort of pressure on me, I stepped up and I was able to play better.”
His winners to unforced errors ratio was a respectable 63/43 helped by all those aces.
Raonic (his team pictured above including father Dusan on left) is without coach Goran Ivanisevic at Flushing Meadows. The 2001 Wimbledon champion is at home in Croatia as he and his wife await the birth of their child.
The encounter with the No. 172-ranked Berlocq was Raonic’s first match since losing to 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals of the Cincinnati Masters 1000 two weeks ago.
In that event he was not at his best in early-round wins over No. 64 Dusan Lajovic and No. 60 Malek Jaziri – and even against No. 32 Denis Shapovalov in the third round – but he played dramatically superior tennis in the loss to Djokovic.
“It was very good for me,” he said when asked about that match. “Definitely one of the better opportunities I have had against him. (The head-to-head now stands at 9-0 for the Serb.) Some things I wish I dealt better with towards the end of that first set. But overall I think my level has been improving steadily. I think I have been finding more and more of my game.
“I have been able to stay relatively healthy, as well. I’m eager to do well here and hopefully I can produce a good level of tennis and that can result in some good results.”
In the second round on Wednesday, Raonic will face French veteran (33) Gilles Simon, who currently ranks No. 40. Their head-to-head stands at 3-1 for Raonic – with their last match being at the 2017 Australian Open when Raonic prevailed 6-2, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-3.
Vasek Pospisil advanced to the second round of the US Open for the third time in his career when he defeated Lukas Lacko of Slovakia 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 on Monday.
Afterward he spoke about winning the first set by breaking in the penultimate game and then holding serve comfortably to wrap it up. “Especially when the conditions (about 29 degrees and very humid) are as tough as they are I felt that I was playing well and I didn’t want to extend the match too much,” he said. “With the conditions out there it would be easier to get it done quickly. A good start was important.”
Pospisil has struggled mightily in the past at the US Open in extreme humidity, especially when he experienced severe cramping in a five-set loss to No. 52-ranked Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria in 2015. It was painful to watch his late-match distress when he managed to win just one game in the final two sets.
“I couldn’t help but think about some of my matches here in the past,” he said about seeing what the forecast was for Monday. “I was definitely worried about it a little bit but I’ve worked so hard the past couple of months that I just said, ‘I did everything that I could to prepare for this.’ It feels good to get through.”
About his game on Court 4, adjacent to Court 5 where Milos Raonic started the day, Pospisil assessed, “I thought I was moving really well and when I’m moving well I’m hitting a lot of forehands and dictating the play. I was serving pretty well too. From the tennis side of things I was playing really solid – a clean match.”
Next up for him is Rafael Nadal, the world No. 1 and defending US Open champion.
They have played once before with the 32-year-old Spaniard winning 7-6(3), 6-4 in Beijing in 2015. Asked if it gives him an advantage that he has previously played Nadal, especially because he is such an atypical player, Pospisil said, “it definitely helps that I’ve played him once. He’s more in form now than he was when I played him for sure. Playing him in a Slam is the ultimate challenge. I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m happy with the match today (Monday) and I’m very competitive so I know I’ll go out there and I’ll give it everything I have. I’ll have to play some great tennis if I want to pull it out.”
Grand Central Station in Manhattan has long been a New York City crossroads for people from all over the world. Above a guy at the centrally-located information kiosk gives a friendly thumbs up.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)