Photo: Mauricio Paiz|NEW YORK
Bianca Andreescu and Denis Shapovalov played inspired tennis on the middle Saturday of the 2019 US Open, but only one survived to move on in the tournament.
That was Andreescu who defeated Caroline Wozniacki in business-like fashion 6-4, 6-4 while Shapovalov put on a display of sensational shot-making over five sets only to come out on the losing end of a 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 battle against tennis’ ultimate athlete and showman Gael Monfils.
There were just a few hiccups for Andreescu in the one hour and 33-minute match – she lost her serve in the second game when she had a chance to build a 2-0 early lead and also let Wozniacki back in the second set at 3-3 when she failed to convert on three break points at love-40 leading 3-1.
But her game was just too big and too varied for the 29-year-old Dane. Andreescu hit 27 winners overall to 13 for Wozniacki and showed strong closing skills by winning 15 of 18 points at the net.
Her match was played in the early afternoon on Arthur Ashe Stadium while Shapovalov – Monfils was a three-hour and 34-minute extravaganza in the evening on Louis Armstrong Stadium finishing at 10:57 p.m.
For the first two sets, Shapovalov was mesmerizing – striking the ball at warp speed and consistently making Monfils look like he was in second place in this two-man on-court race.
The Canadian was rewarded on the scoreboard, taking the first set in a tiebreak and then manoeuvring in the second as to break serve at 4-all and served for a two-set lead. The ensuing game featured two match-altering shots from the long-limbed, elastic Frenchman. At 30-30, he hit a semi-miraculous running forehand down-the-line winner that had everyone in the 14,067-capacity stadium gasping incredulously before erupting into boisterous applause. He followed that with a forehand cross-court winner on the next point to break back and shouted out in celebration. That burst of sound, signalling that he was not about to go away easily, seemed to rattle Shapovalov. Monfils never trailed in the eventual tiebreak – taking it 7-4.
From then on, the 32-year-old Frenchman had Shapovalov doubting and he won the third set with a single break in the third game, putting an exclamation point on the set by serving out on four points at 5-3 – three of them aces.
The fourth set had all the signs of being a formality when Monfils led by two breaks at 4-1 but Shapovalov caught fire again – looking like the guy who was so spectacular in the first two sets. He broke serve in the sixth and tenth games and then held in the eleventh game – winning the first three points with ace-ace-ace.
In the deciding tiebreak, with the crowd getting more and more delirious, Shapovalov saved a match point trailing 6-5 with a fearless forehand down-the-line winner. Two points later, a Monfils double fault off the top of the net sent the thrilling contest to a fifth set.
It must have been deflating for Monfils who seemed in total control just 15 minutes earlier, but he held serve with difficulty twice at the start of the final set before getting what would prove to be the decisive break in the fourth game – one that Shapovalov began with a double fault and lost on four points in a row with three more errors.
His fate was sealed as Monfils held at 4-1 and then twice more to close out a hugely-entertaining clash.
It was a high compliment to Shapovalov, who was hitting with exceptionally controlled power for much of the match, that he was the equal of the fabulous Frenchman in terms of crowd support – spectators would cheer for a great Monfils shot one moment and then just as enthusiastically erupt for a Shapovalov master stroke. In the end, Shapovalov had 75 winners (and 64 unforced errors) to Monfils’ more modest 48 winners (and 34 unforced errors).
The Frenchman, tennis’ equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotter, ended several points with leaping smashes or volleys followed by rapturous celebrations. Shapovalov would later say he had no problems with what some people might call hot-dogging. “I think it’s fun,” he said of the Monfils moves. “He came up with a lot of flashy dunks and stuff like that which is so cool.”
Laughing, he continued, “I wish I could do that. I tried one ball and I shanked it into the stands. He isn’t doing those things to mock the other guy. It’s just, he’s athletic enough to do that stuff. Everyone kind of gets into it – it’s great for the fans. I think it’s just important to not let it affect you – not let it lead into the next point. I think I did a good job of just kind of re-focussing. (But) as a tennis fan, I think it’s pretty cool and awesome to see.”
As for the match, he admitted that there was a drop off for him after the pivotal second set. “I was a little bit confused after the second set – whether I should keep hitting or rally the ball more,” he said.
