At this stage in the evolution of men’s professional tennis, clay courts have become the most alien of surfaces.
Hard courts and grass allow for more aggressive, attacking tennis and these days players successful on those two surfaces generally have more struggles on clay.
It’s useful to keep that in mind as Canada’s two current young sensations – Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov – begin their spring European clay-court seasons in Monte Carlo this week.
It’s probably no surprise that Auger-Aliassime – with 104 career matches on clay and Shapovalov with just 45 – is the one who survived into the second round after the opening round of the 2019 Monte Carlo Open. The No. 33-ranked Montrealer had to work for nearly two hours to overcome scrappy battler Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina 7-5, 7-6(5) on Tuesday after Shapovalov lost to German Jan-Lennard Struff on Monday.
Auger-Aliassime appeared to have No. 79-ranked qualifier Londero under control when he served for the first set at 5-3, 30-love, and again when he had two match points at 5-3 in the second before matters got a little complicated in the match on intimate Court 2.
But the 18-year-old kept his cool and eventually overcame the 25-year-old Londero – with the final two points of the tiebreak being a blistering Auger-Aliassime forehand service return winner followed by a missed backhand service return by Londero.
There was a worrying sign for Auger-Aliassime. After his problem with double faults in his Miami Open semi-final against John Isner last month, he had two when he served for the match in the second set at 5-3 against Londero, one on his first match point.
But overall he maintained his composure, especially when he went from 2-0 up to 4-2 down in the second set-tiebreak.
Auger-Aliassime’s victory sets him up for a fascinating second-round match on Wednesday against No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev. The 21-year-old German (22 on Saturday) was upset 7-6(1), 2-6, 6-3 by No. 60-ranked Jaume Munar, a solid Spanish clay-courter, in the second round of Marrakech last week. Now he will be playing his first match in Monte Carlo, after a bye, against an opponent, Auger-Aliassime, who should be feeling no pressure playing on the main Court Rainer III.
With his win Tuesday, Auger-Aliassime, who has only 38 points to defend until the end of Roland Garros, earned 45 points and his ‘live’ ATP ranking is now up to No. 29.
On Monday, Shapovalov started well but was unable to maintain his form in a 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 loss to the No. 45-ranked Struff.
After rallying from 2-0 down in the second set to take a 3-2 lead, Shapovalov won only one more game. Despite some erratic play, he was the better player in the opening set but seemed to gradually lose his bearings toward the end of the second set. The third set was a festival of unforced errors for Shapovalov, who probably should have been a bit more patient. Of course, his game is to go for his shots but a stat like 22 winners to go with 51 unforced errors suggests that wasn’t a winning formula for him on the day.
A year ago Shapovalov went 7-5 during the clay-court season – but started out at his two first events with opening-round losses to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Monte Carlo and Nikoloz Basilashvili in Budapest.
While it was no fun for him to lose Monday to Struff on his 20th birthday, recent history suggests he will improve as the clay-court season goes along.
FED CUP IN PROSTEJOV
Captain Heidi El Tabakh and the Canadian Fed Cup team travel to Prostejov, Czech Republic, for this weekend’s World Group Playoff with a diminished team because its No. 1 player, Bianca Andreescu, is out dealing with a shoulder injury.
In February, the 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., won both her singles to lead the visitors to 3-0 victory over the Netherlands in ’s-Hertogenbosch. The other singles win in the World Group II first round was earned by Francoise Abanda who is unavailable this time, also with a shoulder issue.
The Czechs also will have a different team from the one that lost 3-2 to visiting Romania in Ostrava the second weekend in February.
Absent will be current world No. 4 Karolina Pliskova and No. 41 Katerina Siniakova as well as No. 3 Petra Kvitova, who missed the February opening round. The team this time will be led by No. 47-ranked Marketa Vondrousova, No. 106 Karolina Muchova and No. 115 Marie Bouzkova.
Those three are likely to be the singles options for Czechs on an indoor clay court at the National Tennis Centre in Prostejov.
For the Canadian singles spots, captain El Tabakh will likely chose between current No. 184 Rebecca Marino, 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez, who ranks No. 376 and is No. 7 in the International Tennis Federation Junior Girls rankings and No. 392 Gabriela Dabrowski, who’s Canada’s top doubles player with a No. 15 ranking. The other team member is 28-year-old Sharon Fichman, making a comeback after injuries, in doubles and ranked No. 192.
The Czechs have won the Fed Cup six of the past eight years, including 2018 and have not been outside the eight-nation World Group since 2008.
Currently ranked No. 1 by a long shot in the Fed Cup rankings, the Czechs have won all six previous meetings with Canada including in Quebec City in 2015.
It’s surprising they are not fielding a stronger team in view of their past history and the possibility they could lose their place in the World Group if they don’t beat Canada.
There’s a possibility of a new Fed Cup format for 2020 – much like has happened with Davis Cup this year – featuring a grand finale with a large group of nations playing in one location as the men will do in Madrid in November.
Possibly, aware of their No. 1 position in the rankings, the Czechs are confident they will be in the running for the 2020 Fed Cup final if a new format is introduced.
Based on its No. 11 ranking, Canada is also in a strong position to be in a potential qualifying round for the 2020 Fed Cup final.
This weekend in Brisbane, Australia, and Rouen, France, the World Group semi-finals will take place with Belarus travelling Down Under and Romania going to France.
The Aussies, playing in Pat Rafter Arena on a hard court, will be led by Ashleigh Barty and Daria Gavrilova while the Belarus team features a power-packed line-up made up of Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Victoria Azarenka.
Romania, coming off a hard-fought 3-2 win, led by Simona Halep, over the Czechs in February, will again have the current world no. 2 and she will be joined by Mihaela Buzarnescu, Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu. While France has Caroline Garcia, Pauline Parmentier, Alizé Cornet and Kristina Mladenovic in Julien Benneteau’s first year as captain.
The Australians are seven-time Fed Cup champions while the French have two titles.
Neither Romania nor Belarus has won the Fed Cup and, though they are the visiting teams this weekend, both seem highly-motivated to try to get to the final to be played November 9-10.
HAWK-EYE ON CLAY
It’s an ongoing debate – should Hawk-Eye electric line-calling technology be used for clay-court events?
Andrey Rublev surely thinks it should after he got a bad call in his opening-round match against Fabio Fognini on Monday in Monte Carlo.
A Fognini shot appeared to be well wide but umpire Adel Nour of Egypt came down from the chair and found a mark that he declared was on the line. Rublev would have been 3-4 but 15-30 on the Fognini serve in the final set but instead the point was replayed and Fognini won it and went on to finish off the game.
In the last game with Fognini attempting to serve out the match at 15-all, he hit a ball just long but it was played by Rublev who wound up losing the rally. But immediately following the point a Hawk-Eye replay for television showed the Fognini shot was long.
It was a tough loss for qualifier Rublev who got jobbed on both line calls, but also because he led 6-4, 4-1 before Fognini staged a comeback.
Also it was ironic that this happened in Monte Carlo after the egregious mistake made by umpire Cédric Mourier in the Rafael Nadal – David Goffin semi-final match in 2017. A Nadal shot was well out and would have given Goffin a 4-2 lead in the first set. Instead Mourier found a mark that was in. The usually mild-mannered Goffin was totally frustrated by the call and proceeded to win just one more game in a 6-3, 6-1 loss to Nadal.
MONTE CARLO NOSTAGIA
The year’s edition of the Monte Carlo Open is the 65th anniversary of Lorne Main (above with Milos Raonic in 2012) winning the tournament in 1954.
Aged 23 at the time, Main, now living in Vancouver and 88, defeated Tony Vincent of the U.S. 9-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the final.
Until Bianca Andreescu’s title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells last month, Main’s win was the most impressive international victory by a Canadian.
Main used two hands on both sides when he won Monte Carlo but, about 20 years later when he began a hugely successful international senior tennis career, he changed to hitting single-handed on both wings.
At the current top events on the men’s tour – the four Grand Slams and the nine Masters 1000s plus the year-end ATP Finals – Main remains the only player to have won any of those tournaments playing with two hands on both forehand and backhand.
NO EXPLANATION REQUIRED
This is how Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert signed the camera lens after his 6-4, 6-4 win over Fernando Verdasco on Tuesday in Monte Carlo.