Denis SHapovalov prepares forehand Australian Open 2022

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Though there were moments of Denis Shapovalov at his sublime best, his 7-6(3), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(3) victory over Laslo Djere in the opening round of the Australian Open on Monday required perseverance through some dicey situations.

The No. 51-ranked Serb served for the first set at 5-4 (and had two set points) and for the fourth at 6-5 only to be forced to tiebreaks, which 14th-seeded Shapovalov eventually won by identical 7-3 scores.

Djere, a solid professional known for giving an honest effort, saved a match point serving at 4-5 in the fourth set. He handled a tricky slice near the net from Shapovalov and then put away an overhead. But exactly 20 minutes later – after the players traded breaks in the 11th and 12th games – Shapovalov had the win in three hours and 23-minutes with a forced error off the Serb’s forehand on the second match point.

There were highs and lows for both men – Shapovalov finished with 39 winners and 68 unforced errors while Djere was 32 winners and 52 unforced errors.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Shapovalov is always a bit of a high-wire act with his amazing power hitting weaving in and out at times. That can be frustrating for his fans but as long as he connects when it really counts, as he did Monday afternoon in John Cain Arena, they will not be too disappointed.

“He did a great job to come back after being down two sets to love,” Shapovalov summed up post-match about Djere. “He changed his tactics and started to go for it more and it was very tricky. I just kept fighting and I’m very happy with my effort – it felt like the fourth set was slipping away from me a little bit after having that match point. I just stayed in it, tried to do everything I could and I’m very happy with the outcome.”

About his ability to get through the difficult moments in the match, the 22-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., said, “it’s been a work in progress. Obviously it’s easy to get upset with yourself, especially having a slow start or something. But I think me and my team have done a good job of working on that, just fighting and kind of having like a Rafa (Nadal) mentality – playing every single point, just fighting for everything. It was a good job of that today so I’m very happy with myself.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Shapovalov served well, particularly in big moments, winning 82 per cent of first-serve points – 58/71.

He stretched his Aussie Open career record to 6-4 and seems to be rounding into form after arriving in Sydney after Christmas and testing positive for COVID-19. Following a slow start at the ATP Cup two weeks ago, he was key in Canada’s victory as he won two doubles matches with Félix Auger-Aliassime and scored singles wins over No. 51-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff, No. 167 Roman Safiullin and No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta.

“I’m definitely playing more consistently,” Shapovalov said in a TSN interview. “At the beginning of the year obviously there was a little struggle with getting COVID, being stuck in my room. But I did turn around really, really well at ATP Cup.”  

Next for Shapovalov will be a second-round match against No. 54-ranked Soonwoo Kwon. The 24-year-old Korean advanced Monday with a 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 99 Holger Rune of Denmark in three hours and five minutes. Shapovalov defeated Kwon 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of the 2020 US Open in their only previous meeting.

“I remember it was super, super tough,” he said about that match. “There are not a lot of weaknesses and he plays very flat, very quick and it will be tricky in these conditions. But the win definitely gives me confidence heading into the next match.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Courtside on Monday was Jamie Delgado, a new addition to the Shapovalov team replacing Mikhail Youzhny. “Jamie is my coach, he was with Andy (Murray) for many years and he’s definitely a great add – overall a great guy,” Shapovalov said. “It’s definitely very early on for us but we have connected and clicked really well.”

(Delgado, 44, is a former British mainly doubles player who reportedly holds the male record for most consecutive appearances at Wimbledon – 23 – from 1992 to 2014.)

Seated with Delgado behind the court on Monday was nine-time Grand Slam doubles champion Jonas Bjorkman and Shapovalov’s girlfriend, No. 214-ranked Mirjam Bjorklund. She lost in the final round of Aussie Open qualifying and is coached by fellow-Swede Bjorkman.

“It’s always great to have a chance to talk to someone like Jonas and Jamie,” Shapovalov said, “it’s been some awesome dinners.”

On Tuesday, the three other Canadians begin their 2022 Australian Opens.

Leylah Fernandez, 19, will be second following a men’s match (after an 11 a.m. start – 7 p.m. Monday ET in Canada) in 1573 Arena versus Australian wild card, No. 133-ranked Maddison Inglis. Seeded No. 23, Fernandez, 0-2, is looking for her first Aussie Open main-draw victory, but she did qualify in 2020. She has a 2-0 record against the 24-year-old Inglis, both matches taking place at Challenger-level events in 2019.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Auger-Aliassime plays No. 90-ranked Emil Ruusuvuori. The No. 9-seed, 21, and the 22-year-old Finn are scheduled to follow the Fernandez – Inglis match in 1573 Arena. It’s a first meeting.

Auger-Aliassime has a 3-2 record at Melbourne Park, that includes beating Shapovalov to reach the fourth round a year ago before losing to tournament revelation Aslan Karatsev in five sets.

Rebecca Marino, a qualifier, is playing in her fifth Aussie Open main draw dating back to 2011 and has a 2-4 match record. The 31-year-old from Vancouver, ranked No. 143, will face No. 86 Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic. It’s a first meeting between Marino and the 23-year-old Czech and will be the fourth match on Court 13.

Focus on Naomi

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Our fine photographer Martin Sidorjak sent these pics from a practice session at Melbourne Park of defending champion Naomi Osaka. They were so good we thought we’d pass them along.

BTW – Osaka won her opening round on Monday, 6-3, 6-3 over No. 50-ranked Camila Orsorio of Colombia.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak