Vasek Pospisil and Denis Shapovalov dug deep into their mental and physical reserves to score a crucial doubles win over Australia on Thursday night (early Friday morning), moving Canada into the Davis Cup semi-finals in Madrid.
Pospisil had a gutsy 7-6(7), 6-4 victory over John Millman – saving two set points in the opening set – before Alex de Minaur overhauled Shapovalov 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. That meant the tie came down to the doubles match.
The prelude to that match was that Pospisil, and especially Shapovalov, who had spent five hours and 46 minutes on court in singles and doubles matches on Monday and Tuesday against Italy and the United States, plus nearly two hours in the loss to de Minaur earlier Thursday, would be pretty well gassed for the doubles against an Aussie pair – John Peers and Jordan Thompson – who had basically only played one match two days earlier.
After the rush of both scoring two singles wins in the round-robin phase and Pospisil getting the victory over Millman, Shapovalov’s loss to de Minaur was a big downer, especially after he completely dominated the gritty Aussie in the opening set.
But the tone for the doubles was set early in a match that began at 10:50 p.m. and ended shortly after midnight. Peers served the opening game and hit two double faults and then dragged a forehand volley wide on game point to give Pospisil and Shapovalov the service break on the second deuce.
That got the Canadians off to a head start and Pospisil and Shapovalov never came close to losing serve the rest of the set – winning it 32 minutes.
They did drop serve (Pospisil’s) to trail 0-2 and then 0-3 in the second set, but a break of Thompson in the fifth game and of Thompson again in the ninth game – he dumped a forehand volley in the net at on game point – and the Canadians served out (Pospisil) the match comfortably, needing only a single match point to win 6-4, 6-4.
Thompson was the Aussie weak link and whacked a ball high into the seats after he lost serve in the fifth game of the second set. But he wasn’t given a warning for ball abuse – possibly because the umpire sympathized with his frustration or maybe because there were so few people in the crowd (the 12,442-capacity Pista Central was, generously, one third full) that there was no danger of hitting anyone.
A key to the Canadian win was huge serving – while Pospisil and Shapovalov seemed capable of belting an ace or service winner almost at will, there was never a sense the Aussies could do likewise to get out of dicey situations. The Canadians converted on three of four break points while the Aussies made good on their only chance in that second game of the second set.
Statistics are never quite as applicable to doubles because of the dual nature of the event – but still the Canadians hitting 26 winners to just eight for Peers and Thompson is very telling. Pospisil and Shapovalov were playing together for only the second time (the first was on Monday vs. Italy) while Peers and Thompson had a 7-5, 6-2 win in the qualifying round of Davis Cup in Adelaide in early February over the less than stellar team of Mirza Basic and Tomislav Brkic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Pospisil and Shapovalov also returned well – so well that Peers and Thompson won a mere 20 per cent of second-serve points.
At the media conference following Canada’s 2-1 victory, Pospisil, after double duty in singles and doubles, not surprisingly looked a little weary. “Going into the doubles we had to make a decision,” he explained. “You know Félix (Auger-Aliassime) is ready to go. And I felt we had a really good combination either way. Then as soon as we decided the team, we went out there and just from the first point we were just going maximum intensity, energy, focus. Denis and I played extremely well. I think we clicked perfectly.”
Bottom line against the Aussie pair was that Pospisil and Shapovalov are just better tennis players and Peers and Thompson did not have the weight of shot, and certainly not the serves, to counter the barrage coming from the opposite side of the net.
Pospisil has been summoning form reminiscent of his most memorable Davis Cup performance – eight years ago in 2011 in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, when he was heroic in winning all three points. There were five sets in singles vs. Dudi Sela, four sets of doubles with Daniel Nestor vs.
Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram and then three sets of singles vs. Amir Weintraub in the fifth and deciding match. He was an absolute beast playing in hot conditions in front of a partisan crowd.
That victory boosted Canada into the World Group – a spot it has not relinquished in the past eight years.
On Thursday night in singles against Millman, Pospisil was shaky at the start – dropping serve in the second game and falling behind 3-0. But he found his game and gradually overtook the out-gunned 30-year-old Aussie, who’s best known for upsetting Roger Federer at the 2018 US Open.
There were crisis points in the first set tiebreak when Pospisil faced two set points. Earlier in the tiebreak, he had two impossibly close (millimetres) Hawk-Eye calls – one that would have been an ace and another that just caught the baseline and ended the point – go against him. But he came up big facing the set points – belting a bold backhand service return on one and then hitting an aggressive forehand to force an error on the other.
With the first set out of the way, on a night when he didn’t have his A-game, Pospisil held serve throughout the second set before breaking in the final game. He had 28 winners to just four for Millman, who had the tough task of substituting for Nick Kyrgios who was a late withdrawal with a collar bone issue that first surfaced two months ago during the Laver Cup event in Geneva.
“For sure I was expecting to play him (Kyrgios) until the hour before the match,” Pospisil said. “I found out, I was like ‘oh well, okay, that’s surprising.’ And then I just digested it for five minutes and went back to getting my racquets ready. And obviously starting to change my mentality in terms of how I was going to play the match a little bit because they’re two very different players, polar opposites. I had an hour to prepare mentally and what I wanted to do and we just adapted tactics slightly and that was it.”
The Shapovalov – de Minaur match went all Shapovalov’s way early as he wrapped up the first set in 37 minutes. The 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont. was basically blowing de Minaur off the court – serving big and using his incredible pace to overwhelm his fellow 20-year-old.
It brought to mind the way 18-year-old Jannik Sinner just knocked de Minaur off the court 4-2, 4-1, 4-2 in the final of the ATP NextGen Finals in Milan two weeks ago. But credit to de Minaur, who’s a battler in the mold of his Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt (below), he steadied in the second set and capitalized on a drop in level from Shapovalov who had been crushing the ball as only he can.
De Minaur took the second set, breaking serve in the second game and hanging on to win it 6-3. In the third set, Shapovalov had moments of brilliance but too often they were nullified by unforced errors.
The numbers tell the story – Shapovalov had 39 winners to go with 51 unforced errors while “steady-as-she-goes” de Minaur was 16 winners and 16 unforced errors in the one-hour and 58-minute match.
Shapovalov staved off six break points with bold shot making in the ninth and eleventh games of the third set – but on the seventh he double-faulted lamely into the net. De Minaur served out to 30 in the final game – handcuffing a falling-back Shapovalov on the final point with a shot that landed near or on the baseline.
“I think a little bit of loss of concentration, kind of took my foot off the gas after the first set,” Shapovalov said about the match. “And he also raised his level. I think he served 90 percent in the second set, he served stupid in the third set as well. He played an extremely good match.
“I was pretty much – second set and third set – I felt like I was playing catch-up. I was just fighting. But I didn’t feel like the better player today. I wasn’t able to serve my best and didn’t feel too comfortable.”
It’s interesting to re-visit the wise words, in hindsight, of Shapovalov earlier this week about his sublime form of late, a form that has him over-powering opponents with his huge hitting. “When I’m playing those matches,” he said pre-event, “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.”
The picture above shows two things – one that the scoreboard that hangs from the retractable close roof of the Pista Central means that the ceiling is much lower than when the roof is open for the outdoor Madrid Open in May. High lobs are now in serious danger of hitting it. Second, the crowd on Thursday night was not too impressive. So far only the Rafael Nadal-led Spanish team is packing them in.
“It’s helped us so much,” Shapovalov said about the roughly 300-strong Canadian supporters, who are punching well above their weight. “I can’t speak on Vasek’s behalf, but of course, I know for sure it helps him. But for me personally, whenever there’s a crowd, whenever there’s people supporting me, I feel like I’m able to play my best tennis. It really makes it exciting. It’s so much more fun to go out on the court.
“We’re super thankful for them. I feel like they’re a big part of the team, and big reason why we’ve been able to get so far.”
Another reason is that Pospisil and he are riding a rich vein of form of late. Pospisil has now won 19 of his last 21 matches on tour and Shapovalov continues a trend the past two months that has seen him win his first title in Stockholm and reach a career-high No. 15 in the rankings.
When Pospisil was asked if the indoor hard court at the Davis Cup Final helps explain the big-serving Canadian team’s success, he cautioned, “there’s a little bit of altitude, which is good as well for a big server. But there are a lot of big servers here this week. It’s not just us, right?
“I just think things are clicking at the right time. I think we’re just playing really well too. We’re in form. So that plays a factor, maybe a little bit more so than the surface. If we’re not in form, and if we’re not feeling confident, then the surface isn’t really going to help much.”
The victory and reaching the semi-finals guarantees Canada an automatic spot in next year’s Davis Cup Finals, meaning it does not have to play in the qualifying round March 6-7, 2020.
In Saturday’s semi-finals – beginning at 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. ET in Canada) – the Canadian team will play Russia after it defeated Serbia 2-1 on Friday. Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev saved three match points in a thriller 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(8) win over Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki in the decisive doubles match.
Captain Frank Dancevic is upbeat about his players. “I know that they’re capable of beating anybody,” he said. “But you still have to go out there and perform the way they did this week. From the first matches against Italy, Vasek getting the tie going every time, and with the huge win
(Thursday night) to get the momentum. And then Denis sealing off the ties. It’s just been amazing.
“The sky’s the limit. With a little luck on our side, anything can happen going into the semis on Saturday. So it’s just been a great run so far.”
One of the memorable lyrics of legendary Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell is “in France they kiss on main street” – i.e. the French have no qualms about public displays of affection. It looks like that goes for Spain as well.
(Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak)