Denis Shapovalov needed four hours and 25 minutes to finally overcome Soonwoo Kwon in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday – defeating the South Korean 7-6(6), 6-7(3), 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-2. He had set points in every set but somehow still seemed fortunate to escape with the win against a high-flying opponent who raised his game after dropping the first set, playing hyper-aggressively, very unlike someone who had never had a win over a top-20 player.
Ranked No. 54, the 24-year-old actually had Shapovalov on the ropes when he had a break point at 2-all in the fourth set with everything flowing his way in the Margaret Court Arena match-up. That’s when Shapovalov hit a volley that sat up near the net and Kwon appeared poised to strike a backhand through or past him. He instead elected to lift a lob and Shapovalov reacted with an acrobatic move – leaping to hit a backhand smash that salvaged the point.
Going down a break at that point might have been curtains.
“That was definitely a very big moment,” Shapovalov would say later. “He had a good look there and could have went cross – the cross-court was open for him. But he chose to go with the lob and I was able to execute the backhand (overhead) really well. That really kind of flipped the momentum a little bit I felt, and I was able to stay in the match and break later in that set. I’m sure he’d like to take that back and go cross. But it is what it is.”
Minutes later with Kwon serving down 4-3, Shapovalov had three break points but failed to capitalize – each time on a second-serve opportunity.
It looked as though time was running out but in the 12th game Shapovalov eventually set up break points/set points at 15-40 with aggressive shot-making and won the set when Kwon missed long with a forehand.
It was not a foregone conclusion, but there was a sense that Shapovalov’s superior pedigree might finally tell in the final set – and it did. He broke serve in the second game and took a 3-0 lead on his way to getting a second break in the final game to finish off the decider 6-2.
A strong element of emotional frustration grew in Shapovalov after he had a set point leading 5-4 in the second set and then double-set point ahead 6-4 in the third set tiebreak. But getting the match to a decisive final set – he has other Grand Slam victories from two-sets-to-one down against Andreas Seppi at the 2018 US Open, Taylor Fritz at the 2020 US Open and Karen Khachanov at Wimbledon last year – seemed to settle him. “Actually I became really quiet in the fifth,” he said, “focusing on every point, trying to maximize on every shot.”
Things had not been at all like that during most of the second, third and fourth sets as Kwon played inspired and remarkably aggressive tennis, often taking it to Shapovalov who alternated flashes of sensational shot-making with seemingly inexplicable unforced errors.
At one point, match commentator Colin Fleming, a Scotsman and a former tour doubles player, spoke about the effect the highs and lows of Shapovalov’s play would have on his fans in Canada, later adding the unlikely information that he himself has a French-Canadian uncle. Commiserating with and talking about the Shapovalov supporters, Fleming joked, “sometimes Denis is so good, and then sometimes his (nervous) fans are watching from behind the sofa.”
Shapovalov’s match total of 81 winners and 77 unforced errors says something about the yin and yang of his game. But as much as he struggled at times, he had an uncanny knack for timely serving – finishing with 29 aces (and 10 double faults) and winning 81 per cent of first-serve points.
Maybe he was at his most brilliant at the net – winning 34 of 40 points (85 per cent) and showing a deft touch when he moved forward.
Kwon was a revelation with his solid play from the baseline, bossing many rallies the way Shapovalov normally does. And while his match totals were less impressive – 29 winners and 65 unforced errors – they would probably be better if forced errors were factored in.
“It was very tricky, I felt like I had a lot of chances in every set,” Shapovalov said about the match in a TSN interview. “It was tough to bounce back every time. In the second set I had a set point on his serve and then the third set I had a couple of set points. I felt I was doing everything the right way, it just wasn’t going my way.”
About his fitness after such a lengthy match, the 22-year-old Shapovalov said, “I’m pretty young so I’m sure I’ll be all right. I’ve had this before so I think I’ll be okay. It’s time to recover, go into the ice bath, a lot of massages and see how the body’s feeling.”
Shapovalov appears to have a natural physical strength and stamina and generally mental frustration and fatigue is the greater threat to him wearing down during a long and intense encounter.
Next for him will be a match-up Thursday with No. 23 seed Reilly Opelka. It’s technically the first tour meeting between Shapovalov and the monster-serving American, but they played in the 2017 qualifying for the grass-court event at Queen’s Club in London – with Shapovalov squeaking through 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(6).
“Reilly’s game is pretty straight-forward,” he said about Opelka, who’s listed at 6-foot-11 but believed more accurately to be 7-foot. “He goes for his serve and for his ground strokes from the back as well. It’s going to be kind of a guessing game a little bit on the returns and hopefully I can take care of business with my serve. Hopefully I’m getting good looks – but I’ve just got to stay patient against him.”
Post match, Shapovalov was asked a question by a Tennis Korea representative about how things had changed in that decisive fifth set. “I was able to maintain my level,” he replied, “but I felt like Kwon just dropped a little bit (in) physicality and got a little bit tired. It could be a little bit of experience as well – I’ve played quite a few five-set matches leading up to this one so I knew exactly when to press, when to kind of not go for it or not push. I was able to play really well in those moments and he might have dropped a little bit. I felt his belief slip away a little bit after the fourth set and I definitely tried to take advantage of that.”
Thursday’s match with Opelka will be a different animal, with fewer rallies and much more dependence on the basics – serve and return. And it provides a great opportunity for Shapovalov to reach his first fourth round in his fifth Aussie Open.
Next for Félix
Félix Auger-Aliassime, seeded 9th, gets back on the court after his opening-round five-setter when he faces No. 50-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Thursday. It’s the second match after a women’s singles that starts not before 1 p.m. (9 p.m. ET Wednesday in Canada.) The 22-year-old Spaniard has a flashy game that can blow hot and cold. He’s only 1-9 in his career against top-10 players – his lone win coming against No. 10 Matteo Berrettini last year in Monte Carlo.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak