Croatia was always going to be favoured in its opening round Davis Cup encounter with Canada. The Croats had the best player in no. 3-ranked Marin Cilic while Canada’s top man Milos Raonic was unavailable, the tie was being played in Croatia and the hosts got to choose a red clay surface, the one least suited to the visitors’ tennis.
So when matters ended Sunday with Borna Coric beating Denis Shapovalov 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to give Croatia an insurmountable 3-1 lead, it should not have been too much of a shock for the visitors.
But there was an undeniable empty feeling among Canadians that related directly to Saturday’s agonizing 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 loss in the doubles with the tie even at 1-1. An inspired and rejuvenated Daniel Nestor and a stalwart Vasek Pospisil led Cilic and Ivan Dodig 6-2, 6-3, 4-1 and seemed on the verge of setting the table and the tone for a possible tie-clinching victory in one of the Sunday singles.
But just as the Croats third set rally in the doubles reversed the momentum of that individual match, Saturday’s loss seemed to crush the overall hopes of Canada pulling an upset by winning both singles (over Coric and likely Cilic) on Sunday.
Shapovalov was first up and played a good enough match, but not good enough to overcome an in-form Coric. It was just one service break each set, sufficient to give the 21-year-old Croat the win and his country a berth in April’s quarter-finals.
When a Croatian reporter asked Shapovalov a hypothetical question about whether things would have been different against Coric had Nestor and Pospisil won on Saturday, he said, “I just think the pressure would be a little bit more on him. They would be on the ropes. Whereas today I was a little bit on the ropes. I felt a little bit of pressure. It would definitely be a different look – maybe I would be swinging a little bit more freely, maybe I’d be making a couple of more returns, a couple of more serves. But it’s always ‘maybe’ or ‘what if?’”
As for the match as it unfolded, Shapovalov said about Coric, “he’s definitely more experienced than me on clay. Today he played at a really high level. I was trying to stay close with him and maybe he would have a little bit of pressure and not play so well but he stayed tough throughout the whole match. I’m happy with my performance. I thought I did everything I could out there. I gave it all I had and that’s the most important thing we could do this weekend.”
Croatian captain Zeljko Krajan agreed that the doubles win for his side was important though not critical. “For sure 2-1 or 1-2 is a big difference,” said the 39-year-old who celebrated his birthday on Saturday. “I wouldn’t say it was the deciding factor but it was very important. It made things a bit easier for Borna but in case he would lose he would have Cilic on the court (for the fifth match). It made another extra pressure for Denis I’m sure, and you could see it on the court.”
As for the decision to lay down a clay court in the 4,000-seat Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt, a basketball arena in Osijek, Krajan said, “it was a great tactical move from us. Even if Milos (Raonic) is not playing still all the Canadian players, everybody is better on hard court.”
In Sunday’s match, though Shapovalov had the more fearsome serve it was Coric who outdid him on the stats sheet – making 79 percent of first serves, winning 79 percent of first serve points and 76 percent of second serve points while Shapovalov was below his average with just 59 percent of first serve made, 60 percent won but better on second serve with 69 percent won.
“Today I was feeling very good on the court in every aspect of the game,” the no. 47-ranked Coric said, “the serve, on the return, my backhand and forehand. So it was just one of those days when you feel everything.”
Coric’s all-round efficiency and superiority from the baseline may have been helped by a court that appeared to have been more heavily watered than previous days, affecting the pace of Shapovalov’s aggressive shots. “It was definitely significantly slower – I felt it from the warm-up,” Shapovalov said. “I told Frankie (Dancevic) my foot was digging into the ground more which usually it hasn’t been. That showed they put extra water into it. They really tried to slow things down today.”
Shapovalov was operating last week without his regular coach Martin Laurendeau, the former Davis Cup captain who ended his 14-years tenure last year. “During the week he gave me my space to train and I know he gave (captain) Frank (Dancevic) and (coach) Freddie (Fontang) a couple of things to work on with me,” Shapovalov said about Laurendeau. “But we discussed matches and post-matches – we’ve been in touch constantly.”
Next for Shapovalov (who was surrounded by eager admirers after his Sunday media conference) will be a few days at home in Richmond Hill, Ont., before heading for Florida to train before ATP tournaments in Delray Beach (February 19) followed events in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami.
Dancevic, courtside throughout Sunday’s match with Shapovalov, offered his firsthand analysis of the last two days, saying, “we were a hair away from winning that (doubles) match yesterday and it changed the dynamic going into today. If we would have got through that match, Borna would have had so much pressure on him today to keep the tie alive and he would have played completely differently. In my opinion he had nothing to lose – he knew Marin (Cilic) was behind him. If he ended up losing, Marin (in the fifth match) was there to take the tie as the No. 1 player. He just played super relaxed from the first point to the last point. I thought he played a phenomenal match. Denis was really smart out there, tried lots of different tactics but Borna was on the ball on everything. The court played extremely slow today, it was heavier conditions. It was softer and it made Denis go for a lot more on his shots and created a few errors. But that was Borna’s game – he was trying to keep the rallies long and basically try to grind Denis down from the back.”
Dancevic (above enjoying a lighter moment on court with Shapovalov) and his players now turn their thoughts to September (14-16) when they will play in the World Group play-offs to try to retain a spot among the elite 16 nations for the eighth consecutive year.
It looks at the moment that Canada will be one of the eight seeded teams so it could not be drawn to play some of the more highly-rated countries such as Australia, Switzerland, Great Britain and Serbia. It would certainly be key to have a home tie because Canada has retained its World Group spot through playing at home for the last four World Group play-offs – South Africa (2012), Colombia (2014), Chile (2016) and India (2017).
The composition of the team could also be different. With three Grand Slam events to be decided before mid-September rolls around, there’s plenty of time for Raonic to heal and re-integrate the team or for 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime to progress and potentially play himself onto the team.
It’s a long way off but remaining in the World Group has probably never been more critical. With a blend of Raonic, Vasek Pospisil, Daniel Nestor and young-bloods Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime potentially making Canada one of the genuine powerhouses in the competition, it would be a kick in the gut to be relegated to zonal competition in 2019.
The loss (above Shapovalov post-match with teammates) to Croatia was doubly painful because Tennis Canada officials and objective observers alike saw a clear path to the 2018 Davis Cup final in late November for Canada if it could beat the Croats. It would then have hosted Kazakhstan (top player no. 73 Mikhail Kukushkin) at home in the April quarter-finals and then played either the USA or Belgium in the September semifinals, also at home.
But that’s another ‘what if’ just like the tough loss in Saturday’s doubles, and another explanation for the empty feeling Canadians have after a lost opportunity this past weekend.
There are several coffee aficionados on the Canadian Davis Cup team, including Denis Shapovalov. Last week during the preparation days, a few stopped by this Osijek cafe to have a tasty cup of ‘Joe.’
Feature photo by: Kyle Clapham