On the fourth point of the third game of the second set in his opening round match at the US Open against Félix Auger-Aliassime on Wednesday evening, Denis Shapovalov elevated and drilled a jumping backhand cross-court winner. On the very next point, he repeated the leaping artistry on the backhand side, this time as an un-returnable service return.
He was clearly feeling it and so was Auger-Aliassime. But for the latter, it was in the opposite sense.
Shapovalov in full flight is someone the tennis world knows as one of its most explosive players. The 20-year-old has struggled since reaching the semi-finals (losing to Roger Federer) of the Miami Open in March. But he reached the final four at the ATP 250 event in Winston Salem, N.C., last week and built on that for his superb performance on the Grandstand on Tuesday evening.
The final score against his friend Auger-Aliassime was 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and 38 minutes – a one-sided result that was unanticipated by almost everyone, including the most diehard of Shapo-philes.
As well as Shapovalov played, Auger-Aliassime was far from his best, but no one can know exactly how much of that was a result of super-Shapo and how much was subpar Félix.
“He played a really good match,” Auger-Aliassime said about Shapovalov. “He was on top of me right off, from the first hits at the start of the point. I never was able to find my rhythm or get any opportunities. Then the match got away very quickly.”
“There are lots of things I could have done better, obviously. I can’t lose 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 playing well. But I’ve played worse matches and at a worse level.”
Auger-Aliassime was able to muster a bit of humour when asked if he had ever seen Shapovalov play better. “I lost to him 6-0, 6-0 (early in their junior careers), so I’ve been kicked in the butt by him before,” he replied. “Today was a pretty good one and I think we all know what he’s capable of doing. He’s proving he can be a very, very good player. Maybe you should ask him if it’s the best tennis he’s ever played. Against me, considering where we’re at the moment, it’s the best level I’ve seen him play.
“On my side of things, I’ve got to find out what I can improve when a situation like that occurs.”
There was a considerable disparity on the stats sheet – Shapovalov’s winners to unforced errors ratio was 28/25 while Auger-Aliassime’s was 9/28. The sharpness in Shapovalov’s game was obvious in his net play – a stellar 16/18 ratio at the net. Winning just 27 per cent of second-serve points was a telling number about Auger-Aliassime ineffectual play on a pleasant evening in front of a bit of a disappointing crowd. It was less than a third full in the 8,125-capacity stadium towards the end of the match, with some fans preferring to watch 15-year-old American sensation Coco Gauff in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“It was definitely a very good match, very clean,” Shapovalov said when asked about his high-quality display. “I think both mentally and tennis-wise, I was pretty flawless today, stayed pretty focused and I was able to execute really well.”
Later he told Mark Roe of TSN that it was the best he had played since two years ago at the US Open when he qualified for the main draw and then beat Daniil Medvedev, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kyle Edmund on the way to the round-of-16 where he eventually lost to Pablo Carreno Busta.
Shapovalov has teamed-up with former world no. 8 Mikhail Youzhny as his coach, a relationship which began the ATP 250 event in Winston Salem last week. “I think the last two or three weeks I’ve been playing a lot better during my matches,” he said. “The last couple of weeks especially, Misha (Youzhny) has helped me – Winston Salem and here – just mentally to concentrate on a couple of things in my game both mentally and physically.”
When discussing the addition of Youzhny, who is now working alongside his mother Tessa, Shapovalov said, “I think I needed a coach who has been through a lot. First I think it was important that he was a player who has gone through what I’m going through right now – both on the court and off the court. And I wanted a one-hander (backhand) because I do think one-handers play the game differently. We see it a bit differently. My team suggested Misha and we gave him a call to see if he was interested. He just retired recently so maybe it wasn’t interesting for him to come and help. And sure enough, he was really excited and he came over to Winston Salem. It’s been great to get to know him and work with him the last couple of weeks.”
Officially, the partnership with the 37-year-old Muscovite remains on a trial basis until the end of the US Open.
Post match, there was a lot of speculation about the outcome – about how Shapovalov could be so good and Auger-Aliassime, who admitted to being nervous in the early stages, could under-perform.
Maybe a simple explanation is that it was just Shapovalov’s time. Two years ago with his wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, he began a rise that would culminate in a career high ranking of no. 20 in April of this year. And he was the alpha dog in his relationship with Auger-Aliassime, who is 16 months younger. But Auger-Aliassime has been in three ATP Tour finals in 2019 (Rio de Janeiro, Lyon and Stuttgart) while Shapovalov has yet to reach his first championship match on tour. Just two weeks ago, Auger-Aliassime climbed to a career-best no. 19 in the rankings and overtook Milos Raonic, who dropped to no. 22, as the No. 1 Canadian, establishing himself as the main man in Canada. Meanwhile, Shapovalov’s ranking had tumbled to no. 38.
It cannot have been fun for Shapovalov to have been so clearly overshadowed by Auger-Aliassime, their friendship notwithstanding. But it’s easier to be the hunter than the hunted and that may have been a factor in Tuesday’s final result as Auger-Aliassime was widely viewed as the favourite and may have been feeling the pressure.
This could be a sign that there will be an ongoing battle over the next few years, as Shapovalov, 20, and Auger-Aliassime, 19, establish themselves on the pro tour. Auger-Aliassime won their previous match 6-2, 7-6(7) on clay in the opening round in Madrid last May and now Shapovalov has made a statement in a big way that he’s back and ready to challenge his long-time rival and good pal. This can only be good for both players and for tennis in Canada.
The no. 33-ranked Shapovalov now gets a chance to go deep in the tournament, as he is set to face no. 119 Henri Laaksonen in Thursday’s second round. On Tuesday, the 27-year-old Swiss overcame Marco Cecchinato of Italy 7-6(3), 7-6(6), 2-6, 3-6, 7-6(2). Shapovalov’s possible third-round opponent would be the 13th seed Gael Monfils. And with the top seed in his quarter of the draw (and his potential fourth round opponent) – no. 4 Dominic Thiem – falling in the first round, there’s a chance of a good run for him at the 2019 US Open.
‘OLD’ BIANCA BEATS YOUNG KATIE
Bianca Andreescu won the first match of her career at the US Open on Tuesday – defeating American Wild Card Katie Volynets of Walnut Creek, California, 6-2, 6-4.
Both sets were competitive early on – 2-2 in set one and 4-4 in set two – but there was always the feeling that if Andreescu turned it up a notch she would be able to dispatch the reigning U.S. under-18 junior champion, who got into the main draw thanks to a Wild Card.
Seeded no. 15 in her US Open main draw debut, Andreescu later admitted it wasn’t easy playing Volynets, a 17-year-old who looks about 13, and who is not much over 5-feet tall.
“Maybe I was a little bit rusty at the beginning,” she said. “I’m also playing someone younger than me, so that’s not the best scenario. I’m usually the young one.”
The first round was played on an overflowing 1,104-seat capacity Court 10, and the 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., got a much louder roar when she was introduced before the match began. But there were a fair share of “c’mon Katie” cheers from the American crowd as the match played out.
“These Canadians are wilding,” Andreescu joked in her post-match media conference about her crowd support. “They’re coming everywhere. It’s really nice to see all of the Canadians cheering me on in different cities.”
While Andreescu will have to play better as the tournament goes on, some credit must be given to Volynets – she was tenacious and consistent and Andreescu praised her for her “incredible fight” after the match. But there was little doubt that the spindly American was out-matched. That was most apparent in the winners category – Andreescu had 29 in the one hour and 28-minute match, whereas Volynets had six.
Andreescu, whose record is an impressive 28-4 so far in 2019, and includes titles at the WTA Premier Mandatory event in Indian Wells and WTA Premier 5 event in Montreal (Rogers Cup), is feeling confident. “I think it skyrocketed,” she said about her self-belief these days. “I have been doing really well this year, and I think if you believe in yourself then you can do big things. That’s where I’m at right now.”
There was a lighter moment when Andreescu was asked about a single strip of tape below her left knee and three little patches of tape – one of her right thigh and two (front and back) on her left thigh.
Here was the exchange in the main interview room:
Q. The wrap on your knee and patches on your thigh, what’s that all about?
BIANCA ANDREESCU: The knee, I was feeling it a little bit during my practices, but it’s nothing serious. And the patches are, like, these little bites I got from I don’t know where. So I’m just covering them up, because they don’t look too nice.
Q. Bug bites?
BIANCA ANDREESCU: Yeah, kind of.
In the second round on Thursday, Andreescu will play lucky-loser Kirsten Flipkens. The 33-year-old Belgian is playing in her ninth US Open – and has made it to the second round only three times, but never any further.
On Tuesday, she defeated another lucky loser, no. 447-ranked Wang Xiyu of China 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. A talented player with an all-around game, Flipkens turned the match around in the second and third sets set by coming to the net as often as possible.
Based on her record at the US Open, Flipkens, who is a great friend of her Belgian contemporary Kim Clijsters, should be a player Andreescu has a good chance to beat. This will be their first meeting.
POSPISIL EDGES KHACHANOV
It was an amazing performance by Vasek Pospisil – upsetting no. 9 seed Karen Khachanov 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in the opening round on Tuesday – his first main draw victory on tour since beating compatriot Milos Raonic 7-6(3), 7-5 in Antwerp, Belgium, on October 15 of last year.
That’s more than 10 months ago, and more importantly, seven months since he underwent back surgery in January.
He had two tough losses to Félix Auger-Aliassime – 2-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(3) at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 at Wimbledon (his first match since last October) – which gave him confidence his game was getting back on track.
On Court 12 on Tuesday, he battled hard against the 23-year-old, 6-foot-6 Russian, one of the biggest hitters in tennis.
“I played at a very high level,” Pospisil said. “Executed the game plan really well. That was just to be super aggressive any time I had a little bit of time. Obviously Karen hits a really big ball. When he has time on the stroke, he’s extremely dangerous.”
“I just tried to really go for my forehand and tried to serve well, which I did for the most part. It was a physical match there at the end. I’m just glad I pulled through.”
As big a hitter as the 6-foot-6 Khachanov is, Pospisil was able to stay with him in the baseline rallies – hitting 23 forehand winners to just 10 for his opponent.
He also served well – firing 15 aces compared to only seven for Khachanov and converting on 4/6 break points, with his opponent only getting 3/12.
Khachanov saved two match points at 40-15 in the final game, but two winning serves from the 29-year-old Canadian sealed the three-hour and 51-minute match.
The weather was moderate – especially by New York City standards – and that helped Pospisil who has previously had cramping problems at the US Open – notably against Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria in a five-set loss (last two sets 6-0, 6-1) in 2015.
“The conditions helped me today, for sure,” he said smiling. “It wasn’t very hot. I was very happy about that this morning when I woke up. But other than that, I wasn’t so surprised because I’ve been working really hard. I did a ton of fitness before I kind of made my comeback just to make sure that I was strong.” Now 4-8 in his ninth US Open, Pospisil will try to improve his current no. 216 ranking (he entered Flushing Meadows using a protected ranking) and reach the third round for the first time in his career. To do so, he must first overcome no. 72 Tennys Sandgren on Thursday. The 28-year-old American defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 1-6, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(5), 7-5 on Tuesday.
PAIRE OUSTS SCHNUR
Playing in his first US Open – and just his second main draw match at a Grand Slam – Brayden Schnur was beaten 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 by no. 29 seed Benoit Paire on Tuesday.
“I didn’t feel comfortable the first two sets,” said the 24-year-old from Pickering, Ont. “I think that played a huge role in me getting down. Then obviously he (Paire) built a lot of confidence and started hitting some really good shots in the third set. The third set I actually thought I played my best tennis. I returned horrible all match, so that’s probably the biggest part of my game I’m really disappointed about. I thought I prepared really well for this event. Every day I was practicing really well.”
Schnur noted that the speed of the practice courts was drastically different from the match courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“(It’s) night and day – so much slower and higher bouncing,” Schnur said about the adjustment to US Open tournament courts. “Every player will say the same thing. It’s a tricky situation. I’m not complaining or making any excuses. That’s life. I have to know that.”
He also added about his quirky, talented 6-foot-5 French opponent, “he’s super tricky. He just plays awkward tennis. He drop-shots a lot. He plays slow on the forehand, hits big on the backhand. On serve during some games he’s hitting three aces; some games he’s hitting three double faults. He obviously played well. I think if I would have got off to a better start, it could have been a different match.”
Next for Schnur, currently ranked no. 92, will be in the $162,480 Challenger tournament in New Haven, Conn., next week.
NEW YORK POST CARD
Auto-body shops occupy a lot of space near the US Open grounds. There’s all the grease, oil and dirty rags you can imagine in shops jammed along a roadway full of hustlers that has very little in common with sophisticated 72nd street in downtown Manhattan.
(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)