The expected blockbuster match-up of former juniors rivals Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round of the Australian Open on Monday turned out to be a bust as the Canadian roundly outplayed the Greek 6-1, 6-3, 7-6(5).
The first two sets were really no contest and even the third looked to be more of the same as Shapovalov broke serve in the second game and got off to a 3-1 lead.
But Tsitsipas took advantage of a Shapovalov lapse – a double fault and a missed volley were the final two points – to break serve to 2-3 in the fifth game.
Tsitsipas had picked up his level and the set and the match wound up being decided by a tiebreak – and that was basically decided at 5-all when Shapovalov, clearly the more dominant player on the day, belted a forehand that Tsitsipas could not handle to give him the decisive mini-break on the penultimate point.
“I played extremely well today,” Shapovalov said. “I felt from the warm-up that I was feeling the ball really clean.”
He also sensed some nerves in his 19-year-old (eight months older) opponent, thinking that his own superior experience from a round-of-16 run at the 2017 US Open (Tsitsipas has never won a Grand Slam tournament main-draw match) might be a factor.
“From the beginning I felt that maybe I’d be a little bit more comfortable,” Shapovalov said. “I felt he was a little bit tight at the start and (I) just used that advantage.”
A downcast Tsitsipas, told later what Shapovalov had said, confirmed the notion about the nerves. “It’s true actually, I was really nervous,” said the no. 82-ranked Greek. “Things went downhill from the beginning of the match. I didn’t play against a lefty for I think three or four months. It was tough for me to adjust to the game – and my serve was really bad today.”
“It was really disturbing that I couldn’t play my game the way I perform at 100 percent.”
Shapovalov had 32 winners and 32 unforced errors while Tsitsipas had a meager 11 winners to go with 29 unforced errors. The at net stats – 21 of 26 points won – will please Shapovalov, who said getting to the net and improving his sliced backhand service return – “hopefully I’ll have a good slice like Roger one day” he joked – have been his off-season priorities.
The 18-year-old Canadian’s level of play was impressive on a jammed packed (3,000-seat) Court 2. “I had a tough one against Kyle Edmund (a three-set loss in Brisbane), I mean he took out Kevin Anderson today in five sets,” Shapovalov said Monday about his 2018 season so far. “And I lost to DelPo (6-2, 6-4 in the second round in Auckland), it’s a tough match-up as well. I’d say I could have played a little bit better in the DelPo match. I definitely feel that I’m on top of my game and feel like I’ve improved.”
After winning two matches to lead Canada to a Davis Cup victory over India in Edmonton in mid-September, Shapovalov only won a single match at six events for the rest of 2017. “It was a long stretch at the end of last year,” he said. “That was my decision to go for that long. Unfortunately I didn’t end up playing that much due to the fact that I was sick or not feeling well. It’s just something I have to learn with experience – trying to keep it to a minimum of four or five weeks and then break.”
Bringing things up to date, he insisted, “The body feels good. I feel fresh. I haven’t had any complaints for the past couple of weeks. I’m definitely ready to get back and play.”
Next for him will be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a rematch of Shapovalov’s 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(3) win in the second round of last year’s US Open.
“I’m excited,” he said about facing the no. 15 seed. “I had really good feelings playing him last year. It was an unbelievable match from my side. It would be an honour to play him again – it’s another match-up that I would like.”
Shapovalov was asked a question in his post-match press conference that he will surely be asked over and over again in the next little while – ‘what are your goals for this year?’ He almost seemed to have a prepared reply, saying, “the main goal I have is to win an ATP title. I think if I set my mind to it, and work hard, I think this year it’s possible to lift up a title.”
As well as Shapovalov played, Vasek Pospisil did not match him – at least not until the final two sets of his 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(5) loss to Marin Cilic on Monday.
Playing 24 hours after he had qualified for the main draw with a tough three-set win over Ramkumar Ramanathan of India while experiencing right knee pain, he took a while to get going against the sixth-seeded Cilic.
“I got off to a bad start,” Pospisil said. “He was playing extremely well and I was serving poorly. Then the wind died down – it wasn’t necessarily too windy but just enough to throw me off – completely midway through the second set and I kind of found my range on the serve. I settled down and got some confidence from free points. Then it became a match in the third and fourth sets.”
It was remarkable how Pospisil was totally hanging (and more) in long rallies with Cilic over the last two sets. He was rock solid and his nerves held so well that he was able to fend off five match points before Cilic finally sealed the deal in the fourth set tiebreak – with the key point being a mini-break to 4-2 obtained by the Croat went he moved forward and put away a forehand volley.
Pospisil tried his heart out until the final shot – which was a desperation stretch lob that Cilic knocked off with an overhead winner.
“I was going for the win,” said Pospisil, “believing that I could win that fourth set. I was playing well and he was playing extremely well. The match wasn’t far from turning around.”
Most of the stats from the three-hour and 37-minute match were more favourable to Cilic, but Pospisil was better in one category – converting two of five break-point chances while Cilic was just five for 18.
There had been much talk about his knee trouble after Sunday’s qualifying match, with an ultrasound and even an MRI appearing to be possibilities.
“The knee was actually quite good,” Pospisil said after playing Cilic. “Ultrasound – I ended up not getting one – just played with pain killers.”
Next on the programme for Pospisil: “Davis Cup (in Croatia Feb. 2-4) and I’m going to see how the doubles (with Ryan Harrison) goes here and possibly an event before Davis Cup.”
On Tuesday Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard will be showcased on the same Court 2 where Denis Shapovalov won his opening round on Monday.
Raonic is first at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. on Monday ET in Canada) when he faces no. 86-ranked Lukas Lacko of Slovakia.
He’s a Q&A with Raonic about his preparation for the Australian Open and the Lacko match-up.
Q: What about (Lukas) Lacko in the first round? You played him once.
MR: Have I?
Q: Yes, 6-3, 6-3 in Tokyo in 2013.
MR: I know a little bit about him. He hits the ball big – pretty flashy. He can do some things really well. So I’ll just be there on court – three-out-of-five there’s going to be some lapses and hopefully less of them come from me than from him.
Q: Was playing the Tiebreak Tens (an exhibition where he beat Dominic Thiem 10-7 and lost 11-9 to Tom Berdych) last Wednesday helpful for you?
MR: It was good just to play – just to compete that’s what I’ve been missing. And it was good to face that kind of pace because when I was here before (in Melbourne during the Christmas period) I was hitting with a lot of younger guys. I just wasn’t ready to hit with the top players at that point so it was good to have that time.
As for Bouchard – she will play Océane Dodin in the match immediately following Raonic. The 21-year-old Frenchwoman has been bothered by vertigo problems and will be playing her first tournament since the National Bank Cup in Quebec City last September. Now ranked an unflattering no. 112, Bouchard and Dodin, no. 85, have no previous meetings.
Later on Tuesday, Peter Polansky, who lost in the final round of qualifying but got into the main draw as a lucky loser when Filip Krajinovic and Yen-Hsun Lu pulled out, will face no. 48 Karen Khachanov. It’s a first encounter for the 21-year-old, 6-foot-6 Russian and the no. 139 Polansky.
AUSTRALIAN POST CARD
Like many major cities in the world, public transport is under greater and greater stress in Melbourne. Above is the current rail system and below is the construction process, going on in the middle of the city beside Swanston Street, that’s planned to alleviate some of the overload.