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Home   News   Tebbutt: Onto the big stages

Tebbutt: Onto the big stages

Jan 18, 2019
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov will be featured in the Australian Open’s two largest stadiums on Saturday – Raonic versus Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert in 10,000-seat Melbourne Arena and Shapovalov in the big house – 15,000-seat Rod Laver Arena against Novak Djokovic.

Raonic can’t feel slighted that his younger compatriot is getting better exposure because he was in Rod Laver Arena on Thursday against Stan Wawrinka. It takes two to tango and who a player is playing against is a huge part in deciding how matches are showcased.

Still, this humble scribe is disappointed that Shapovalov–Djokovic is not the night match in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. At one point there seem to be a tradition growing of having a super-duper match at night on the middle Saturday but this time tournament officials have opted for local South Australian Alex Bolt against Sascha Zverev as the men’s night feature.

Canadians are more familiar than most with young Denis and what a brilliant shot-maker and showman he is. There’s no chance that wild card Alex Bolt, 26 and ranked No. 155, is going to someday win a Grand Slam title. But that’s within the realm of possibility for Shapovalov.

Still he’s in Rod Laver Arena during the day on a day when the forecast high is 22 degrees – something that would create slightly faster conditions, favourable to Shapovalov, than at night.

It may be too easy to get carried away with Shapovalov’s fine form because his victims so far – No. 85-ranked Pablo Andujar and No. 88 Taro Daniel – are not exactly world-beaters. But they are solid professionals and Shapovalov dealt with them as a superior level player should – in straight sets and with a minimum of drama.

The 19-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont. elected not to play the first week of the new year – staying longer at home in Toronto with family. His 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 44-ranked Joao Sousa in Auckland in his 2019 debut looked like a bad omen but he has used it as a springboard to up his game and find the standard of tennis he needs at a Grand Slam.

Shapovalov’s big breakthrough came at Stade IGA in Montreal in 2017 when he beat Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal. He has also played three times in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open and in Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a five-set loss a year ago.

Historically the Australian Open has been kind to Canadians with a 20-year-old Raonic making his first waves on the tour there by qualifying and reaching the fourth round in 2011 and Genie Bouchard made the semi-finals at Melbourne Park as a 19-year-old in 2014.

Logically, Shapovalov is unlikely to beat six-time Aussie Open champion Djokovic, but there’s something to be said for youthful exuberance and ‘Shapo’ definitely has that.

It’s interesting that promising Alex de Minaur, 19, faced world No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Friday night and lost 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. On Saturday it’s the 19-year-old Shapovalov versus No. 1 Djokovic and then on Sunday 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas will play No. 3 Roger Federer. The three young next-gen guys are already 0-1 against the Big Three this week. Will it be 0-3 by the end of the weekend?

“Obviously he’s the favorite to win,” Shapovalov said about Djokovic. “I’m just going to go out there, give it my best shot, and see what happens. I think I’ve been playing really good tennis, so if that continues I think I could have a chance to really make it a battle and a tough match for him. Hopefully potentially even try to win the match.”

Raonic is a heavy favourite against the No. 55-ranked Herbert. It will be a first-time meeting and Herbert just has a 4-3 record in four trips to the Australian Open while Raonic is 25-8 in the nine times he has played.

When he was asked about Herbert after his hard-fought win over Stan Wawrinka on Thursday, Raonic had kind words for the 27-year-old Frenchman, saying, “he’s played well. Two very good wins over Sam (Querrey) and over Chung (Hyeon). I think we’re going to try to play a similar way. He does things at the net well. He tries to play aggressive. He tries to take swipes at the ball. I think we’re both going to be looking for the opportunity to dictate and who can control more.”

It’s hard to believe Raonic won’t be the dictator, especially if his serve is putting pressure on the Herbert serve.

Herbert could be a little tired for the match, which will start roughly at midnight ET in Canada. He and partner Nicolas Mahut, seeded fifth, were out playing into the evening in a second-round doubles match Friday. They needed three sets to overcome Denys Molchanov of Ukraine and Igor Zelenay of Slovakia 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-4.

In Thursday’s match against Wawrinka, Raonic served-and-volleyed 69 times, winning 49 of those points. That’s a fine percentage and he can be expected to continue that approach on Saturday. “I can try to hit my spots, come forward so he (the opponent) can’t feel free to just sort of chip the ball in,” he said.

Herbert doesn’t have as good a serve as Wawrinka, nor does he have the same kind of pulverizing ground strokes, so it’s hard to see a way for him to get past Raonic as long as the 28-year-old Canadian is at his base level of tennis.

As far as Herbert against the biggest servers in the men’s game, he has never played Ivo Karlovic. But he has played John Isner and is 0-4, winning just one of 12 sets.

The winner of Raonic – Herbert plays whoever wins the Saturday evening match in Rod Laver Arena between No. 4-ranked Zverev and Bolt.

FAREWELL GENIE AND BIANCA

Genie Bouchard leaves the 2019 Australian Open after losing in the second round just as she did last year, but probably feeling more positive than 12 months ago.

She reached the quarter-finals of her first event of the year in Auckland – and came within a match point of beating eventual champion Julia Goerges. Winning the doubles with American Sofia Kenin was a consolation but it also prevented her from moving on to play the qualifying for the WTA International Series event in Hobart, Tasmania. It was ironically won by Kenin.

Beating Peng Shuai and then losing to Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 at the Australian Open can be seen as a win/win situation – she gets one win and also the chance to measure herself against the best as she tries to climb back to the top rungs of the women’s game.

“This trip has definitely been more successful than not,” she summed up on Thursday about Australia this year. “I’ve been playing lots of matches and feeling good generally in those matches. It’s just building blocks and today (against Williams) just shows me what I need to work on.”

The Down Under experience for Bianca Andreescu was much more than she could have originally hoped for – victories over elite players Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams, a final appearance in a WTA event (Auckland), qualifying for the Australian Open, getting her first win at a Grand Slam event and going 11 for 13 in matches on the trip.

“I think I gained experience playing on big stages in front of big crowds,” she said. “It’s amazing at a Grand Slam because I know two years ago, when I qualified for Wimbledon, I just felt so overwhelmed by everything. But now I kept my composure and I went for it.”

It’s easy to forget that Andreescu started the year ranked No. 178 and she will now be approximately No. 88 at the end of the Australian Open. “That was the goal – to get my ranking up high enough to play Indian Wells, Miami and the French Open,” she said.

She’s entered in the $125,000 Oracle Challenger Series event in Newport Beach, California, next week and then will have a couple of weeks off before playing a Fed Cup World Group II tie in ’s Hertogenbosch against the Netherlands the weekend of February 9 and 10.

AUSTRALIAN POST CARD

This ship was hiding in plain sight in Sydney Harbour a few weeks ago. We’re not sure where the coastlines of the United States and Australia intersect but, in the long enduring friendship between the two nations, it probably doesn’t matter.