Gabriela Dabrowski (facing) high-fives Luisa Stefani.

Photo : Martin Sidorjak

by Max Gao

After another eventful start to the tennis season in Australia, the Middle East and the United States, the players of the WTA and ATP Tours returned to Madrid in late April for the first major combined event of the 2023 clay-court season. And while all of the Canadians fell by the second round of singles action, there were some noticeable bright spots in the doubles draws, with two lefties continuing to find their groove on the women’s side and two of Canada’s finest male players teaming up once again in a blast from the past.

On the men’s side, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov — the duo affectionately known as “Shauger” — made a memorable run to the quarter-finals at the Cája Mágica.

“We started mostly playing together in juniors. We were 15, 16, and I think our identity as players has stayed the same — aggressive players, good serves, explosive tennis. But we’ve just improved as players,” Auger-Aliassime said with a laugh. “We didn’t know what we were doing as much back in juniors, and now we’re much more structured and more consistent.”

Photo : Martin Sidorjak

With the way some Masters 1000 events are structured right now across nearly two weeks, the Canadians said they decided to play doubles together as a way to find their footing on clay. After teaming up for the first time in 14 months and reaching the last eight at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, whose doubles success can be traced back to their win in the boys’ doubles tournament at the 2015 U.S. Open, knocked out two-time Grand Slam champions Juan Sebastián Cabal and Robert Farah in two tiebreak sets in the opening round.

A day after both losing their respective singles matches in third-set tiebreaks, the Canadians regrouped and upset No. 6 seeds Harri Heliovaara and Lloyd Glasspool, 6-4, 6-2, without facing a single break point.

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Having already lost in singles, “we’re just playing doubles to get some matches in and have fun,” Shapovalov said after the victory last Sunday. “So that’s what we were doing out there — having a little bit of fun and swinging away.”

A couple of days later, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime found themselves up a set on No. 4 seeds Marcelo Arévalo and Jean-Julien Rojer. But when the Canadians’ level started to drop, the more experienced doubles team took full advantage, breaking twice and staying rock-solid on serve to force a third set. In the match tiebreak, both teams had match points, but some costly double faults and unforced errors from Shapovalov made all the difference. In the end, Arévalo and Rojer were able to eke out a 4-6, 6-2, [12-10] victory to reach the last four.

Photo : Martin Sidorjak

In 2021, Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski and Brazil’s Luisa Stefani went on a tear during the lead-up to the U.S. Open, winning the National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Montreal and reaching the finals of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San José and the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. A year after Stefani suffered a devastating knee injury during their run to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, the Brazilian and the Canadian teamed up to win the title in Chennai last September and committed to playing more together in 2023.

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Dabrowski and Stefani reunited in March at the BNP Paribas Open, but coming into this event were still looking to find their form after losing half of the six matches they played this season.

The Canadian-Brazilian pairing came from a set down to knock out Sofia Kenin and Magda Linette in the first round and staved off a stern challenge from the Andreeva sisters, Erika and Mirra, in the second. (Mirra, the 16-year-old Australian Open girls’ singles finalist, made headlines this week for defeating Leylah Annie Fernandez, Beatriz Haddad Maia and Linette before falling to World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in singles.)

In the quarter-finals, Dabrowski and Stefani showed glimpses of the form they displayed on the hardcourts a couple of years ago, splitting sets with No. 1 seeds Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula with a combination of clever lobs, rock-solid volleys and great serving under pressure. But in the end, the Americans were able to cut down on their unforced errors and take time away from their opponents in the crucial moments to advance with a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, [10-5] victory.

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Since teaming up for the first time at the BNP Paribas Open, Laval’s Leylah Annie Fernandez and American Taylor Townsend have gone 9-3 in match play, knocking out some of the best doubles teams in the world (and giving the others a run for their money).

After reaching the final of the Miami Open, Fernandez and Townsend have looked emphatic in the Spanish capital, knocking out No. 2 seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Jelena Ostapenko, Oksana Kalashnikova and Yana Sizikova, and former champions Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova — all without dropping a set.

“We both have an all-court game style, and I love how Taylor takes initiative at the net, which I’m learning little by little, and then other than that, it’s the communication,” Fernandez said of the keys to her success with Townsend after their 6-0, 7-6(3) win over Hsieh and Strycova. “We’ve been communicating a lot the last couple of matches … and we’ve been able to see each other move and gel together.”

“It’s really nice to have a consistent partner that you [can] play [with],” Townsend added. “And every tournament that we’ve played, we’ve gotten better and doing things better, and I think we’re gelling really well and having a great time on court.”

With their crafty, lefty serves and forehands, Fernandez and Townsend — who will be looking to play together more as the season progresses — will look to pick up right where they left off when they face the team of Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia, two highly accomplished singles players who are playing together for the first time this week in Madrid, in the semifinals.