©Martin Sidorjak|Photo credit: newshub.co.nz / Getty Images
These guys are good – Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Alassime.
In the history of Canadian tennis there are names like Glenn Michibata and Martin Wostenholme, Chris Pridham and Martin Laurendeau, Grant Connell and Andrew Sznajder, Sébastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor, Philip Bester and Peter Polansky, a stand alone Frank Dancevic as well as Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic – but never have two players been as successful so young against world-class men’s competition as Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.
Until the last year or so, especially with Auger-Aliassime, who was the youngest player ever at 14 ½ to qualify for an ATP Challenger (in Drummondville, ) in 2015, Tennis Canada officials tried to keep them somewhat out of the limelight so as to avoid excessive hype.
But that all ended last summer when Shapovalov captured the Wimbledon junior title at age 17 and Auger-Aliassime had three match points to win the French Open junior title at 15 and then won the US Open juniors at 16.
This past week has seen major steps forward by Shapovalov, who upset world No. 47 Kyle Edmund 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4 at the ATP 500 event in London at Queen’s Club on Monday, and Auger-Aliassime who won the ATP Challenger title in Lyon, France on Sunday, his first and one that put him on the following list of youngest to achieve that feat.
One fascinating sidebar of the Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime achievements was the symbolism of the matches they won along the way. In a qualifying match last Saturday at Queen’s, reigning Wimbledon junior champion Shapovalov, No. 195, defeated his immediate predecessor as Wimbledon junior winner, 19-year-old American Reilly Opelka, already ranked No. 130, in the opening round by a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(3) score.
In Lyon, the 16-year-old Auger-Aliassime beat No. 112 Casper Ruud of Norway 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-4 in the quarter-finals. Ruud, 18, made a highly-publicized breakthrough in February by reaching the semifinals of the ATP 500 tournament on clay in Rio de Janeiro.
On Monday, on the centre court at Queen’s, Shapovalov put on a glorious display of shot-making – raking inside/out forehands, rocket single-handed backhands and serves up to 133 mph – to upset Edmund. He was surely a discovery for the spectators at Queen’s during the London supper hour and a revelation for the tennis world. It’s hard to think of another promising teenager, including Auger-Aliassime, who has Shapovalov’s variety, creativity and flare.
“It’s just incredible, the feelings I have being able to play on centre court like this in front of thousands of people and against such a great player,” a thrilled Shapovalov told the BBC after Monday’s match.
There was also the fact that he was playing Edmund, his opponent when the infamous incident occurred last February during Davis Cup in Ottawa – a ball struck in frustration that hit umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye socket. It was inevitable that the British media would bring up the Gabas situation, which earned Shapovalov an immediate match disqualification.
“Before the match I felt pretty tight,” he admitted about playing Edmund. “Once I got into it, it was fine. I didn’t have many thoughts except I was thinking ‘please don’t do anything dumb this match – so many cameras on me.’
“But I didn’t really think about the incident. It was a new match. It’s behind me now.”
It’s easy to get a carried away by such a fine showing and ATP Media commentator Arvind Parmar made a good point during the Edmund match broadcast when he said about a fresh talent like Shapovalov – “(there’s) no baggage when it comes to young players.”
That can certainly help in the case of a one-off, free-flowing display but many believe Shapovalov is the real deal. Leading up to grass-court Challenger event in Surbiton, England, earlier this month, he had lost six matches in a row at Challenger events and in Roland Garros qualifying. Gunther Bresnik, who currently coaches Dominic Thiem and has worked with players such as Boris Becker, Henri Leconte and Ernests Gulbis, is a consulting coach with Shapovalov. When a reporter crossed his path at the French Open last month and mentioned Shapovalov and his struggles at the time, the 56-year-old Austrian dismissed any concern declaring, “nothing’s changed, (he’s) still Top 10.” By that he meant eventually Top 10 in the world.
Shapovalov’s ranking should move up from No. 193 to about No. 163 after qualifying and defeating Edmund at Queen’s. It could go higher with a win over No. 14 ranked Tomas Berdych in the second round.
As for Auger-Aliassime, who turns 17 on August 8th, the birthday he shares with Roger Federer, he would also seem to have a bright future.
The win in Lyon moved his ranking up from No. 336 to No. 231. In a conference call on Monday with Canadian reporters, he said, “it changes things, the fact that I’m now 231. I’m getting close to the qualifying for the Grand Slams – so being able to playing the US Open qualifying would be good and then to try to end the year in the top-200.”
Success at the Lyon tournament comes as a reward for some hard-slogging he did in April and May in China and South Korea where he went 11-5 in qualifying and main-draw matches at Challenger events.
“I did a five-week tour in Asia and it was really tough adapting to different conditions,” said the 16-year-old who is already 6-foot-3, “and now the work I did in the last few months paid off in this week.”
Precocious and personable, Auger-Aliassime was sort of the chou-chou (darling) of the crowd in Lyon, even during his 6-4, 6-1 victory over 23-year-old, No. 171-ranked Mathias Bourgue of France in the final.
“It will be two weeks that I’ll never forget,” he said about achieving his first Challenger level victory in France’s second largest city. “Actually I arrived the Wednesday before the tournament…almost a week before the tournament began. So I had a chance to spend a lot of time in this magnificent city. I’ll also remember the welcome I received and to have a crowd that was almost cheering for me even when I played a Frenchman in the final – it was a divided crowd. That was really incredible. So I’ll always remember that. Of course a first is something that you can’t replace. The city has something special for me, the partisan crowd and the fact that my family was with me is definitely memorable.”
Auger-Aliassime played his opening match at the Challenger event in Blois, France on Tuesday and defeated French wild card Gianni Mina 6-2, 4-0 ret. and now will face the top seed, Damir Dzumhur, 25. The No. 94-ranked player from Bosnia-Herzegovina is a crafty, unconventional opponent who will provide an interesting challenge for Auger-Aliassime.
After Blois he returns home before embarking on a series of Challenger events in Canada, which will give many fans in his homeland to watch him in person. The events include Winnipeg (July 10), Gatineau (July 17), Granby (July 24) and Vancouver (August 14).
Then there’s Rogers Cup in his hometown of Montreal the week of August 7, where he will either play in the qualifying or possibly even the main draw.
The term punter is used in Britain to describe someone venturing into the many legal bookmaking shops to try their luck with wagers on the horses, football (soccer) and sometimes also on tennis.
Betting is a delicate subject in tennis these days because of the transgressions of several professional players but, when it comes to Wimbledon, the bookmakers’ odds are a helpful indicator of the way things may play out in the men’s and women’s draws beginning in two weeks.
The women’s side of things is unusually hazy, even chaotic, this year with the absence of seven-time, and two-time defending, champion Serena Williams. The 2004 winner Maria Sharapova was unable to even have a chance to post due to a thigh injury, so only five-time champion Venus Williams and two-time champion Petra Kvitova have had the experience of raising the Venus Rosewater Dish in celebration at the All England Club.
Just how wide open things are in 2017 is clear in the fact that the current favourite with one of the bookies has an overall 4-5 record at Wimbledon and has lost in the second round the past four years in a row – although she did win the 2016 International Series event on grass in Nottingham. That would be world no. 3 Karolina Pliskova.
Here are the Labrokes top-14 picks:
K. Pliskova 11/4 J. Ostapenko 14/1
P. Kvitova 13/2 M. Keys 14/1
J. Konta 7/1 C. Vandeweghe 20/1
V. Azarenka 9/1 E. Svitolina 20/1
G. Muguruza 10/1 S. Halep 20/1
V. Williams 10/1 C. Wozniacki 25/1
A. Kerber 14/1 K. Mladenovic 25/1
Pliskova was runner-up at the US Open last year and has a big game, but it’s hard to believe that playing Wimbledon five times and never getting past the second round qualifies you to be the favourite.
Simona Halep, who made the semifinals in 2014 and the quarter-finals a year ago, as well as being the runner-up at Roland Garros two weeks ago, is listed as 20/1.
Genie Bouchard, runner-up three years ago and with a respectable 10-4 career record inside the wrought iron gates of Wimbledon, is a quaint 33/1. On Tuesday, Bouchard dropped her opening round match on the grass courts in Majorca, Spain, losing 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3 to veteran Francesca Schiavone. The 37-year-old (on Friday) Italian is a resourceful opponent and Bouchard will now have a chance to get back on track when she plays the Eastbourne event next week.