Shapovalov’s third-set lull extended until he trailed 4-1 in the fourth. But it was followed by a remarkable revival and more great shot-making to eventually take set four.
Unfortunately for him, it didn’t carry over into the deciding set. “In the fifth set,” Shapovalov said, “I just think he (Monfils) played too good. I really don’t think I did too much wrong.”
Assessing his whole tournament, he said, “I think I played really well – physically I’d like to be a little more fresh. I think my legs died down after the second set.
“Overall, as tennis goes, I’m playing at a really good level and I’m excited for the rest of the year. I feel like I’ve kind of found that fire back in me, that fight in me and I’m excited to kind of keep going.”
Initially, Shapovalov compared the match and the result to a year ago when he lost to Kevin Anderson also in the third round, in the same Louis Armstrong Stadium and by a similar 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 five set scoreline. But Anderson has none of the charisma and flare of Monfils and combining that with Shapovalov’s raw explosiveness made for outrageous, compelling theatre for the fans. And Shapovalov showed tremendous grit under pressure – including fearless strikes to save the first two match points.
But he’s not finished at the 2019 US Open, on Sunday afternoon he and partner Rohan Bopanna of India will play the 15th seeded Britons Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in a third round doubles match scheduled on Court 7 not before 2 p.m.
While Shapovalov played glorious tennis in an evening match in an arena full of pumped-up fans, Andreescu was equally in form but playing in front of a roughly half-full 23,771-seat Ashe Stadium right after a noon start.
In her post-match media appearance, she showed once more that as well as being a world-class tennis player (now up to no. 8 in the WTA ‘live’ rankings), she’s a fun-loving, free-spirited young woman.
That was already obvious in her gesture of going over to console Serena Williams after the all-time great American had to retire four games into the final of the Rogers Cup last month in Toronto.
Andreescu used her compassion – as well as a little salty language – to help raise the spirits of the downcast Williams on that occasion.
Saturday, after her victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the US Open, she was asked at her media conference if she felt like she had not lost a completed match since early March. In fact – except for having to retire (shoulder) early in the second set of her Miami Open fourth round against Anett Kontaveit– she has now won 20 matches in a row. She is effectively undefeated in 182 days, or 26 weeks, since losing 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to Sofia Kenin in the semi-finals of the WTA event in Acapulco on March 2.
“I mean, yeah,” she responded, smiling, about the undefeated streak, “facts are facts, right? Yeah, I don’t feel like I have lost a match, no.”
Earlier on Saturday, Andreescu and American 15-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff crossed paths as they prepared for their respective Arthur Ashe Stadium matches later in the day. It was a pleasant, warm greeting and Andreescu was asked if she knew Gauff. “No, that was actually the first time we met face to face,” she said. “I told her congrats on all the success. ‘Keep killing it.’”
With a broad smile, she added, “NextGen is here.”
Andreescu had many reasons to be smiling after the one hour and 33-minute victory over the no. 19-ranked Wozniacki, a US Open finalist in 2009 and 2014.
Chris Evert, commenting the match for ESPN, made an insightful remark about Andreescu’s game. “She has all the variety,” said the 64-year-old, 18-time Grand Slam champion, “but the power game is still her winning ticket.”
Andreescu isn’t as singular a player as her next opponent – the serve-and-volleying, net-rushing Taylor Townsend – but her well-rounded game has developed a serious tennis-wide following, including among her fellow-players.
When Wozniacki was asked about what was unique in the 19-year-old Canadian’s tennis, she replied, “I think the one that I can most compare her game to would probably be Kim (Clijsters) back in the day. I think because she moves well and she can stretch out and get to some balls and also play aggressive and use the angles. Obviously she prefers the forehand just like Kim.
“But she can move around the backhand and put the angle on it, so I think if I were to kind of compare her to someone I know, everyone has their own style, but for me, playing her, it a kind of brings me back to when I played Kim.”
Clijsters won four Grand Slam titles, including most recently the 2010 US Open and 2011 Australian Open, back-to-back. She was one of the best athletes ever to play top-tier tennis, so Andreescu should be flattered by the comparison.
“I actually looked up to her a lot while I was just coming up,” Andreescu said about the 36-year-old Belgian. “So that’s really nice to hear from other players because I think my game is pretty similar to hers…not as good yet.”
Saturday’s victory was Andreescu’s 10th win in 13 matches against Top 20 opponents in 2019 and it happened during her debut playing in a main stadium at a Grand Slam tournament. “I was, like, ‘oh, my God, is this actually happening right now? It’s a dream come true,’” she said about playing on Arthur Ashe. “So I prepared myself really well and handled my emotions well today.”
Her next opponent will be the unconventional Townsend. At the moment, there’s no other woman who can really compare with the 23-year-old American’s all-out net attack. She won 64 of 106 points at the net in her second round 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) upset of world no. 4 Simona Halep on Thursday.
Since March, during her winning streak, Andreescu has not played any player with a game-style like that of left-handed Townsend. And the only left-handed player she has faced has been Angelique Kerber, whom she beat in the Indian Wells final and the third round at the Miami Open.
Asked after her 7-5, 6-2 victory on Saturday over no. 106-ranked Sorana Cirstea – winning 47 of 75 net points – if she planned to stop going to the net, Townsend responded with an emphatic “never.” She added about the tactic that has given her a career-best (round-of-16) Grand Slam result, “it definitely showed against Halep that it works. I played my first round and I definitely didn’t come in (to the net) as much. But I was doing it and I was trying to be a little more cognizant of it. Once I saw that it worked and the effect that I had, I tried to implement it as much as I could.
“I got passed. She hit good shots. It’s just something when you play this game-style it’s just a part of it. You just have to keep plugging way. I think that’s the hardest part.”
Andreescu, who’s playing Townsend for the first time, said, “I’m going to go into it like I do every other match – prepare like I always prepare. I played doubles against her actually yesterday (on Friday with partner Sharon Fichman, losing 6-2, 6-3 to Townsend and 17-year-old Whitney Osuigwe). I kind of know what to expect. I know she loves coming to the net. She has incredible volleys.
“I’ll for sure work on some passing shots tomorrow (Sunday) during my practice.”
Asked if she had ever played an all-out attacking player such as Townsend before, Andreescu answered, “Nope, never – excited for the challenge though.”
The match will certainly merit a major show-court, especially with everyone aware of Andreescu’s accomplishments – one bookmaker has her as the third favourite for the title behind only Serena Williams and defending champion Naomi Osaka – and Townsend’s newly-found popularity, which includes getting tweets supporting her from people as varied as Ellen DeGeneres, Samuel L. Jackson and Kobe Bryant.”
“It was so fun,” Andreescu summed up about her first experience playing on the 24,771 capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium. “The atmosphere isn’t like playing in the evening, obviously, but I still felt the energy. This is why US Open is so special. So hopefully I can play many more matches on the court.”
Shapovalov is also a fan of the manic US Open tennis environment. “I think it’s the most fun atmosphere to play in in the world,” he said. “We (Monfils and he) both had moments where the crowd was just standing up and going nuts. It’s so much fun to come here to New York. Every year I know the fans are going to be wild – they’re going to love the tennis and be crazy about the (Monfils) dunks and stuff like that. It’s a really fun atmosphere to play in.”
DABROWSKI INTO R3 IN DOUBLES
Gabriela Dabrowski and partner Xu Yifan advanced to the third round in doubles on Saturday with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory over the American pairing of Kristie Ahn and Christina McHale.
In the next round on Sunday, the 27-year-old Ottawa native and her 31-year-old partner from China, ranked 11 and 13 respectively in the WTA doubles rankings and seeded no. 3, will face the German pairing of Anna-Lena Friedsam and Laura Siegemund mid-afternoon on Court 5.
So far in 2019, Dabrowski and Xu had their best Grand Slam showing at Wimbledon where they reached the final – losing 6-2, 6-4 to the Su-Wei Hsieh of Taipei and Czech Barbora Strycova.
NEW YORK POST CARD
Thinking of flying your drone anywhere near the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – think twice.
Ironically, here’s an interesting tweet about a drone during Wimbledon in July.
WIMBLEDON: A new feature of the middle Sunday at Wimbledon – a drone (camera) flying over the practice courts sounding like a flock of mosquitoes or a bunch of bees. pic.twitter.com/HKkNfp4rA0
— Tom Tebbutt (@tomtebbutt) July 7, 2019
Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz
NOTE: We’re back on Monday – Labour Day – for Bianca’s round-of-16 match.