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Tebbutt: Denis keeps his cool

May 29, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt
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It was his first visit to the main interview room at Roland Garros but Denis Shapovalov was clearly unfazed as he sat down to answer questions. He smiled and the first words out of his mouth to the 25 or 30 reporters seated in front of him were a casual, “what’s up?”

That said something about the comfort level of the precocious 19-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont. His aplomb was also evident on the court in the way he handled himself in the early going of his 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 first-round victory over No. 59-ranked John Millman of Australia.

The match began in a steady, light drizzle and Shapovalov, after failing to convert love-40 on the 28-year-old Australian’s serve in the third game, dropped his own serve on a Millman backhand winner in the following game to trail 3-1.

When Millman held and the score got to 4-1, Shapovalov became agitated by the increasingly uncomfortable conditions and blurted out, “why are we even out here?”

He had a conversation with umpire Alison Hughes of Britain but soon managed to calm himself. He held his serve and then exchanged holds with Millman to make the score 5-3 for the Aussie.

Serving for the set, Millman reached set point but misfired long with a forehand. Two points later Shapovalov had broken back and the players were back on serve at 5-4. Shapovalov held serve, broke Millman again at 5-all and then served out to 30 to seal the set in 51 minutes – including a 10 minute break while the players sat in their chairs and waited for light rain to subside.

From then on there was little doubt who would be the winner as Shapovalov opened his shoulders and played the free-wheeling tennis that has become his calling card.

As he did, the spectators in Court Suzanne Lenglen (the fact that he was in the second biggest showcourt – 9829 seats – was testimony to his increasing stature in tennis) got behind him more and more. They appreciated the thunder strikes regularly rocketing off his racquet. He later acknowledged their support during his post-match, on-court interview saying, “it was tough conditions but because of you guys you made me enjoy myself…so thank you.”

In terms of stats from the match, Shapovalov had 41 unforced errors to 36 for Millman. But it was the winners category that spoke volumes about the explosive nature of his game – he had 32 to just nine for Millman.

The 28-year-old from Brisbane, who has been on the tour for more than 10 years, was on the receiving end of the Shapovalov onslaught…and was impressed.

“At the end of the day,” he said about Shapovalov, “he produced the better tennis when it counted and that’s what the good players do. He keeps doing that and the sky’s the limit.”

Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada vice-president of high performance, lauded Shapovalov’s performance saying, “it’s never easy to begin a tournament, especially a Grand Slam. I think he played a super match because he wasn’t playing his best tennis. He managed to win three sets to love in conditions that weren’t easy for him…it was raining, the courts were heavy. I think he has gained a lot of maturity. He didn’t get upset. He was down 5-2 (in the first set) and he came back. He’s young and he could have panicked and lost to a player who he’s supposed to beat – and on clay in five sets it can change at any moment. But he really got into the match.”

As much as he was bothered by the distraction of the rainy weather, Shapovalov was savvy enough to use it to his benefit when things looked bleakest trailing 5-2. “It was tricky out there with these tough conditions,” he said. “It’s a little bit annoying, you know, as the rain gets in your face, you get soaked.”

After the ball change when he trailed 5-2, Shapovalov didn’t lose another game in the set.

“The court was getting pretty heavy, but the balls especially, they were getting really fluffy and heavy,” he explained. “It was tough to play a guy like John a slow court.

“But at the same time I felt like I played really well. Really used the advantage of the new balls, tried to dictate the first couple of games when they came out. I tried to use the new balls to kind of help myself reset.”

He did that and it was soon obvious he was of a higher calibre than Millman, a solid player and good battler who simply didn’t have the firepower to threaten Shapovalov once he had settled in.

“I felt like in the first set I was still the better player,” said Shapovalov, who is up to a career high ranking of No. 25 this week, “even though he had broken me. I feel like that and also maybe my confidence on clay has grown. My inner belief that I can come back is there with me during the tough moments.”

A year ago, he didn’t win a single match on clay but that has changed and he now has a 7-4 record at five European outdoor events in 2018.

“I told my team from the beginning of the season I want to play a lot of clay court tournaments,” he said. “(It) doesn’t matter the results. You know, lose first round…I’m going to go out there the next day and keep working hard. It’s not for this season. It’s not for next season.

“It was really a goal just to get better long term. To me, winning Roland Garros, it’s a dream of mine. It’s something I have always wanted to do.”

In his second round Thursday he will face fellow lefthander Maximilian Marterer. On Tuesday, the 22-year-old German, ranked No. 70, defeated No. 56 Ryan Harrison of the U.S 6-1, 6-3, 7-5.

Photo credit: Peter Figura

Looking further down the line, the first seed the No. 24-seeded Shapovalov was slated to meet was No. 14 Jack Sock in the third round. But Sock was upset Tuesday by lucky loser Jurgen Zopp. The 30-year-old from Estonia, ranked No. 136, overcame the 25-year-old American 6-7(4), 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3. In the next round lucky loser Zopp will play another lucky loser, No. 110-ranked Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium.

As his post-match media conference was winding down, Shapovalov was asked about the state of his French.

“My French?” he answered. “It’s okay. But I’m not really comfortable – especially in a press room full of journalists where they are going to judge me.”

Then in French he said quite fluently, “Yes, I can speak a bit. I studied French at school when I was really young.”

He continued in English, “and I do practice French. Off the menu (in restaurants), I try to practice with my team. It’s definitely a goal for me to get fluent in French, but it’s a process. I’m learning a bit of Italian, bit of French, a bit of everything.”

And all of that starts from a base of being fluent in English and Russian.

Vasek Pospisil played his first-round match Tuesday on Court 12, located on the far side of Court Suzanne Lenglen. It’s one of the smallest courts at Roland Garros, having seating for only 342 spectators.

That’s Pospisil in the foreground early in the second set in the picture here. The first set was a minor disaster for him as he quickly fell behind 5-0 against Marton Fucsovics. The 26-year-old Hungarian came in as a form player after winning the title at the ATP 250 event in Geneva on Saturday.

Things got better from there for Pospisil as he rallied to 5-3 down but Fucsovics closed out the set 6-3 in 36 minutes and took the second as well by the identical score of 6-3, this time in 37 minutes. The third set was a dogfight as Pospisil finally got his teeth into the match but Fucsovics was able to win the ultimate tiebreak to seal a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(5) victory.

Photo credit: Peter Figura

On the fifth point at 2-all in the tiebreak, Pospisil made a desperate and futile dash for shot that had gotten past him and took a solid tumble (see above) on the terre battue. He managed to level matters at 3-all but soon had to face three match points trailing 6-3. He saved the first with the help of an improvised a forehand shot through his legs that extended the point, and the second with a service winner. But the third match point proved decisive as he hit a forehand wide and threw his racquet onto the court in disgust.

Pospisil and Fucsovics each had 30 winners but the unforced errors advantage was lopsided in the Hungarian’s favour – he had 27 while Pospisil was 53.

It was always going to be a challenge for Pospisil playing an accomplished clay-court opponent. He readily acknowledged later how well Fucsovics had played but did have one regret. “I would have liked to have been a little more aggressive early on,” he said. “The start of the match wasn’t good. I felt like I was just feeling myself around a little too much, reacting and seeing how he was going to play. I could have reacted a little bit quicker and try to take the initiative a little bit earlier in the match. At the end I was starting to play better but you’ve already lost a lot of momentum when you’re down two sets and, mentally, it’s a bit of hurdle, especially with a guy who’s this solid and is confident.”

As for the No. 45-ranked Fucsovics, he summed up his victory saying, “I tried to play clay-court tennis – clay-court style which he (Pospisil) didn’t like so much. He tried to play aggressive – come into the net, serve-and-volley. So I think was playing the right tactics today.”

Pospisil is now 0-6 in main-draw matches at Roland Garros but doesn’t believe the surface has everything to do with it. “When you look a little bit deeper into my clay results, I’ve been injured 90 per cent of my clay matches,” he said. “This is the first Roland Garros since 2013 that I wasn’t injured – the back injury or an ankle sprain or something. So there’s obviously an element also of bad luck with the physical part. There’s no reason not to play well on clay. I had a tough draw today. I thought he (Fucsovics) played extremely well. I don’t see any reason for me not to have some good results in the future.

“If I’d taken a different approach in previous years I wouldn’t have played at all. But I tried to play through pain.”

Happily, Pospisil is fully fit at the moment, and he was positive when asked about it. “Yeah, yeah, it’s a miracle,” he laughed, “but I’ve been healthy this year.”

He will play in the doubles event with Ryan Harrison – first match vs. Federico Delbonis of Argentina and Benoit Paire of France on Wednesday – and then move on to the grass court season. His first scheduled event is s’Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands) beginning June 11th.

“We’ll see how the doubles goes,” he said, “but I’ll just start doing some fitness, do some grass-court specific things and get more focused on the grass season coming up. I think the next couple of weeks are time to prioritize getting some work done in the gym.”

Peter Polansky didn’t get on Court 18 for his first-round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert until near 7 p.m. As darkness and impending rain, thunder and lightning moved in, the match was postponed until Wednesday after the No. 87-ranked Frenchman won the first set 6-3 before Polansky took the second 6-4.

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