Going back to the 1970s with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and then on through Steffi Graf as well as Venus and Serena Williams, there have always been great champions to monopolize the pre-Wimbledon speculation. Venus Williams is still there but, just turned 37 and having confronted health issues (including Sjogren’s Syndrome), winning seven matches over the fortnight seems like a big ask for elder of the Williams sisters.
Kvitova would be the most logical pick based on concussive shot-making that can allow her to take control of her own destiny, but the condition of her left hand and overall match readiness after a traumatic home invasion last December still make her a major question mark.
Traditionally, veteran British reporters have downplayed the performances of players in the pre-Wimbledon grass-court events and in recent years multiple-time winners such as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic have made a habit of playing no warm-up events on grass. Andy Murray is the exception, having captured the title at the Queen’s Club event, where he is top seed again this year, in both 2013 and 2016 before winning his two Wimbledon titles.
He’s the favourite among the men with Ladbrokes, followed by these players:
A. Murray 11/4 N. Kyrgios 14/1
R. Federer 3/1 A. Zverev 16/1
R. Nadal 4/1 D. Thiem 25/1
N. Djokovic 6/1 G. Dimitrov 25/1
M. Raonic 14/1 S. Wawrinka 25/1
These numbers probably look logical to many but, maybe it’s a Canadian bias, but how can last year’s runner-up Raonic be 14/1 and Nadal be 4/1? That’s suggesting Nadal is 3½ times more likely to win Wimbledon than Raonic. Nadal pulled out of this week’s event at the Queen’s Club and looks like he’ll go in cold to the Big W. He missed last year with his left wrist injury but, in the four years since he won his second Wimbledon in 2010 and finished as runner-up to Djokovic in 2011, he has lost to Lukas Rosol (2R), Steve Darcis (1R), Nick Kyrgios (4R) and Dustin Brown (2R).
While Nadal is 5-4 in his past four Wimbledons, Raonic is 14-4.
There will be concerns after Raonic’s 7-6(5), 7-6(8) loss to Thanasi Kokkinakis in his first round match at Queen’s Club on Tuesday. Certainly it’s not a positive, but it was mostly one of those matches when nothing broke Raonic’s way. He had nine break points on the Kokkinakis serve and didn’t break while the 21-year-old Aussie had zero break points on the Raonic serve. In the first set Kokkinakis was hanging on by a thread – playing 65 points on serve (including facing eight break points) to just 34 for Raonic. But Kokkinakis, like Raonic, is 6-foot-5 and he served great when he had to, but still the numbers were all Raonic’s way – he won 82 per cent of first serve points to 78 per cent for Kokkinakis and 78 per cent of second serve points to Kokkinakis’ 56 per cent. Normally those kinds of numbers win a player the match.
The worst moment for Raonic was a feebly missed forehand into the net when he held, on serve, the third of three set points at 6-5 in the second-set tiebreak.
He will now almost certainly play a few exhibition matches – it’s unlikely he would enter either of the ATP 250 events in Eastbourne or Antalya, Turkey, next week – to sharpen his game. Though he loses 300 points from being a finalist at Queen’s a year ago, nothing changes for him in terms of Wimbledon seeding – he will be somewhere between No. 5 and No. 8, spots that are all drawn by lot.
Part of the fun of the betting odds on Raonic or other players is that people can disagree about their accuracy and should also never forget that the odds compilers aren’t necessarily interested in accuracy. They’re interested in getting the money as evenly spread around as possible and then making a profit from their cut of the action.
Federer will inevitably be the sentimental favourite as he goes for a record-setting eighth Wimbledon title. There was concern among his faithful fans when he lost 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-4, after having a match point, to Tommy Haas in his opening match in Stuttgart last week.
The well-shorn Federer gave this offered this reasoned response about the loss to long-time friend and frequent practice partner Haas.
KYRGIOS ‘DOGGING’ IT
When he had to retire from a first round match at Queen’s after injuring himself in a fall on Monday, Nick Kyrgios was asked about how he would spend his time leading up to Wimbledon. The 22-year-old Aussie joked that he would be at the “Dog & Fox” a popular pub in Wimbledon Village.