There’s no hiding that Denis Shapovalov is going through a rough patch at the moment – with a 1-4 record since the Australian Open and losses to players ranked much lower than him at three of his last four events.
It has to be general knowledge on tour but Ugo Humbert of France admitted, after defeating the No. 25 seed 7-5, 6-4 on Friday, that he was not aware of the situation – that he had been told about Shapovalov’s struggles by his new coach Jeremy Chardy before the match.
The match itself was basically a drama in two acts – separated by a two-hour and 15-minute rain delay. That’s a little strange for the California desert, but that’s another story.
The dark clouds were foreboding as the match began at about 4 p.m. with the lights already on. The first stoppage was brief with Shapovalov leading 2-1 in the first set. When play resumed, he broke Humbert but the Frenchman immediately broke back and the long interruption came with Humbert serving at 15-15 and down 3-2.
The Canadian’s erratic play of late re-surfaced when the action resumed at 6:45 p.m. in more tranquil conditions. He gave the 24-year-old Frenchman a few indications that all was not serene with his tennis – initially by hitting three double faults in a row at 4-4, a game that he nonetheless managed to win.
But two games later at 5-all, he double-faulted again to lose serve and proceeded to obliterate his racquet on the court before sitting down and gesticulating to his courtside team – coach Peter Polansky and physio Eddie Prommon – that he wanted them to leave. They did not.
Shapovalov lost the first set in the following game but seemed to have settled and was taking control in the second after breaking to 3-1 and holding to 4-1. He even had a break point for 5-1. But in what proved to be all too typical of late – he hit a glorious topspin lob winner to set up the break point but then passively misfired a forehand into the net to give Humbert new life.
“Sometimes he’ll be really good, be hyper-brilliant and then he’ll miss the next one,” Humbert said about the No. 30-ranked Shapovalov. “But I was able to stay concentrated, take my time and I knew I would have my chances.
“The second set was bizarre. It seemed like sometimes he wasn’t even trying.” Smiling, Humbert continued, “but not completely. When he was up 4-1 and had a forehand for 5-1, he definitely got a little tight. He had it but he didn’t really hit through it.”
Holding to 4-2 down got Humbert back into the set and when he broke to trail 4-3 he had renewed faith and Shapovalov had to be feeling déjà-vu – a second set in a row (and there have been a few of those lately) when he has the break and then ends up losing the set. When he dropped his serve again at 4-4 – hitting a feeble forehand near the net into the net – the dye had been cast. He didn’t even sit down at the end change, walking to the back of the court to receive serve in the tenth game seeming to indicate that he had had enough. To no one’s surprise, he lost the game on four quick points to end the hour and 54-minute encounter.
Humbert was thrilled to win for a number of reasons. He had been in a terrible slump since having a bad reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine prior to the 2021 US Open. Then he gradually went into a spiral, completely losing confidence in his tennis, and himself, after having a ranking as high as No. 25 in June 2021.
“I’m really pleased because, frankly, I was No. 160 in August and now I’m in the third round here,” the No. 77-ranked Humbert said. “I said to Jeremy (Chardy) that I’m on the right road. It’s been a long time since I beat such a good player.”
And it wasn’t as if Humbert didn’t have a significant challenge at this year’s BNP Paribas Open. On Sunday he lost a Challenger final in Pau, France, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(6) to his No. 149-ranked compatriot Luca Van Assche in three hours and 59 minutes – the longest final in a Challenger history. He was so exhausted he couldn’t take part in the presentation ceremony.
Then he arrived in Indian Wells at midnight on Monday and proceeded to defeat No. 42-ranked Bernabe Zapata Miralles of Spain on Wednesday in the first round. He said he’s still having difficulty sleeping but had enough in him to defeat Shapovalov – although that fateful forehand miss at 4-1 in the second set could have drastically changed the complexion of the match. A third set might have exposed Humbert’s vulnerability after his recent experiences.
The crowd in Stadium 4 was decidedly pro-Shapovalov and the outcome has to be a crusher for him – as that resigned walk to the back of the court before the final game suggested.
His next tournament will be the Miami Open as he tries not so much to find his game, but how to hold it together over stretches long enough to win sets and matches. He still has all the shots and can arguably hit them as well as any player in the sport. But he is sabotaging himself with elementary mistakes – starting with double faults. He had 14 on Friday to just three for Humbert.
If Roger Federer could go match after match throughout his career with just one or two double faults, there would seem to be no reason Shapovalov couldn’t consistently average something like just four or five per match.
The three remaining Canadians in singles make their debuts on Saturday.
They begin with No. 10 (8)Félix Auger-Aliassime as he takes on No. 120-ranked Pedro Martinez.
It will be a first meeting between the 22-year-old Auger-Aliassime and the 25-year-old Spaniard, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 40 in May 2022.
It’s the first BNP Paribas Open for Martinez while Auger-Aliassime is playing in the desert for the fifth time – with an overall 3-4 record. But he’s on a three-match losing streak. A year ago at the tournament, he lost 7-6(4)6-7(4), 6-3 to No. 47-ranked Botic van de Zandschulp in his opening round.
The match has an 11 a.m. (2 p.m. ET Canada) start time in Stadium 2.
That will precede the second round featuring No. 49 (30)Leylah Fernandez against wild card Emma Navarro. The 21-year-old American ranks No. 128 and has gained notoriety lately as the daughter of billionaire Ben Navarro of Charleston, S.C. His Beemok Capital group recently purchased the Western & Southern Open (Cincinnati) ATP and WTA tournament.
It’s the first meeting between Fernandez and Navarro.
Also in action Saturday, is 2019 BNP Paribas Open SSchampion Bianca Andreescu. She will take on wild card Peyton Stearns, a former college player at the University of Texas. Currently ranked No. 126, the 21-year-old Stearns has had a solid 2023 year, with an 18-3 record at USTA and WTA events.
It’s an initial head-to-head for the two players and is scheduled for not before 5 p.m. (8 p.m. ET in Canada) in Stadium 3.
In an opening-round doubles match on Friday, Andreescu and Kazak partner Yulia Putintseva were beaten 7-6(3), 6-4 by the eighth-seeded pairing of American Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez of Australia.