Denis Shapovalov has been through many amazing experiences over the past two months. He added another Friday night with a 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 4-6, 6-1 win over India’s Yuki Bhambri in the second match on the opening day of the Davis Cup World Group Play-off in Edmonton.
The 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., has shown his pedigree by beating world No. 2 Rafael Nadal at Rogers Cup last month and then reaching the round-of-16 (as a qualifier) at the US Open two weeks ago.
But on Friday night at Northlands Coliseum, he overcame the disappointment of not converting a match point at 6-5 in the third set tiebreak against a more modest opponent and eventually defeated Bhambri to win his first ever ‘live’ Davis Cup match as well as earn his first career victory in five sets.
There should be many more but Shapovalov will likely remember Friday’s win because he stayed the course and found a way to prevail in a match that he controlled for the first two and a half hours – until Bhambri saved that match point with a strong serve when he trailed 5-6 in the third set tiebreak on his way to winning it 8-6.
Things got more complicated after Bhambri forced a fourth set and then a fifth, especially because Shapovalov was playing with added pressure in the best-of-five match tie because compatriot Brayden Schnur had been beaten 5-7, 7-6(4), 7-5, 7-5 in the opening singles by Ramkumar Ramanathan.
Shapovalov lost his edge in the fourth set and Bhambri, with a break of serve in the third game, began to control the rallies aided by increasingly erratic play by his younger opponent.
In the fifth and deciding set, Shapovalov regrouped following an almost ten-minute break after the fourth when Bhambri, as he later revealed, was treated for a hip muscle issue.
When Shapovalov got some help – three unforced errors – by his opponent in the fourth game to break serve, he re-established control with an efficient hold to take a 4-1 lead and never looked back.
Shapovalov was able to rein things in after that break at the end of the fourth set. A talk with Canadian captain, and his own coach, Martin Laurendeau helped. Shapovalov explained the plan entering the fifth set, “Marty told me to play with a little bit more spin, make some more returns and just take my foot off the gas pedal a little bit, which I did. I worked out great. I was making a lot of returns in the fifth and moving the ball better.”
The No. 157-ranked Bhambri is a fine player who has been as high as No. 88 in 2015 before suffering with an elbow ailment, but he is not of the calibre of the players including Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who Shapovalov has beaten in the past six weeks. That at 18, under the pressure of representing his country, he was able to find a way to outduel a solid but not sensational opponent is yet another step in the maturation of the most promising young player in tennis today.
Late Friday, Shapovalov spoke about similarities between the three hours and 52-minute win over Bhambri and his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(4) victory in two hours and 46-minutes over then No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal in the round-of-16 at Coupe Rogers in Montreal last month. “Playing Nadal is so physical and it was kind of the same here,” he said. “We had four tough sets and it was good tennis. It was really physical. I think the closest comparison would be Rafa – that match is kind of similar. But this match was a lot longer.”
Laurendeau praised his player, noting, “what Denis has done this year – he’s been steady with his performances. He really took it to a new level this summer and he was able to sustain it. That’s what has been impressing a lot of coaches and players on tour – from those wins in the Challengers and then beating famous players and not letting up the next day, the next match. (He’s) just keeping the level up match after match.”
Regarding playing and winning his first ever five-set match, Shapovalov joked and told Sportsnet, “I learned that I don’t want to go to the limit ever. It’s pretty tough, I’m a little bit tired right now but I have a support team that’s going to take care of me and get me ready for Sunday.”
Sunday is now in play after the split in Friday’s two matches, with Shapovalov then either playing against Ramanathan to seal the best-of-five match tie – if Canada wins Saturday’s doubles – or to keep it alive if it doesn’t.
That potential fifth match would feature either Vasek Pospisil or Schnur, who could easily have had a more favourable result in his match against Ramanathan.
After winning the first set with a break of serve at 5-all, Schnur had two break points in the first game of the second but failed to convert them. He had three more break points with Ramanathan serving at 4-5 and then led the eventual tiebreak 2-0 before making a weak forehand unforced error to give back the mini-break and allow his opponent the chance to rally.
The best chance that got away was probably when Schnur had set points in the third set leading 5-4. On two of them he had Ramanathan at the net and was well-positioned in the forecourt to hit rally-ending and set-winning forehand passing shots. He ended up belting both sizeably long.
When asked if he should simply have drilled the ball right at Ramanathan, Schnur replied, “I think that’s what I tried to do on the first one – and it went way long. The second one I just over-hit a little bit. It’s tough, the ball is moving through the court really fast and he’s volleying pretty well, putting pressure on me.”
The match was well-played and essentially came down to Schnur’s inability to capitalize on his break point chances. The statistics were uncannily similar for both players with Schnur making 65% of first serves to 64% for Ramanathan, winning 70% of first serve points to 73% for Ramanathan and 56% of second serve points to 55% for Ramanathan.
The glaring difference was in break points opportunities with Schnur only going 3/18 in conversions to 4/9 for Ramanathan.
“After talking with my coaches here, I came off court and I was kind of like ‘I should have (won) that with so many break points,’” Schnur said. “But they said he (Ramanathan) made a lot of good first serves and second serves he went big on. Usually guys playing so aggressively don’t get away with it in three-out-fives. He played well on his break points. I tried to play my game and implement it throughout the whole match and I came up a little bit short.”
It was the first best-of-five match of Schnur’s career and afterward he said, “there were moments when I wish I’d given a bit more energy to get the crowd behind me to get one of those breaks. It’s something I’ll learn from – when to give energy and when to not to – because these are long matches in three-out-of-five.”
Schnur, ranked No. 202 to No. 154 for Ramanathan, didn’t look out of place playing his first Davis Cup match. But his 22-year-old Indian opponent had that little extra bit of experience and that Schnur lacks after only being out on tour as a pro since last summer. Early on Ramanathan looked eminently vulnerable to Schnur’s aggressive hitting but once he survived those perilous break/set-point situations in the second and third sets, he gained confidence and swung more freely.
With the weekend tie’s score deadlocked at 1-1, Indian team captain Mahesh Bhupathi summed up his side’s reaction, saying, “the initial goal was to start out with a point on day one, which we got done. I think we got a little unlucky in the last match – 2-0 would have been perfect. Like I said when we came in, I think the pressure is on them – obviously these guys (Daniel Nestor and Pospisil) are supposed to deliver the doubles point for them tomorrow (Saturday). If we fight like we did today for eight hours, I think we can make things happen.”
Canadian captain Laurendeau underlined the fact that it will be Pospisil and Nestor against the Indian pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja.
“Vasek didn’t play today so that he could play tomorrow (Saturday),” Laurendeau said, “so he’s ready to play. That’s the plan.”
The Indians have the advantage in terms of ATP doubles rankings with Bopanna at No. 19 and Raja at No. 56. For Canada, Nestor is No. 43 while Pospisil, not playing much doubles this year, has dropped to No. 111.
As for experience, Nestor has played 53 (32-11) Davis Cup doubles matches and Pospisil 12 (7-5) while Bopanna is 14 (8-6) and Raja, who is 31, has only played one – with compatriot Leander Paes against an unheralded Korean Republic team in 2013. He is a bit of a late bloomer and could be the vulnerable facing a more experienced and decorated (nine Grand Slam titles between them) team like Nestor and Pospisil.
The doubles begins at 1 p.m. in Edmonton (3 p.m. ET) on Saturday.
It should give whoever wins a significant advantage heading into Sunday’s reverse singles.
The side of this building on 105th Street just off Jasper Avenue with the debonair Pierre on it looks innocent enough – until you go around to the front and discover that “Chez Pierre Cabaret is Edmonton’s longest operating strip club with over 40 years of colourful history.”
This sign at the entrance gives a more accurate indication of what’s going on inside.
FEATURE PICTURE: Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada