The protocol during a Davis Cup draw ceremony is usually civil – everyone makes nice, opponents get their pictures taken together and the participants all say the right things.
That changed Thursday during the draw ceremony at the National Tennis Centre in Bratislava for Friday’s Canada – Slovakia tie when Filip Horansky’s name was drawn first. That means he will play Denis Shapovalov in Friday’s opening singles match to be followed by Slovak No. 1 Martin Klizan against Canadian No. 2 Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Seated up front in a row with his teammates, Klizan let out an unexpected roar when it was revealed that Horansky would go first and he would play the second match.
“I think it was just humour to be honest,” was Canadian captain Frank Dancevic’s reaction to Klizan’s outburst. “We’re professionals and we’re prepared to play whether it’s first or second match. Maybe it was just an attempt to loosen up the crowd.”
The Slovak captain, Dominik Hrbaty, put his spin on it saying, “I believe it is a bit of an advantage for Filip to play the first match. It’s going to be his debut in the competition. He knows the exact time of the match and can get mentally ready.”
As mentioned yesterday in this blog, the Canadian side would probably prefer to have Shapovalov out first and hopefully gain a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five match tie.
Horansky, 26 and ranked No. 219, was a surprise choice by Hrbaty, with the more experienced No. 255-ranked Norbert Gombos, 28, having been expected to be the No. 2 choice.
The only match Horanksy has played this year was a 7-5, 7-5 loss to No. 179-ranked Alexey Vatutin of Russia in the first round of the Australian Open qualifying. In his whole career, he’s just 1-3 at ATP and Grand Slam level tournaments while Gombos is 7-26. At Challengers, Gombos is 147-117 – Horansky is 25-48.
A bright spot for Horansky, a tall, lean guy who doesn’t even have his picture on his ATP Tour website page, was a Challenger title on clay in Meerbusch, Germany, last August. But the highest-ranked player he beat that week was No. 256.
Peter Polansky, who has played mostly the Challenger tour for more than 10 years, knew nothing about Horansky. Neither did Shapovalov (5-3 in Davis Cup singles) who will face him in the kick-off match Friday at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. ET in Canada).
“It’s always exciting to play a guy you don’t know much about,” said Shapovalov. “Obviously I’m going to do a lot of studying and me and Frank will talk.
“I’m actually really excited to get back on the clay. I had a lot of success last year and I think the clay here is really well done. The court has very few bad bounces. It’s a good speed. I can still play my game, still play aggressive. That’s very important for me.”
Hrbaty stirred things up when, following the draw, he declared, “I was scouting Shapovalov (above with fitness trainer Clément Golliet) yesterday for a while and it seems that he may not have gotten completely used to the clay court. It is not easy to change the style from hard so fast. One way or another Filip (Horansky) has got nothing to lose and in theory can become the hero of the entire tie.”
The 41-year-old Hrbaty, who had a career-high ranking of No. 12 in 2005 and earned over $7 million in prize money while residing in the tax-haven of Monte Carlo, also said he believed Klizan, who won the ATP 250 clay-court event in Kitzbuhel, Austria, last August, is a better clay-court player than Shapovalov.
Dancevic responded, “I don’t necessarily agree with captain Hrbaty on this one. I think that Denis has proven himself by making the semi-finals of a clay-court event last year in Madrid. And Klizan hasn’t made the semi-final of a Masters Series that I know. Denis has shown he can beat good players on a clay-court and play really well, and Felix has had great results on clay last year. So I think that Klizan is a great player – but when our team is playing well on this surface, we have big weapons and we can beat any players.”
Despite the fact that Klizan (20-8 in Davis Cup singles) has wins over Novak Djokovic in Barcelona, during the Serb’s fallow faze last year in May, and over Rafael Nadal in Beijing in 2015, remarkably the 29-year-old Slovak has a terrible record at Masters 1000 events – on clay or otherwise. He is 11-26 overall and has never been further than the second round while Shapovalov is 19-13 and has twice been to semi-finals.
Auger-Aliassime, who is playing his first ‘live’ match in a Davis Cup tie after being on the team that defeated the Netherlands last September in Toronto, said about his debut against Klizan, “it’s exciting but it’s also nerve-wracking. He’s been in the top-30 in the rankings for a few years now and it’s going to be tough. I know he has strong weapons – if I can impose myself on the court in the first few rallies then I’m going to give myself a good chance.”
The atmosphere in the 4,100 sold-out arena will likely be raucous on Friday. “We expect the arena to be packed,” Hrbaty said. “We invited a bunch of friends from Zilina (in northwest Slovakia). They should be coming with a band, drums and that kind of stuff.”
The final zinger came from Klizan when he was asked about Shapovalov being the best under-20 player in the world and Auger-Aliassime being the best under-19 player. “I’ve have been the best in Petržalka (a Bratislava suburb) for 30 years,” Klizan quipped.
The line-up for Saturday’s doubles, subject to change an hour before the early start time of 11 a.m., is Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov for Canada against the tall, rangy and fairly old pairing of Filip Polasek, 33, and Igor Zeleney, 36, for the Slovaks. Hrbaty said he could revise Saturday’s doubles team depending of Friday’s singles results, while Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov are, barring unforeseen circumstances, set for Canada.
Polansky, 30, is sort of the forgotten man on the Canadian team. He gave his assessment of Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime versus Slovak No. 1 Klizan. “His level is very high but I think Denis or Felix or both have the games to beat him,” Polansky said. “They play huge, they can out-power him – just play him off the court. But he’s their No. 1 and he’s going to be carrying the team. I think there should be some good matches – some high-quality tennis this weekend.”
Regarding Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime likely having to do double duty on Saturday with a doubles followed by a singles match, Polansky said, “it makes it interesting that they might have to play a doubles match before playing singles. But it’s two-out-of-three and these guys are young. I remember when I was their age I’d be able to play singles and doubles in the same day back-to-back no problem. It’s Davis Cup and there are a lot more nerves on the line but I think it’ll be okay. I like this new format – it’s a little bit shorter.”
The red clay court, laid down on top of the hard court that is permanently in the arena, actually feels very firm under foot. That should make it reasonably fast – unless more top-dressing clay is put on before Friday’s start – but Polansky explains that it isn’t like that. “I think it has more to do with the ball picking up moisture either from the clay or from the air,” he said. “Then once they get used they fluff up quite a bit and, after a game or two, they get very slow. The new balls are a little bit quicker as is normal. But I’d say it’s a nice court to play on. I really like it.”
The atmosphere in the arena in the days leading up to a Davis Cup tie is always relaxed and fairly calm. Then on game-day things begin and it explodes, becoming a totally different animal full of passion and noise.”
This Canada – Slovak qualifier for the Davis Cup final next November in Madrid is youth (Canada) versus experience (Slovakia). It’s the intriguing contrast at the centre of this match-up.
These are the outside courts, and a bubble, at the Slovak National Tennis Centre in Bratislava. Under the crispy snow, you can still see the lines on the court.