Photo: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
It’s been a few days since that incredible triumph at the ATP Cup—and Canada’s very first international team title—but I can’t help but revisit the historic win.
All the match details are available on this website, so let’s spend some time on the two players who’ve thrilled us from the time they were teenagers and will undoubtedly keep us glued to our screens for years to come.
They are indeed a tremendous twosome.
Looking back on the matches in Sydney, it’s clear that Canada owes its incredible run to a few key factors: both players took initiative, picked up the slack when the other came up short and rose to the occasion with equally excellent performances.
Tie no.1: Canada downed 3–0 by the US. Still recovering from COVID-19, Denis Shapovalov is replaced by Brayden Schnur in singles. Félix Auger-Aliassime plays a great match against Taylor Fritz, but the Canadian pair is overpowered by Fritz and Isner. Advantage Félix.
Tie no.2: Canada secures a hard-earned 2–1 win over Great Britain. Shapovalov battles in his match against Dan Evans but can’t make it happen. Félix saves the day with a solid win over No.12 Cameron Norrie. Shapo and FAA team up to torpedo Jamie Murray and John Salisbury. Advantage Félix, but Denis is on the up-and-up.
Tie no.3: Canada defeats Germany 2–1. Denis posts a great win over one of his nemeses, Jan-Lennard Struff, and sets up his friend Félix for a victory over No.3 Alexander Zverev (his first Top 5 win). Major contributions by both Canadians.
Tie no.4: Canada outmaneuvers Russia 2–1. Denis stands strong in his thriller against phenom Roman Safiullin. After getting off to an excellent start, Félix is worn down by Daniil Medvedev’s metronomic methods. Up against Safiullin and Medvedev in the doubles matches to decide the tie’s outcome, Shapovalov takes the lead when Félix wavers and brings his buddy back into the match to capture a spectacular victory. Advantage Denis.
Tie no.5: Canada sweeps Spain 2–0. Denis plays a huge two-setter against eternal rival Pablo Carreno Busta. For the second time in just a few months, Félix dismantles the remarkably consistent Roberto Bautista Agut. Major contributions by both Canadians.
After losing the first four matches, Denis and Félix won six of the last eight. As Auger-Aliassime, the highest-ranking player of the two, went head-to-head against all the top players, Shapovalov focused on getting his bearings and delivering a 1–0 lead in each of the last three rounds. When Félix had a bad day, Denis raised his game—and an entire nation—to the final.
Together, they set the world on fire.
I couldn’t have said it better than the headline on the ATP Cup website: From survival mode to world champions.
Interviewed in Montréal newspaper La Presse, Guillaume Marx, who leads the high-performance men’s tennis program at Tennis Canada, placed a lot of emphasis on the ties that bind the two players, saying how much they wanted to play together.
Tennis Canada VP Eugène Lapierre echoed his comments, noting that their synergy is what helped secure the win.
[translation] “Yes, they have fun and they’re friends but, at the end of the day, it’s not a team sport,” said Lapierre. “When they go head-to-head, they don’t give an inch. At a team event, when Félix loses a match and sees his teammate win, that can create some tension. There’s pressure coming from everywhere, but they ignore it and support each other.”
With every shared achievement, their chemistry, bond and friendship give them wings. It’s been that way for over a decade and far from over.
Expect a producer to make a documentary on the dynamic double act. They truly deserve one. And sooner rather than later.
What great tennis and what a great story.
Russia’s rising star?
At the start of last season, Aslan Karatsev, then a virtual unknown, surged from the recesses of the rankings. A year later, a new face is helping to add substantial depth to Team Russia.
His name is Roman Safiullin, and you’d probably never heard of him until very recently. He got a spot on the Russian squad dispatched to the ATP Cup because Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Karatsev declined the invitation. Still, the modest No.167 had a string of surprising wins and left with a record of 2–2 in singles and 3–1 in doubles.
When Russia and Canada came to blows in the semis, he gave a masterful Shapovalov a bit of a scare and came this close to winning the tiebreak in the doubles showdown.
Safiullin, who spends most of his time at Challenger tournaments, ended 2021 with an 18–39 record.
He’s won $400,000 in prizemoney in the past six years and an extra $100,000 for his work at the ATP Cup. He even had to borrow a pair of shorts from his superstar teammate Daniil Medvedev during the tournament!
Needless to say, his week in Sydney was the stuff of dreams.
When I finally got the chance to see him in action against Shapovalov in the semis, I understood why so many players couldn’t get past him.
If Safiullin is able to build on his new-found confidence, he’s sure to keep climbing in the rankings.
For inspiration, he can look to his countryman, the above-mentioned Aslan Karatsev, who started out last season at No.114 on February 7 and fought his way into the semis of the AO. He then got his hands on the title at the ATP 500 tournament in Dubai that propelled him 87 spots in the rankings to No.27 in just six weeks. Last November, he rose as high as No.15.
As for Safiullin, he’ll move up 21, from No.167 to No.146.
For the second year in a row, a second Russian Cinderella got indeed an invitation to ATP’s great ball.
Follow all our Canadians in action here.