There were a few celebration chants after Felix Auger-Aliassime hit an ace to cap his 6-3, 6-4 win over Norbert Gombos, sealing Canada’s 3-2 victory over Slovakia and guaranteeing it a spot in the 18-team Davis Cup Finals next November.
Eventually the ecstatic Canadian fans settled on “we’re going to Madrid,” which basically is what winning the best-of-five match qualifier in Bratislava on a red clay court was all about.
It was thanks to gutsy performances by two teenaged best friends, 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov and 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, who recovered from a tough doubles loss together earlier in the day to regroup and key the comeback from a 2-1 deficit.
Shapovalov was his typical volatile, shot-making self, serving great and making few concessions off the ground as he pounded clay-court expert Martin Klizan into the red dirt 7-6(4), 6-4.
He needed seven set points before finally taking the opening set and then two match points in the ultimate game to get Canada back to 2-2 after he and Auger-Aliassime lost a hard-fought opening doubles match on Saturday – 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to Klizan and Filip Polasek.
Auger-Aliassime then stepped up, putting the disappointment of his singles loss on Friday to Klizan and the doubles defeat earlier in the day behind him, to show off his precocious talents and outplay a nervy Gombos in an hour and 28 minutes.
The new Davis Cup format involves playing the doubles before the singles on the second day – an awkward and uncommon practice breaking with tennis convention. There was only 30 minutes between Shapovalov ending the doubles
and him returning to the court for a do-or-die fourth match against Klizan, a 29-year-old experienced clay-courter who had come on strong to beat Auger-Aliassime 7-5, 6-3 on Friday.
“It’s definitely tough to play after a doubles match,” Shapovalov would later admit. “I think we were both feeling it on the court. I had a little bit of trouble getting into it after that little bit of a break. But once I got into it, the adrenaline took me and I felt really fresh during the match.
“Physically I’m happy and mentally I stayed very sharp and I played very well.”
Klizan on his home turf and in front of a supportive partisan crowd, gave a max effort but a highly-committed Shapovalov had a bit too much firepower and, in the end, wore down his older opponent.
“He played just unbelievable tennis, hit great shots in crucial moments,” Klizan said about Shapovalov. “I had very few chances to break him (1/3 on breaks points while Shapovalov was 2/6), unfortunately I didn’t capitalize on them. I have to accept that I lost to an opponent who was a bit better.”
Before the tie began, Slovak captain Dominik Hrbaty acknowledged Shapovalov’s talents but declared that Klizan was a superior clay-court player. After winning on Saturday, Shapovalov, conceded Hrbaty’s declaration had gained his attention. “I definitely think it fueled me to play my match,” he said. “I like proving people wrong. I think it fueled the whole team when he mentioned that. It was just kind of added motivation to try to prove him wrong.”
Shapovalov also felt vindicated as a clay-court player. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that the debate, as to whether I can play on clay, is officially over,” he said. “I think with today’s match I proved that I’m definitely able to play on it. The tennis level was very high so I’m happy to win the match today for Canada. We really needed it.”
The win meant Auger-Aliassime had the fate of his mates in his hands in the fifth and deciding match. Playing the veteran Gombos, substituting for Filip Horansky who put up a good fight in a two-set loss to Shapovalov of Friday, Auger-Aliassime controlled much of the play and – most significantly – served great, especially in pressure situations.
“Felix was playing very well, serving amazingly,” the No. 255-ranked Gombos said. “I couldn’t break his serve. Later I made some sloppy decisions and dropped my service games which pretty much sealed the deal.”
Winning his first Davis Cup match, and doing it in a fifth match was a huge thrill for Auger-Aliassime. “It’s something I dreamed of as a kid,” he said. “Today I don’t think I could ask for a better match and better level of tennis – I’m just so happy.”
Although he was mobbed on court by teammates at the moment of victory, Auger-Aliassime showed exemplary sportsmanship by not forgetting his opponent and heading over and shaking hands with him as soon as he could.
The doubles loss suffered by Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov was essentially about an older, more experienced pair, Klizan and Polasek, having more match savvy with their net play and returns of serve at crucial moments.
But nothing would stop the young Canadians in singles.
“Down 1-2, Denis played an unbelievable match (against Klizan) to keep us alive,” said captain Frank Dancevic. “The quality was top-10 in my eyes and both guys played their hearts out. Then Felix playing his first Davis Cup tie ever, being put in the situation where he has to play the fifth match for his country, to play the way he did today is incredible to take us to the final.”
The new Davis Cup format both in terms of nation vs. nation ties played over two days and the overall competition now involving just one qualifier round and then the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Madrid Final in November, has been controversial.
Basically the tie Canada won last September over the Netherlands in Toronto gave it no advantage – as drawing Slovakia away from home and on a foreign surface in the 2019 qualifier round demonstrates. As well, the ‘qualifier’ round played this past weekend was simply a concession to those wanting to keep a vestige of the former home-and-away tradition of Davis Cup.
If that concession had not been made, Canada, at No. 16 in the Davis Cup rankings would likely have gone directly to the Davis Cup Final in November and Slovakia, ranked No. 29, would have been relegated to zonal play.
Canada has qualified for the now-defunct elite 16-nation World Group for the past eight consecutive years and now has done likewise for the new one-location year-end Davis Cup grand finale.
There’s no question a nation with a player ranked No. 14, Milos Raonic, and No. 25, Shapovalov, and with a rising star like Auger-Aliassime, deserves to be the 18-nation field in Madrid. That city is particularly dear to Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime because they won the Junior Davis Cup title there in 2015. In November the Davis Cup Final will be played in the same Caja Majica where they had their success along with Ben Sigouin from Vancouver.
Raonic, Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime and hopefully a healthy Vasek Pospisil, will make Canada it one of the favourites on the hard-court indoor surface in Madrid.
Captain Dancevic, 33, counts himself fortunate to be heading the group and to have an emerging player such as Shapovalov.
“I thought he was an incredible leader this weekend,” he said about the 19-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont. “Denis had to start off the tie and he started strong – had that first point (over Horansky). And it was all on his shoulders to keep the tie alive against their No. 1 guy (Klizan) who was playing unbelievable on Friday. It wasn’t easy for him and he showed incredible courage out there. All weekend he kept his composure, really dug deep and found a way to raise his game to another level. He was able to keep us alive and give Felix a chance to shine in the fifth match.”
Did it feel like shades of 2003 when an 18-year-old Dancevic lead Canada into the World Group with a fifth-and-deciding match victory over No. 44-ranked Flavio Saretta of Brazil in a World Group Playoff held in Calgary?
“I don’t know about that one,” Dancevic laughed. “It was similar but at a different level. I was ranked No. 460 at the time. Denis is incredible. The heart he’s shown this weekend and for his country is amazing – and I’m really happy to have him around and playing for us.”
For some Canadian visitors, it will be one of the lasting memories of the visit to Bratislava for the tennis – this guy puttering around on a motorized bike dragging the red clay court. And as best as we could find out – he was not moonlighting from his regular job as a Zamboni driver.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz