Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime have been a joint Canadian entry at lots of tournaments in recent times – first coming to real prominence when they won 2016 junior boys Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and US Open respectively.
After victories in the round of 16 on Monday, they became not only the first Canadians to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals together, but the first to do so at any Grand Slam event.
Shapovalov got there first, blazing his way into the final eight with a 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, before Auger-Aliassime followed with a more suspenseful 6-4, 7-6(6), 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 win against No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev.
There were certainly moments during the Auger-Alassime – Zverev encounter when two Canadians in the quarter-finals seemed in doubt.
After Auger-Aliassime won the first two sets, Zverev settled in and began imposing his big-serve, big-groundstrokes game – and that was most noticeable after he took a bad fall during the fourth game of the third set and looked to have seriously injured his right knee.
He broke Auger-Aliassime two games later and the tide turned, carrying him successfully through the third and fourth sets.
All the momentum was going his way starting the final set but Auger-Aliassime broke serve in the opening game to stem the tide and re-assert himself. Zverev broke back to 2-all and eventually the match hinged on the world No. 6’s service game at 3-all.
The rangy German struggled the whole match with double faults and when he hit his 20th to go down 15-30, Auger-Aliassime belted a deep service return that handcuffed him to set up two break points. He then forced Zverev to hit a tricky forehand volley, which he missed, to get the vital break.
Auger-Aliassime held his next two service games, wrapping things up on his second match point with an overhead winner.
Auger-Aliassime was overwhelmed during his post-match, on-court interview. “You dream of moments like this as a kid,” he told the crowd. “I’m a normal guy from Montreal, Canada, and you know here I am – Court One packed, Wimbledon. It’s surely the best victory of my life so far. It was extra-special in front of you. With the closed roof (during the second game of the final set) the sound was crazy – like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. So thank you for living this moment with me.”
The crowd’s loud cheering drowned out his final few words.
There’s no question the elephant in the room on Monday – or more properly in the whole arena – was Zverev’s double-fault troubles. They reached a low point with three in the first game of the final set. But Auger-Aliassime was also able to capitalize by consistently striking one or two timely blows in each of five games when he broke serve.
Their respective aces to double faults ratio spoke volumes – Auger-Aliassime was 17/6 while Zverev was 9/20. Auger-Aliassime had lost all three previous matches with Zverev, only once winning as many as four games in a set. “The story is I’ve never beaten Alex before, I always struggled against him – I never won a set,” he said about Zverev on court after the match. “He started playing better, serving better and things got really difficult when he came back from that break in the fifth set. I really had to dig deep. But, again, you guys helped me do that because alone it would have been way tougher.”
Zverev was matter-of-fact in assessing his performance, the 2020 US Open finalist saying, “I’m at a stage where I want to win Grand Slams, so I needed to play much, much better to do that here. I lost in the fourth round, which for me in my opinion, is quite early. But at the end of the day, I needed to play better.”
With the win, Auger-Aliassime will move up to a career-high of No. 14 in the live ATP rankings.
In Wednesday’s quarter-final, Auger-Aliassime will face No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. There is quite a bond between the two players. They were training partners during the pre-Australian Open quarantine for two weeks in January and they have a further connection because of their girlfriends. Berrettini’s Ajla Tomljanovic and Auger-Aliassime’s Nina Ghaibi are cousins. Both women have Croatian heritage and Ghaibi and Berrettini were in the No. 1 Court friends’ seats watching Tomljanovic, representing Australia, finish her win over British teenager Emma Raducanu on Monday.
Auger-Aliassime and Berrettini have only played once – the now 25-year-old Italian defeating the now 20-year-old Canadian 6-4, 7-6(11) in the final of the grass-court event in Stuttgart in June 2019.
“He’s really a great guy, great person,” Auger-Aliassime said about Berrettini. “I get along really well with him. Since we’re in the bubble, we have dinners together sometimes. We watch the game together.”
As for what happens before Wednesday between him and his next opponent, Auger-Aliassime said, “I think I can speak for a lot of players on the tour, we’re able to make the difference between what happens on the court and off the court. Matteo is a good friend, first of all. Of course, when the day of the match comes, then you focus on what you have to do.”
Because of all the drama and plot twists in the Auger-Aliassime – Zverev encounter, Shapovalov’s efficient, decisive victory over Bautista Agut was overshadowed. But the 22-year-old was brilliant right from the beginning – breaking the 33-year-old Spaniard in the opening game and never looking like losing even when the players twice traded service breaks – the only time Shapovalov lost his serve – at the start of the third set. But, true to form, at 5-all, break point in that set, Shapovalov blasted his 50th winner of the day – a beauty backhand crosscourt. That essentially salted away the match.
He finished with 52 winners to go with 41 unforced errors and won the overall match-up by a healthy 107 points to 76.
“I got a little bit nervous in the third set,” Shapovalov said. “I think it’s completely normal. I dealt with that really well. Other than that, I played really, really flawless.
“I feel like everything’s kind of working for me. Obviously it’s not a guarantee that it’s going to continue like this. But, for sure, I’m super, super happy with the way I’ve been able to play the last two matches.”
In a TSN interview with ex-player Daniela Hantuchová, she asked him how he had changed since reaching his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open last year. “I think mentally I’m much calmer than I was back then,” he answered. “I was screaming and shouting after every point there. Here I’m more laid back. I’m more relaxed and the game, in general physically, I’m feeling more fresh than I did back then.
“I’ve been working with a psychologist and he has helped me tremendously.”
Mind and body, Shapovalov and his unique and explosive tennis will next be matched against No. 25 seed Karen Khachanov in Wednesday’s quarter-final.
Shapovalov beat the 6-foot-6 Russian, 25, in their only previous meeting – 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 indoors in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid in November 2019.
On Monday, Khachanov survived a crazy fifth set, which featured 13 service breaks in 18 games, to defeat No. 50-ranked Sebastian Korda 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 10-8 in three hours and 49 minutes.
“He’s definitely very aggressive – likes to dictate with the forehand,” Shapovalov said about the Muscovite. “He has a really big serve. He likes to control the play. It’s actually pretty similar to me. Obviously, we’re two big-hitting players. I think it’s going to be a lot of shot-making. It’s going to be a pretty, aggressive game in that match.”
With the possibility of a semi-final at Wimbledon looming – but not against each other – Auger-Aliassime probably spoke for he and Shapovalov when he said in his media conference, “You’re fighting of course for yourself to win, for your team. In the back of your mind you also have everybody back home. The tons of messages I receive after from people that have helped me to get where I am today. It means a lot. For me to give this back to them is also great. It feels really good. It’s teamwork. The country’s behind us. My city is behind me. It’s really good to have this much support.
“Again, a great day for us Canadians and hopefully it keeps going.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Here are a couple of Wimbledon spectators having their picture taken with the great man Fred Perry – winner of the Wimbledon title 1934-35-36.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak