About day six at the 2021 US Open – it was as easy for Bianca Andreescu as it was hard for Denis Shapovalov.
The sixth-seeded Andreescu cruised to a pro forma 6-1, 6-2 win over lucky loser Greet Minnen while seventh-seeded Shapovalov did nothing but tie himself in knots of frustration in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Lloyd Harris on Saturday night.
There was zero suspense in the Andreescu match after she broke serve to 3-1 in a 23-minute opening set. The second set wasn’t much different as an in-form Andreescu overwhelmed the Belgian – only cooling off just enough toward the end to allow Minnen to win a couple of games in the 67-minute non-contest.
Oh that things could have been so uncomplicated for Shapovalov against Harris! There were moments early when he might have been able to change the script – having break points in Harris’ second and third service games leading 2-1 and 3-2. On the first, the lanky, 6-foot-4 South African hit a 126 mph ace and on the second he belted a service winner.
If Shapovalov had made the early break he might have gotten on a roll – instead it was Harris who broke first in the 4-3 game with a sensational running forehand cross-court pass off an angled Shapovalov volley. It would not be the last time Harris showed remarkable agility, using his spindly build to cover the court remarkably well. He then held serve twice to win the first set.
The Harris forehand was powerful and varied – whether blasted through the court or semi-looped to disrupt Shapovalov’s rhythm.
Both in the second and third sets Shapovalov got an early break only to be broken back two service games later in the second set and immediately in the third.
By the first game of the final set, the 22-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., was so discouraged that he pointed his racquet toward coach Mikhail Youzhny in the courtside seats – suggesting that the 39-year-old former world No. 8 should come out and take his place.
The stoic Harris kept his cool so well during the match that when he celebrated with a broad smile and raising his arms at the moment of victory, commentator Jesse Levine observed “that’s his first real show of emotion.”
There were a hoard of stats that didn’t flatter Shapovalov – such as his winners to unforced errors ratio in the second set – 6/15 to 6/5 for Harris – when he was trying to reset and mount a comeback after a lacklustre first set. He also had nine double faults (and seven aces) in the match, won only 33 per cent of his second-serve points and, in the third set, failed to win a single point – 0-9 – on that second serve.
He was a man of few words in an interview with TSN after the match, saying, “I was struggling a lot with the serve, really I beat myself. The match obviously shows that. I had a lot of chances in the first set and I was up in the second and third. I broke myself.
“In terms of fighting I think I did a great job of bouncing back after the first set, bouncing back after the second set. But when the serve is going on you like that, it’s very difficult to compete against a guy like Lloyd where you know you’re not going to have a lot of break opportunities. I’ve just got to continue to work and get better.”
After Shapovalov’s impressive run to the Wimbledon semi-finals (playing glorious tennis for three sets against eventual champion Novak Djokovic), Saturday night’s loss in Louis Armstrong Stadium was a startling comedown.
He is becoming – to borrow the words of Winston Churchill – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He has boundless shot-making ability and raw power but there’s an emotional equilibrium that he has trouble maintaining during matches, leading to a rash of unforced errors and double faults.
Arguably he and Nick Kyrgios are the two most gifted players to come along since the great Roger Federer. Early in his career, the Swiss maestro learned to harmonize his emotions and his skills, becoming the legend he is today. There appears little time left for the unrepentantly undisciplined Kyrgios, 27, to find the key to consistent success in his profession. But at 22, Shapovalov – Federer won his first Grand Slam title just a month before his 22nd birthday – has the commitment and desire to be able to discover how to harness his talent and fulfill his extraordinary potential.
The less mentioned about Andreescu’s 67-minute romp over Minnen the better, except to comment that it was exactly the way she should have dispatched an over-matched opponent. At 24, and having won just one match at a Grand Slam tournament before this US Open, No. 104-ranked Minnen was out of her depth against a woman whose improving play has made her a legitimate contender to win the title this year – especially with favourites Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka now out of the picture.
Many players would downplay their chances at a Grand Slam like the US Open, sticking to the old “I’m taking it one match at a time.” But Andreescu has not shied away from openly voicing her intentions. “So far I’m loving it,” she said with a big smile about her 2021 tournament after dispensing with Minnen on Saturday in Louis Armstrong Stadium. “I hope that it can continue like this the whole way and I can be 14-0 at the US Open. That’s my goal.”
That would be the seven wins from her 2019 US Open title added to the seven wins – four more to go – she needs for a second championship.
Her next challenge is against No. 18-ranked and 17th seeded Maria Sakkari, and Andreescu has an excellent point of reference for the match-up. On her way to the final of the Miami Open in early April, she defeated Sakkari in a two-hour and 42-minute barn-burner semi-final 7-6(7), 3-6, 7-6(4) that included her saving two set points in the opening set and rallying from a 4-2 deficit in the final set. Sakkari actually won the most points – 113 to 109 – in the match but Andreescu was the more steely competitor in crunch-time.
“I have a lot of experience in these tough three-setters and digging through and finding a way,” she said at the time about a match that ended at 1:35 a.m. “Sometimes I literally feel like I’m an octopus out there running side to side, I feel like I have eight legs. It’s insane. Sometimes I don’t even know how I get to some shots. But it’s that fighting spirit I always have had in me – never giving up.”
Though Andreescu had won only two of her last eight matches before the US Open, she has been reborn in the memory-laden confines of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, recording victories over No. 45-ranked Viktorija Golubic, No. 98 Lauren Davis and Minnen.
Sakkari, who is 5-4 on hard courts since Wimbledon, has won her first three rounds convincingly – 6-4, 6-3 over No. 55-ranked Marta Kostyuk, 6-4, 6-2 against No. 53 Katerina Siniakova and 6-4, 6-3 versus No. 11 Petra Kvitova.
So far in 2021, her big disappointment – she said Saturday that she lost four nights sleep over it – was having a match point at 5-3 in the third set of the French Open semi-finals before losing 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 to eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.
Now at the US Open, the battle lines have been drawn for Monday’s round of 16, with Andreescu saying about the 26-year-old Greek, “she’s very powerful. She serves very well. She moves well. She’s a fighter.
“But I’m also all those things – so it’s going to be good. I’m pumped.”
Sakkari, currently ranked at her career-high of No. 18, offered her thoughts on Andreescu noting, “she’s one of the toughest players on the tour. She was unlucky to get some injuries, but I’m sure that made her stronger. It’s going to be very tough for both of us. I’m pretty sure about that. She can do everything on the court – hit hard, play high balls, slice and drop-shot.
“She’s experienced because she has won big tournaments.”
Sakkari has personal, familial experience of her own at the US Open – her mother Angeliki Kanellopoulou, who is with her in New York, reached the second round of the tournament in 1989.
As for Andreescu, she has mom Maria, dad Nicu and, of course, her toy poodle Coco.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Here’s a look at Louis Armstrong Stadium where Leylah Fernandez and Angelique Kerber play their round-of-16 match on Sunday afternoon. The retractable-roof arena was opened in 2018 and seats 14,069. Its only shortcoming is that because of how it fits into the layout of the site, there was no room for more seats on the ends – always the best location for viewing a tennis match.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa