||||||Photo: Martin Sidorjak|Photo :Martin Sidorjak||

Vasek Pospisil and Denis Shapovalov have shown an uncanny ability to complement each other in leading Canada to its first Davis Cup final in the 119-year history of the competition.

They tied a bow on a sensational week in Madrid at the revamped Davis Cup Finals on Saturday, edging Russians Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) in the decisive doubles match to earn a 2-1 victory. Earlier, Rublev had defeated Pospisil 6-4, 6-4 before Shapovalov overcame Khachanov 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Both teams used only two players in winning through three rounds to the semi-finals, and in the case of Pospisil and Shapovalov they were there for each other when they needed it most.

After both won their singles in defeating Italy and the USA to advance from the round-robin portion of the event, they alternated coming though in singles to set up the all-meaning doubles encounters in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. On Thursday, Canadian No. 2 Pospisil defeated Australian No. 2 John Millman to cover Canadian No. 1 Shapovalov’s loss to Australian No. 1 Alex de Minaur. Saturday it was the reverse – after Pospisil lost the match of No. 2 singles players to Rublev, Shapovalov baled out his teammate by winning the match-up of No. 1s over Khachanov.

The two left the best for last – just has they had in eliminating the Aussie pair of John Peers and Jordan Thompson in the decisive doubles on Thursday night. But then it was by the rather tame score of 6-4, 6-4 while Saturday’s 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) was such a spine-tingler that Canadian captain Frank Dancevic’s mental and physical state was quaking when his players reached the ultimate point of the match at 6-4 in the third-set tiebreak. “My heart was beating so fast,” he said, “I was actually starting to black out a little bit before the match point. I was trying to control my breathing and just telling myself to ‘breath slowly, stay calm, we’re close to this.’”

Pospisil didn’t help when he missed way long with his first serve on (the second) match point, but he made his second and soon watched as a Rublev backhand went long to end the two hour and six-minute barnburner.

That led to jubilation for the Canadians after the handshakes (above) – and a tremendous sense of relieve as well as, most importantly, a spot in Sunday’s final against Spain at 4:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. ET in Canada on Sportsnet One).

That Pospisil blasted well long with his first serve on that match point inspired some amusing byplay between him and Shapovalov at the post-match media conference.

“It was a big serve,” Shapovalov said with a wry smile.
To which Pospisil jokingly responded, “It was big but far, far from the target.”

But there were two Pospisil serves that were precisely on target and they occurred at what was probably the critical juncture of the tiebreak. The Russians got a mini-break on the first point when Khachanov blasted a forehand winner that almost went right through Pospisil and then Rublev held two serve points to give his side a lead 3-0. Things looked bleak for the Canadians but Pospisil got things back on track with two service winners – the first 210 km/hr and the second 208 km/hr.

The Russians won a point to go ahead 4-2 but Rublev flubbed an awkward shot into the set on the next point and Pospisil and Shapovalov were back in business at 3-4 on serve. Three solid points and it was 6-4 – double match point. On the first Shapovalov missed a service return long but then he and partner Pospisil won the final point on that Rublev miss.

“I felt all the way to the end that it was anyone’s match,” Pospisil said in his on-court interview. “It was 50-50.”

About those two vital serves in the tiebreak, he explained, “when you’re in the breaker, if you’re down love-3, love-5 or if it’s 2-all, you don’t have time to think about what could have been or what the score is. You just have to go point by point. I just remember thinking, ‘okay, it’s our serve and let’s try to get two big points here, and then it’s close again. Luckily I put in two big serves and, yeah, we were right back in it.”

The stat sheet for the match showed that both teams were 2/5 in break point chances. While it was extremely tight, there was still an overall sense that Pospisil’s doubles skills and experience (a 2016 Wimbledon title with American Jack Sock) and Shapovalov’s explosive ball-striking and volleying made them the slightly superior team.

Certainly Khachanov showed an unfortunate ability to ‘brick’ volleys and, while Rublev was more enterprising, he was also no match for Pospisil and Shapovalov when it came to showing dexterity at the net.

