The first Canadian Davis Cup tie in Ottawa since 1994 could hardly have been more successful. Enthusiastic crowds each day climaxed with 7,497 spectators present on Sunday to witness Vasek Pospisil’s thrilling 7-6(5), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(5) victory over Britain’s Dan Evans to send the World Group opening round tie into a fifth and deciding match.
Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau marvelled at the fact that the Arena at TD Place was nearly full for the beginning of the first singles match at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon and that things just got even better from there. After his palpitating win over Evans on Sunday, Pospisil spoke about the amazing volume coming from the Canadian supporters. He might have added that he had also never heard a crowd so quiet – or maybe well-behaved is a better way to put it. This veteran reporter has never been at a Davis Cup tie anywhere where the crowd was so well behaved. The moment the players were ready to start a point, the arena fell perfectly silent – and there may not have been a single interruption between a player’s first and second serves.
“That’s how it should be,” Laurendeau said about the crowd’s demeanour – and that in no way implied it was apathetic or uninvolved. “That’s definitely the loudest atmosphere that I’ve played in ever,” were Pospisil’s exact words on court following his win and the 26-year-old from Vancouver has played in places as far flung as Mexico City, Guayaquil (Ecuador), Belgrade and Ramat Hasharon (Israel) among others.
The crowd was ecstatic after Pospisil’s riveting, roller-coaster victory over Evans and anxious to see 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov face Kyle Edmund, 22, in a confrontation of the respective nation’s No. 2 players in the deciding match.
It turned out to be a one-sided affair with Edmund leading 6-3, 6-4, 2-1 after breaking the Shapovalov serve in the third game of the third set. After a subpar performance in a three-set loss to Pospisil on Friday, the No. 47-ranked Edmund had tightened up his game and was dominating from the baseline with heavier ground strokes, especially the forehand.
Shapovalov missed a backhand wide to fall behind 2-1 in the final set and – from a spot just behind the centre service line T – and then whacked a ball toward the stands in disgust. It had a fairly low trajectory and went directly at and struck French umpire Arnaud Gabas in the left eye area.
There was shock on many sides but knowledgeable tennis people knew immediately that the match was over, that Shapovalov would be disqualified. Above members of both teams – including Laurendeau, Shapovalov and team doctor Nicolas Sauvé on the right – went to check on Gabas.
Laurendeau would later explain, “I actually didn’t see what happened. When the last point was over I just got up and looked around to see if on the change-over he’d have all his drinks, his bananas and everything.
“I knew immediately that the rules are the rules (about disqualification) and you’ve got to play by the rules.”
In 1995, during a doubles match at Wimbledon, British player Tim Henman, from his own side of the net, fairly innocently hit a ball in anger that struck a ballgirl in the head and he was defaulted.
British captain Leon Smith gave his views on the incident and on the two matches played on Sunday. “It’s a shame,” he said at his media conference after Gabas had announced from the chair that Shapovalov had been defaulted and that the match and the tie was over. “I think we’re all pretty surprised at what just happened. First off, we saw a great match this morning. Vasek was inspired and Evo (Evans) was fighting like hell. It was a great match. And I thought Kyle was terrific. He really bossed the match (with Shapovalov). It was pretty much one-way traffic. It would have been nice for Kyle just to get over the line in a straight-sets win, which it was heading for and a great performance. To finish like that…I feel sorry for Denis. He’s learned a harsh lesson today. But he’ll learn I’m sure but the most important thing is that the umpire is okay. That can be really, really dangerous when a ball’s travelling at that speed from a very short distance and it’s gone straight in his eye.”
Word on Sunday evening was that Gabas was okay but he was going to be checked to make sure there was no retina damage to his left eye (see picture above).
An apologetic Shapovalov was visibly upset afterward but spoke at the Canadian team media conference saying, “I went back and spoke to the referee (Ed. Note: the umpire) after and apologized directly to him. Luckily he’s okay but obviously it’s just unacceptable behaviour from me. To be honest I just feel incredibly ashamed and embarrassed and I just feel awful for letting my team down and my country down for acting a way that I would never want to act. I can promise that that’s the last time I will do anything like that. I’m going to learn from this and try to move past it. I was very lucky that the ref was okay.”
It has to be remembered that Shapovalov (in towel with Laurendeau above) is just 17, though he’s a supremely talented player who won the 2016 Wimbledon Junior Boys Singles and who already ranks No. 234 in the world. There was a poignant moment after his three-set loss to Evans on Friday, a contest when he looked over-matched against the world No. 45. In an interview with Sportsnet’s Arash Madani afterward, he was asked what he had learned from the loss. He took a moment to respond and it was obvious he was choked up for a few seconds…but then was able to continue.
So he is still a 17-year-old trying to find his way in life and in his profession.
Fortunately, it does not appear that he will suffer any sanction beyond a fine for the incident. That would mean he would be eligible for Canada’s next Davis Cup action which will be a World Group Playoff from September 15-17, the week after the US Open.
The unfortunate ending to the Shapovalov – Edmund match overshadowed what had been a brilliant victory by Pospisil.
Things did not begin well as Evans broke serve in the third game and had two more break points to take a 4-1 (double-break) lead. Pospisil saved them and began playing better, breaking back to 3-all and taking the set with the some strong play combined with some erratic hitting by Evans.
Pospisil, with a slightly larger bandage on his left knee than during his doubles loss with Daniel Nestor to Dominic Inglot and Jamie Murray on Saturday, was always in danger of feeling the problem as well as an issue with his back. After he won the second set and took a 3-1 lead in the third he had what he would later describe as a “dip” in energy and overall fitness and would lose seven games in a row to trail 2-0 in the fourth set.
But he revived and broke back to 3-3 and finally went on to finish off the match in a 7-5 tiebreak.
“This will help him get back to where he has been,” Evans said afterward. “He’s been playing terrible for however long and this week he’s playing as well as I’ve ever seen him. My break point conversion today must have been diabolical, he served so good on break points. I’ve got to give it to him he played better than me today.”
Pospisil came very close to not even playing the match with his various ailments, but would eventually say that he felt better on day three against Evans than he had in the opening day’s singles or Saturday’s doubles.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you, it was 50-50,” he said about his chances when he got up on Sunday morning. “If I had woken up the way I had woken up yesterday, I wouldn’t have played. The concern was whether my knee would hurt in the fourth or fifth set like it did a little bit in the doubles yesterday. It sort came on late in the match and my serve vanished. Because it had felt good it was a bit more of a calculated risk. I had really good treatment last night – we went really aggressive. Whereas the other days we were trying to be careful with it, we kind of went all in and said ‘we’ll see how it reacts.’ It reacted well and so it was just a bit of concern whether it would last the four or five sets. The last thing I wanted to do was go on the court and have trouble finishing the match physically. It was a tough decision and we honestly decided at the very last moment. I was calling my coach (Mark Woodforde) and the coach and the captain here and finally I made the call and said that if I had to I’d take some painkillers, it’s not something you want to do but it’s something I did anyway. It was a last-minute decision.”
Pospisil is headed to San Francisco for a Challenger event but he said he expects to pull out and then play ATP events in Memphis, Delray Beach and Indian Wells.
As for the Canadian team – it is now at the mercy of a draw that will be made in April for the World Group Playoffs to be contested in September. The past two World Group Playoffs, Canada has drawn South American opponents – Colombia (2014) and Chile (2016) – at home. It will hope to be so fortunate again in 2017.
This huddled mass of people is waiting to cross at the corner of Sussex Drive and George Street near the Byward Market, a popular downtown destination for tourists and locals. The temperature on that particular day last week was -8 Celsius.