It was clear from early in Friday’s third round at the Australian Open that Denis Shapovalov had his eye in on the vaunted Reilly Opelka serve.
At close to seven feet tall, the rangy American can render an opponent shell-shocked and defenceless with his main and mighty weapon. But except for patches in the second and third sets, Shapovalov consistently got the serve back – first and second – preventing Opelka from using it to impose himself on the match.
The end result was a tidy 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in Margaret Court Arena and a place in Sunday’s round-of-16, a first for the 22-year-old Canadian at Melbourne Park.
Whichever player could tip the scales his way in the delicate balance between serve and return of serve was going to have the key to the outcome – and Shapovalov pretty well ticked the boxes on both counts. He won 48 return points to 28 for Opelka, put 88 returns in play to 65 for Opelka and neutralized the other side of the stats ledger by winning 90 serve points to 91 for Opelka.
Matches between big servers usually come down to the proverbial “just a few points” and that applied with Shapovalov against Opelka. After the evenly-matched first two sets, Shapovalov was 1/1 in break points converted in the third and fourth sets while facing no break points himself.
In the third set the break came to 4-2 when Opelka double-faulted at 30-all and then lost the game on a forehand winner by Shapovalov. The fourth-set break was in the fifth game – one that Opelka started with a double fault (only his third of the match) and ended when he dumped a forehand volley in the net.
Put simply, Opelka never got into a confident rhythm of dominating games on his serve. While he would have preferred to have better numbers on serve – 61 per cent first serves made, 72 per cent of first-serve points won (to 83 per cent for Shapovalov) and 51 per cent of second-serve points – the quality of returning from the opposite end of the court was a major factor.
“You’re a little bit like a goalkeeper trying to stop a penalty, you’re kind of guessing on the court,” was the way Shapovalov described facing the Opelka serve. “Early on I kind of found a rhythm on his serve. I was able to chip quite a lot back so I was happy with that. He’s going to hit a lot of serves that are just untouchable (18 aces to his own 10), but the ones that are near you try to put a racquet on it and hopefully it lands somewhere near the court. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was going far back on the second (serve), just trying to get a little bit of time to return that one.”
Shapovalov has now been on court for three hours and 23 minutes against Laslo Djere in the first round, four hours and 25 minutes versus Soonwoo Kwon in round two and three hours and two minutes with Opelka on Friday. “I’ve gotten very familiar with the ice baths,” he joked about his energy levels in the on-court interview after his win over Opelka. “We’ve become very good friends. Actually I was feeling really good after the five-set match against Kwon the next day. So I was really happy – a big shout-out to Eddie (his physio Yotsaphol ‘Eddie’ Prommon) for keeping me fresh.”
Awaiting Shapovalov in the round of 16 will be third-seeded Alexander Zverev. The 24-year-old German leads their head-to-head 4-2, with the Canadian’s two wins coming at the 2020 ATP Cup in Sydney and the ATP 1000 in Paris in 2019. This will be their first meeting in a Grand Slam event.
“He’s tricky obviously,” Shapovalov said in a TSN interview about the 6-foot-6 world No. 3. “He’s got a great serve, he’s all-round and probably one of the best players in the world right now. The last two matches that I won against him I was able to stay aggressive, expose him a little bit, make him feel under pressure a lot of the times in the match. Hopefully I can do the same – just find a good balance between staying patient and staying aggressive.”
Former Aussie player Wally Masur – a 1993 US Open semi-finalist – described Shapovalov during the broadcast of Friday’s match as “a very adventurous tennis player.”
The match against Zverev should go a long way to determining just how excellent his 2022 Aussie Open will be.
Félix Auger-Aliassime is aiming to match last year’s round of 16 at Melbourne Park when he plays Dan Evans in John Cain Arena on Saturday following women’s singles and doubles matches that start at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. ET Friday in Canada).
A year ago the No. 24-ranked Evans beat Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-3 in the final of the Melbourne 2 ATP 250 event on the eve of the Aussie Open. It was his first career title but he soon found himself frustrated and out of the Melbourne Park when he lost in the opening round to his compatriot Cam Norrie.
Later in February of last year, Evans practiced with Roger Federer for two weeks in Dubai as the great Swiss got ready for his comeback after 14 months away from the game. He then lost 7-6(8), 3-6, 7-5 to Federer in March at the ATP 250 event in Doha.
The 31-year-old Brit improved from No. 33 to No. 25 in 2021, going 25-23 for the year.
Auger-Aliassime, 21, was 38-24 in 2021, moving his ranking up from No. 21 to No. 11. He’s currently at No. 9.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak