Photo : Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour
It may have been only one fleeting week, but his tremendous accomplishment will always remain. On November 15, Félix took his very first step into the ATP Top 10.
It was his year-end push in Stockholm that got him to No.10, a spot he’s had in his sights (and his Canadian fans have had in their hearts) for the past five years.
But it was an evanescent pleasure, owing to a particularly unexpected turn of events.
Who would have thought that a powerhouse like Matteo Berettini would withdraw from the ATP Finals due to an abdominal injury? Who would have thought that the first alternate would be the player who’d been breathing down Auger-Aliassime’s neck? And who would have thought that alternate would win?
I don’t need to explain what happened next. Once all the points ATP were passed out, it was Sinner who secured the ticket to spend the holidays in the Top 10
Now that all is said and done, Félix played a total of 61 matches, including the Tokyo Games. In most event categories, from the ATP 250 tournaments to the Slams, the balance is a positive one.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he struggled the most on clay, which was his favourite surface when he first started out. It was during the clay season that uber famous coach Toni Nadal stepped in to support Félix’s regular coach, Frédéric Fontang.
Was it the pressure of having to deliver with Uncle Toni in his box? The fact remains that the Quebecer fell to his lowest ranking (No.21) on June 13 after his first-round loss at Roland-Garros.
Four months later, he leveled up to close things out on a high note and claw his way up 11 spots in a particularly perilous section of the rankings. Better results in Indian Wells (R1 loss), Vienna and Paris may have sent him to the year-end Nitto ATP Finals in Turin, even as an alternate.
In the April 14 edition of this blog, just a few months before he took his leave of Tennis Canada, the venerable Louis Borfiga insisted on how significant it would be for Félix to break into the Top 10:
“He has to step on the gas this year to get into the Top 10. (…) He’s going to have to create opportunities for greatness and enter the Top 10. (…) In my opinion, he needs to take his results one step further. Get a little meaner and really break down the door. Know what I mean?”
What will Félix Auger-Aliassime and Frédéric Fontang take away from their experience with Toni Nadal, of whom we saw so little?
If this interview in New York ahead of his US Open semi against Daniil Medvedev is any indication, the player and his coach seem to have gotten a lot out of the collaboration.
Only time will tell if they give it another shot in 2022.
See you in 2022, Denis!
Denis Shapovalov—the other half of our Canadian pair—also had his sights set on finishing strong. That’s exactly what he did when he reached the final of the Stockholm Open. As the reigning titleholder (2019), he had every intention of repeating his achievement. Then he ran into Tommy Paul.
In the exciting two-hour nail-biter, the resilient American won in three (6-4, 2-6, 6-4) in front of a full-capacity crowd at the Kungliga Tennishallen.
Shapovalov was especially disappointed, since he had managed to get his opponent on the ropes late in the third. At 4-3, he created two break opportunities for himself and could have served for the match at 5-3 but toppled when Paul stood strong, got to 4-4 and broke him on the next point (at zero) to then settle things on serve (at zero).
So, that’s how the Canadian ended his season. He announced his decision to withdraw from the Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals at a post-final presser in Stockholm. The following day, Félix made the same announcement. Read about it here.
After a year of ups and downs, Shapovalov will spend the holidays at No.14.
Back-to-back semis on the grass at the Queen’s Club and Wimbledon gave him the push he needed to get to No.10 for six weeks. He then dropped to No.18 after a so-so hard court season with first-round losses in Toronto and Cincinnati and inched back thanks to his surge in Stockholm.
In a total of 49 matches in 2021, he’s 30-19.
Let’s stay in Sweden a little while longer. To keep things light in the on-court interview after the final, the commentator hinted at Denis’ blonde hair and special ties to the Scandinavian country, since he’s played two of his four career finals in Stockholm and is currently in a relationship with Swedish tennis player Mirjam Bjorklund. Considering all the connections, would the Canadian perhaps consider letting the Swedes adopt him?
Here are Denis and Mirjam. Stay tuned to Instagram for more. They’ll be enjoying a few weeks’ holiday before the new season gets going.
Félix vs. Denis, chapter 6
Let’s take another look at the semifinal in Stockholm. It was the sixth time Denis and Félix collided, and Canada’s two young guns played a high-level match that was their best yet.
Amidst some heavy hitting, Shapovalov got the job done at 6-4, 7-5 to bring their head-to-head to 3-3.
Auger-Aliassime, who fared better than his countryman overall in 2021, shouldn’t blame himself for the outcome. Denis played out-of-this-world tennis. The match was all Shapo, and he was totally in the zone that’s transported him to some magical moments on the courts this season.
To get a very clear idea of how incredible they both are, take a look at this riveting point in the second set.
Shapovalov unleashed the devastating backhands he’s known for and hit returns that wrecked his opponent, including one at 5-3 in the first set.
This quick shot of the Quebecer from a replay says it all. The congratulatory thumbs up was one of at least two Félix signalled to his friend on the other side of the net.
The problem with the cups
The 2021 Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals will be missing a few big names.
Actually, they’ll be missing half the Top 25, namely Zverev (No.3), Tsitsipas (No.4), Nadal (No.6), Ruud (No.8), Hurkacz (No.9), Auger-Aliassime (No.10), Schwartzman (No.13), Shapovalov (No.14), Thiem (No.15), Federer (No.16), Garin (No.18), Monfils (No.21) and Basilashvili (No.22).
Besides the players whose countries didn’t qualify, Nadal, Thiem and Federer all ended their seasons early due to injury. Two weeks ago, French captain Sébastien Grosjean decided not to select Gaël Monfils, who said he wasn’t in top shape.
Still, the reality is that 14 of the Top 25 won’t be there, and that’s a lot.
The situation was all the more concerning at Billie Jean King Cup.
In Prague, the hometown team had to compete without its top two players, No.3 Karolina Pliskova and No.17 Petra Kvitova. Belarus showed up without No.2 Aryna Sabalenka or No.27 Victoria Azarenka. As for Spain, No.5 Garbine Muguruza and No.13 Paula Badosa stayed home. No.15 Sofia Kenin and No.21 Jessica Pegula didn’t defend the US, and Australia had to make it work without World No.1 Ashleigh Barty.
And need I remind you that Team Canada went without No.22 Bianca Andreescu and No.26 Leylah Fernandez? At Davis Cup, the national squad will battle without three of its best.
What’s going on?
The aim here isn’t to speculate about how serious anyone’s injury really is or how fatigue and weariness eat away at the players. It’s not even about their motivations or reasons.
How can these prestigious competitions (whose shine is admittedly starting to rub off) regain their glory and become must-play events for the best of the best?
The first step in the right direction was their redesign. Four annual get-togethers for Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup were three to many. Now, both events are played only once a year.
In 2021, the battle for the Davis Cup title will be fought over 11 days, from November 25 to December 5 in Innsbruck, Turin and Madrid, which will host the semis and final.
It’s like asking professional athletes to play a nations cup event after the Stanley Cup Finals, World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Finals. Besides the physical toll, the competitors are mentally drained and running low on adrenaline.
And there’s no break between seasons. Besides the exhibition event in mid-December in Abu Dhabi (where Rafa’s expected to return to the game), the ATP Cup team tennis event, which was inaugurated in 2020, gets rolling on January 3 in Doha, Qatar.
The week after, it’s Adelaide or Auckland ahead of the Australian Open from January 17 to 31.
Without questioning the players’ love for their respective homelands, it’s not outlandish to think the flame may flicker out late in the year. For many athletes, a month off to rest and train is essential to start the new season with a bang, especially after a challenging year of COVID-19 restrictions.
So, what’s the solution?
1- All tournaments, including national team tennis events and player-favourite Laver Cup, want to attract big names;
2- The calendars are heavy, and the WTA and ATP have opened the door to different countries who want their piece of the international tennis pie;
3- A lot of players appreciate the perks (and $$$) of exhibition tournaments and events like Billie Jean King Cup, Davis Cup, ATP Cup and Laver Cup, which ultimately add travel time and matches to an already daunting schedule;
The solution is therefore to:
1- Reduce the number of mandatory tournaments for Top 10 and Top 25 players, since they won’t just stop going to the above-mentioned events any time soon;
2- Revise the ranking system so it’s based on a single calendar year and reflects the reality of the players’ performances in a given season (as in most individual and team sports).
3- Most importantly, abolish the ATP Cup in early January. One international team tennis event per year is enough.
Case in point: on January 3, 2020, at the very first edition of the ATP Cup, the Australian asked two somewhat influential players what they thought about the event.
“We need to have one super world cup event, whatever you want to call it,” said Novak Djokovic.
Rafael Nadal added: “It’s confusing to have two world cups of tennis in one month. For me personally that’s not the ideal situation for our sport, but that’s how it works today.”
4- Share your ideas (email or Tweet me!).
At this rate, Davis Cup will disappear in the fog of a gruelling end of season.
Get in touch with me!
Follow all our Canadians in action here.