“It was a really tense match, that’s normal you’re playing a doubles to get to the final,” said Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s vice-president of elite athlete development. “Vasek is an excellent doubles player and Denis with his strength as a singles player is a good partner for Vasek. But it was anyone’s match that could also have gone the Russians’ way because it was a super-close.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Rublev (above) offered some perspective on the thrilling third-set tiebreak from his side when he said about the end result – in view of he and Khachanov saving three match points and defeating Serbs Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(8) in the third set of the doubles the previous afternoon in the quarter-finals – “it was like a coin toss. So in the end today it was for them. You never know. At least it is better it happened today than yesterday.”

The Russians had the consolation of reaching the semi-finals and therefore earning a spot directly in the next year’s event and not needing to go through the qualifying round March 5-7, 2020.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

In the singles that preceding all the doubles drama, Pospisil started slowly against Rublev, probably showing the fatigue of winning a singles and doubles match on Thursday over the Australians. He lost the first eight points of the match and was never able to catch up in the opening set as Rublev – undefeated in singles for the Russians at the this year’s Davis Cup Finals – was timing the ball well.

In the second set, Pospisil fell behind 3-1 but broke back to 3-all only to lose serve in the following game when Rublev cracked a huge return off a 214 km/hr Pospisil serve to force a forehand error. Three games later Rublev had the victory over a step-slow looking Pospisil. The stats told a story – Pospisil’s winners to unforced errors ratio was 28/32 while Rublev was an even keel 16/16.

The Shapovalov – Khachanov match featured a lot of heavy-duty hitting. Early on it was coming with more consistency from the 6-foot-6 Russian, and Shapovalov looked shaky. But leading 4-2, 15-all, Khachanov missed a drop shot attempt into the net when he seemed better-advised to hammer a backhand drive deep. From then on Shapovalov found his game and wound up running off five games on the trot to take the set 6-4.

Khachanov managed to win the second set which ended on a weak Shapovalov double fault into the net on the Russian’s second break point of the set.

As the third set reached its climax, Shapovalov once more demonstrated his flair for the dramatic – saving three break points from love-40 in the final game to rally and wrap up the one hour and 53-minute match.

As much as Khachanov can club the ball with remarkable weight, it’s Shapovalov’s all-round game that really impressed, especially a one-handed backhand that seems to become more rock solid with each and every outing.

“I’m super-stoked to be in the final,” Shapovalov said looking forward to Sunday. “It’s one of my dreams to play in a Davis Cup Final. And to be able to bring the country to this position, it’s just a dream come true.”

Added Pospisil, “I’ve been on the tour for 12 years now and it’s an incredible moment to be part of this. I’ve brought it up a few times – but I was injured at the beginning of this year, had (back) surgery and wasn’t sure how much, you know… how many moments like this I might have.

“But I got back to a really high level much faster than I expected. I worked really hard for that. To be here now and playing the final of Davis Cup for Canada is incredible. So I’m pretty thrilled.”

Borfiga, the former French Tennis Federation official who is often credited with the recent advances in Canadian tennis, was asked what he was most proud of in the Canadian players. “The spirit – the team spirit on court an off court,” he said.

“If we’re in the final it’s also thanks to the back-up players – Félix (Auger-Aliassime) and Brayden (Schnur). There’s been an incredible spirit all week. I always say you make it to a final with the little details and those kinds of little details are part of what gets you to a final. They’ve had such a positive spirit, and the way they helped each other – whether it’s the off-court training or in the locker room. It’s mainly the team spirit that has really struck me this week.”

Pospisil had two treatments on his right shoulder, and took some anti-inflammatory pills, starting midway through the second set. If he’s not able to go in the singles on Sunday – likely against veteran Feliciano Lopez (with Roberto Bautista Agut unavailable after his father died and Pablo Carreno Busta suffering with a calf injury) – then Auger-Aliassime could be pressed into action.

It would be ironic if that happened, because four years ago Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led Canada to a Junior Davis Cup triumph at this same Caja Magica site.

The challenge this time is that the great Rafael Nadal will likely be a major obstacle – in both singles and doubles – playing on his home turf in Spain.


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Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak