When Denis Shapovalov put his hand on his heart to thank the Montreal crowd following his 4-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 victory over Rogerio Dutra Silva on Tuesday in the first-round of the Rogers Cup, it was easy to understand how he felt.
He needed all the support he could get to survive four match points and rally for a thriller win in two hours and 25 minutes over the No. 64-ranked Brazilian.
“There were a lot of people out there supporting me,” he said later. “First of all, I want to thank them. I don’t think I win this match without them. They’re so good. I’ve never been in an atmosphere so alive and so intense. Big thanks to them.”
The match started well for the 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., as he broke serve to lead 3-1 but the 33-year-old Brazilian broke back immediately, establishing early that it was unlikely there would be anything simple about the encounter.
At 4-4, and with Shapovalov serving, he let a 40-15 lead slip and was broken on two unforced errors before Dutra Silva served out the set with ease against an increasingly error-prone opponent.
But Shapovalov’s game sharpened in the second set even if his serve still wasn’t really clicking and his timing wasn’t quite right on a windy afternoon. He dodged three break points serving at 5-all but saved the best for the ensuing tiebreak when he staved off four match points before finally winning it 10-8.
About his approach on the match points when he was one bad swing or poor decision from elimination, Shapovalov said, “I told myself ‘just play loose, make him earn the point.’ I’m not going to seize up. On one of the match points when I had an opportunity to come in, I came in. I’m not going to change my game style and change the way I play just because it’s match point.”
In the third set, Shapovalov found the rhythm on his serve and generally played more comfortably, breaking Dutra Silva at 3-all and holding serve the rest of the way.
Looking back on the match points, he said, “I don’t remember all of them. Honestly, it’s a little bit of a blur. I remember one of them – he passed me. I hit a pretty tough volley. It was a pretty long point there.
“On one of them, I remember I was pretty far back. I went for a backhand down the line, which was pretty good. I wasn’t holding back. I just told myself, ‘he’s got to win it from me. I’m not going to give it to him.’ I think I did a good job to stay tough out there.”
Asked if he had ever saved four match points and won, Shapovalov replied, “I did actually. I was playing under-12s. It was 5-3 for the other guy, for this French kid. It was 40-Love. There were no ads. I saved four straight match points there and won the match. He was pretty upset, I remember (smiling).”
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Shapovalov, who turned 18 in April, is still eligible to play the juniors. Discussing the evolution of his game, he said, “I’ve improved on a lot actually. Even from juniors – I used to try to slap winners on every ball I would get.
“Tennis, it’s more than just going for the shots. You have to have really good defense. You have to build the points. Actually, I think my clay-court season helped me with that – just building the points, waiting for that short ball, playing longer rallies, just being patient.”
Shapovalov, who will at least slightly improve his current No. 143 ranking no matter what happens in Wednesday’s second-rounder against Juan Martin del Potro, impressed a lot of people with his grit and composure against the gutsy, heavy-hitting Dutra Silva, including Tennis Canada’s vice-president for high performance athlete development, Louis Borfiga. “Mentally he was strong,” Borfiga said about Shapovalov. “It was tough to play on centre court with everything that was at stake. He really fought hard which is a great sign.”
Looking ahead to Wednesday and the match-up with del Potro, who has ranked as high as No. 4 (2010), Borfiga said, “it’ll be tough – it will be a good experience. He’ll be playing at a different level, a superior level.”
During an on-court target-hitting contest after the match (above), the animator told Shapovalov that his name was now pronounced ‘den-ee’ as the French pronounce Denis, with the French spelling having just one ‘n’ – the same way he spells it.
Asked about ‘Den-ee’ in his media conference, Shapovalov said, “I have mixed feelings on that. It’s a little bit weird. Actually I have a funny story. I did create my own pro in NHL 2017. There’s an option to give him the name with two ‘Ns’ or one N. I was like, ‘obviously one N.’
“Then the commentator started calling Denis (not pronouncing the S). I’m like, ‘no, that’s not right (laughter).’
“But I’ve gotten used to it now. Denis, Denis (den-ee), as long as the support is coming my way, it doesn’t really matter.”
It looked good for Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, until it didn’t, in their opening round doubles match at the Rogers Cup on Tuesday against Spaniards Roberto Bautista Agut and David Ferrer.
Nestor and Pospisil led 6-4, 2-0 before the match turned totally around and the Spaniards wound up winning 4-6, 6-4 [10-2]. In the decisive match tiebreak, the wheels came off for Nestor and Pospisil as Bautista Agut and Ferrer got off to a 7-0 lead.
“We weren’t serving great pretty well the whole time,” Nestor summed up afterward. “They hit some big shots on our serves We just didn’t get enough first serves in as the match went on.”
Looking ahead to the next few weeks, he said, “I’ve got a wild card with Steve Johnson in Cincinnati and I’m playing with Dominic Inglot at the US Open.”
For Nestor, who turns 45 on September 4th, it was his 29th Rogers Cup (a.k.a. Canadian Open). He has had an illustrious career but there are signs of diminishing returns. Two weeks ago his doubles ranking fell out of the top-30 for the first time since July 31, 2000. And the only reason it did that back then in 2000 was because he had shoulder surgery and missed the first four months of the year.
He now ranks No. 34 but that number will drop on Monday because this week he was defending 360 points from reaching the semi-finals in Cincinnati a year ago.
Over a remarkable pro career that began in 1989, he has held the No. 1 spot in the ATP doubles rankings for a total of 108 weeks – and that at times in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Asked if he thought he would play the 2018 Rogers Cup in Toronto, Nestor would only say, “I don’t know, hopefully one more.”
There’ll be Canadian players in three of the four matches on Centre Court at the Rogers Cup on Wednesday.
Peter Polansky, from Thornhill, Ont., starts the day at 12:30 against Roger Federer knowing that, the only time he faced the mighty Swiss, he lost 6-2, 6-0 at the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2014.
“I remember it went really, really quick,” a smiling Polansky said. “I wish I was out there longer last time. Nonetheless I remember I actually did play a pretty decent match against him. I looked at some of the highlights after the match, and there were a lot of good points. I just lost every single one of them.”
He added, “I remember I was practicing with him (Federer) in Toronto, and a couple times here (Montreal), when I was younger. I do recall playing a couple practice points with him. I was pretty competitive in the points. But again, it was just practice.
“In 2014 when I played him in a match, I was going into the match with a certain mindset. It ended up being completely wrong with how I thought he was going to play. He was just much more aggressive. His intensity level was three or four notches higher than what it was in practice.”
Polansky, now an experienced player at 29 years old and with a ranking of No. 116, knows what he’s in for facing a living legend, even in his home country. “I’m not going to go into the match thinking everyone is going to cheer for me,” he said with good humour. “Even in Toronto, it was 50/50. Guys wanted me to get into the match because it wasn’t super competitive from the scoreline. But he was hitting great shots. Everyone is on his side. I’m on his side, most of the time, just not what I’m playing against him.”
Following Polansky onto centre court at 2:30 will be Denis Shapovalov against Juan Martin del Potro. It will be a first meeting for the 18-year-old with del Potro, 28. “He’s one of my idols,” Shapovalov said about the No. 28-ranked Argentine. “Growing up I saw him win the (2009) US Open. So it’s going to be an extremely tough match.
“But, like I said, I live for these moments. I live to be in these matches. I think it’s going to be a great battle.”
Wednesday’s evening session begins at 6:30 with Rafael Nadal vs. Borna Coric of Croatia. Then it will be No. 8 seed Milos Raonic facing Adrian Mannarino of France.
The world No. 10 is making his eighth appearance at his home tournament. That dates back to 2009 in Montreal when he qualified and then lost a thriller match to then world No. 10 Fernando Gonzalez – 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 – on Banque Nationale Court after having a match point.
That was an unforgettable time for Raonic as was his performance in 2013 in Montreal when he reached the final, beating Pospisil in the semi-finals before losing to Nadal.
There’s some concern after the 26-year-old suffered an undisclosed injury in practice on Monday and his originally planned opening match on Tuesday evening was re-scheduled to Wednesday evening.
Raonic leads the head-to-head 1-0 with the No. 42-ranked Mannarino – having beaten him 6-1, 7-6(0), 6-1 at the 2016 French Open.
He will have to shore up his forehand, which was below par in his 7-5, 6-4 loss to No. 19-ranked Jack Sock in the Washington quarter-finals last week.
This street performer was belting out his music at the corner of Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent in the entertainment district (Quartier des Spectacles) last weekend. Just for the record, he was doing a rendition of the B.B. King classic – “The thrill is gone.”