The brand new Davis Cup Finals is just two days away and all 18 teams are tuning up. Each of them has been allotted separate locker rooms consisting of at least 100 square metres of space for players and support staff.
Canadian team member Brayden Schnur is so impressed that he said the event has the feel of the World Cup of soccer with all the different nations lined up in their own areas.
On Saturday in Stadium 2, where Canada will play its first tie on Monday against Italy and also again on Tuesday versus the United States, Denis Shapovalov joined his teammates, practising in the morning with Félix Auger-Aliassime and then with Vasek Pospisil.
The 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., won both his singles in Canada’s 3-2 win over Slovakia in Bratislava on red clay in February. He has a 7-3 record in singles and is playing in his fifth tie.
Languishing at No. 38 in mid-August after struggles on the red clay and the grass in Europe, Shapovalov has come on strong – winning his first tour event in Stockholm and then reaching the semi-finals of the Paris Masters 1000 tournament to boost his ranking to a career-best No. 15.
“I think since Montreal (Coupe Rogers in August), I’ve been playing with a different fire, a different passion,” he said. “I feel like it’s come a long way.”
At times during the fall season, Shapovalov (above in a ‘hometown’ T-shirt) has been almost Federer-esque in his ability to blast his opponents off the court with his dynamite hitting. “It’s obviously an awesome feeling when you’re able to dominate, and you feel like the match is all in your hands,” he said. “Honestly, when I’m playing those matches, I just try to take them point by point because it’s so easy for players to turn the match around. It happens a lot where you’re killing the guy and you get broken in the second set so you have a tough match. I was playing really well at the end of the season and I was really happy with the way I was able to compete and play against some of the top guys.”
What about that leaping backhand that always gets ‘oohs and ahs’ from the crowds all over the world? “Honestly there’s no thinking,” he said about it. “It’s just kind of a feeling. When the ball is right, I just go for it. I don’t hold back. I don’t think I’ve ever held back on that shot.”
On Monday beginning at 4 p.m. (10 a.m. ET in Canada on Sportsnet One), Shapovalov will likely face Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini, the current world No. 8, in the second singles match. In their only previous meeting on an indoor hard court in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September, 2018, Shapovalov prevailed 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-0. “We’ve played once before but that was a long time ago and I feel like he’s a lot more solid now,” Shapovalov said about the 23-year-old from Rome. “He’s got a great serve, he’s really good off the back and he’s moving really good. He’s got a lot of variety in his game so it’s definitely going to be a difficult match. I also think I’ve been playing pretty well.”
Shapovalov will play Berrettini following the opening match featuring Auger-Aliassime against Fabio Fognini. The 32-year-old Italian is one of the rare talents in tennis, but also one of its most unpredictable and combustible characters. “It will be interesting,” said Auger-Aliassime, playing in his second Davis Cup tie with a 1-1 singles record. “Italian fans can be pretty loud. It’s going to be a fun tie. The fact that I beat him once this year (6-2, 6-3 on red clay in Rio de Janeiro in February) will work to my advantage… or maybe not. A lot of things have happened since.”
Four years ago, Auger-Aliassime along with Shapovalov and Ben Sigouin won the Junior Davis Cup title at the same Caja Magica site in Madrid – except that the courts then were red clay, just as they are for the annual Masters 1000 event played three weeks before Roland Garros. “It kind of felt funny when we first came to see hard courts here,” Auger-Aliassime said. “And I was surprised by the colours also. I was surprised by the green and grey. But the courts are nice, conditions are good.”
Recalling his first experience in Davis Cup nine months ago in Slovakia, Auger-Aliassime said, “it’s different than to just play for yourself. There are a lot of fans, the bench, the full bench behind you. There’s two sides to it. There’s one side where you don’t have that too often during the year – and to have to have a big support group behind you is great. At the same time you feel a little bit of pressure and extra pressure not only playing for yourself but a lot of people behind you. But I was able to deal with it. What I was able to do with it, especially in the fifth match in Bratislava (a 6-3, 6-4 win over Norbert Gombos) will help me this week.”
At just 19, Auger-Alassime is the youngest player in the ATP rankings top-90 players – but no longer in the top-100. That distinction belongs to fast-rising 18-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy, currently No. 96 and winner of the ATP NextGen Finals in Milan last week.
“It’s been crazy what he’s done, especially how it happened,” Auger-Aliassime said about Sinner. “He was kind off the radar and then finishing this year winning the NextGen Finals was amazing. When I was in Monaco a few times this year we had a chance to practice together. I just felt like ‘wow, this guy is going to be good, really good.’ He was playing well – hitting strong on both sides, serving well – and I think he proved that over the year with the Challengers he’s won, and also at the end of the year in Antwerp (reaching the semi-finals). So he’s going to be at the top with all of us soon.”
The doubles is fated to be a crucial part of the upcoming best-of-three match ties for all the teams at the inaugural, multi-nation Davis Cup Finals. By all appearances the Canadian doubles pairing, at least for the opener against Italy, will be Shapovalov and Pospisil. With 13 events, mostly with Indian partner Rohan Bopanna, Shapovalov has earned himself a No. 49 doubles ranking. Teamed with Pospisil, the 2016 Wimbledon doubles champion and logical successor to Daniel Nestor as Canada’s lead doubles player, he should be half of a redoubtable duo.
“Denis has been playing quite a bit of doubles lately,” Pospisil said, “and he’s been playing unbelievably well. I think we can have good chemistry on the court – we get along really well off it. I actually haven’t seen him play much doubles but he serves great, returns well, does everything well and he’s a great athlete.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever played together before but he’s a legend in doubles,” Shapovalov said about Pospisil. “He’s won Wimbledon and he’s done so many great things in doubles so for me would be an honour to be on the court with him.
“We’ve both got big serves and can be aggressive, so that puts a lot of pressure on our opponents.”
Around the grounds on Saturday, there was a relatively rare practice session involving players from different nations – Karen Khachanov (above) of Russia hitting with Guido Pella of Argentina in Stadium 1. The Russians are playing Spain and a certain famous lefthander, but Khachanov, the No. 2 Russian behind Daniil Medevdev, would logically not be slated to face Nadal in the marquee tie scheduled for Tuesday night.
Also on the courts was another member of the Spanish team – stylish veteran Feliciano Lopez (above). The 38-year-old Lopez is certainly on home ground at the Caja Magica – not only is he from Madrid but he’s also the tournament director of the Masters 1000 event held every year in May.
A side note: flu-suffering Canadian captain Frank Dancevic is expected to be over the infectious phase of the flu bug he has had and should be ready for Monday’s matches.
Replacing the absent Milos Raonic, No. 94-ranked Schnur is not expected to play during the ties but he has been doing some serious observing since arriving on Wednesday.
First he spoke about the playing conditions. “I think it’s really fast,” he said about the court speed. “I feel like when the balls are new they’re probably going to stay new because the points have been super-short. The courts are really quick. I think the conditions are great for us – they’re really similar to what we play on at home ties. I don’t it’s too different from what we’re used to when we play Davis Cup. The conditions are definitely quick with the altitude here.”
Schnur has also done some deep thinking about the overall competition starting on Monday and offered the following about which teams to look out for. “I’ve given a little thought to it,” he said, “and I think Spain is going to be really tough at home – just because they have so much depth. (Feliciano) Lopez is going to be really good on these courts. Another team that could be really good – and this is random – but I think Argentina is a huge underdog but they’re going to be tough. And a surprise, I think Belgium could come out of that Group F. These are just random guesses. (Australia is in Belgium’s group.) I feel an upset there.
“This is the highest level of tennis, with really small margins – in one day anything can happen, and it can happen so fast. A couple of guys have a bad day and it’s over within a couple of hours. So it’s going to be fun.”
There’s a surprising amount of graffiti along the roadways of Madrid. A young Madrileno with an artistic bent claims that the quality of graffiti has improved over the years. He added that there are groups doing the work and they like to go by various names to take credit for their efforts. One group goes by the name ‘fake’ – a not uncommon word in the modern-day lexicon.
(Feature photo: Davis Cup Finals