There’s an old Aussie adage for all-or-nothing extremes – Sydney or the bush. In one of the Australian Open round-of-16 matches on Sunday there was little doubt who was big-city Sydney (Denis Shapovalov) and who was barren-territory bush (Alexander Zverev).
As poorly as Zverev performed, a player with the rare and explosive weapons of Shapovalov is his worst nightmare.
From the start, Shapovalov staked his claim boldly by more than holding his own in the rallies with the world No. 3. He would finish the two-hour and 21-minute encounter with twice as many rally winners – 28 to 14 – and a 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 victory.
That was impressive against one of the game’s best ground-strokers and the man odds-makers had established as the second favourite to win the title.
Shapovalov was in the ascendency for almost all the match, getting a break to 3-1 in the opening set on his way to winning it. The only let-up came in the second set when he broke serve in the first game only to get broken back and then lose serve again trailing 4-3 with a terrible game featuring two double faults. But when Zverev then served for the set at 5-3 he returned the favour with a pair of double faults in a shaky game that began with a woefully-collapsed second serve that barely crawled halfway up the net.
Shapovalov won the game and then dominated the eventual tiebreak, leading 5-1 before finally closing it out 7-5 on a wild miss-hit Zverev forehand.
“I just tried to fight, obviously he threw in a couple of doubles so I knew he was a little bit nervous,” Shapovalov said about getting the break back late in the second set. “I just tried to play every point so I’m definitely happy I was able to come back there.”
The third set was all-Shapovalov – he broke in the second game and finally put away a dispirited Zverev when the German misfired a forehand into the net on match point.
Shapovalov’s service numbers were not as strong as his previous matches – three aces, 11 double faults, 63 per cent of first serves made, 77 per cent of first-serve points won and just 46 per cent won on second serve. But he made up for those numbers with sublime form from the backcourt. “Off the ground, I was playing really well, really feeling my shots off both wings,” he said in his on-court interview. “I played pretty smart today – obviously things were going my way early on, lost a little bit of the momentum midway in the second set but fought well to come back and just kind of rolled with it after.”
The final count on the stats sheet was 35 winners and 37 unforced errors for Shapovalov and 18 winners and 32 unforced errors for his third-seeded opponent.
Zverev offered no excuses after the loss, but was downcast and frustrated with his performance. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to do better,” he said. “I came here with a goal to win, and maybe to become No. 1 and all that. But if I play like that, I don’t deserve it. It’s as simple as that. Today I was just not good enough to beat someone like Denis.”
With Félix Auger-Aliassime playing Marin Cilic in a Monday round-of-16 match, Shapovalov’s win creates the possibility of two Canadians being in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the second time in the last three majors – at Wimbledon ’21 Shapovalov made the semi-finals and Félix Auger-Aliassime reached the quarter-finals.
Shapovalov mentioned in a post-match TSN interview that earlier Sunday he had crossed paths with Auger-Aliassime. “I talked to him today and he said he was serving well and playing well. And he kind of gave me a look and said ‘you’ve got this.’ So it gave me confidence before the match that Félix approved of it. Best of luck to him, he’s got a tough one (against Marin Cilic) but he’s playing great and, if he’s serving like he did the last match, I think anyone is going to struggle against him.”
On Saturday, following his win over Dan Evans, Auger-Aliassime spoke about the relationship with his compatriot. “Denis and I have always mutually motivated each other in a positive way. And I think it takes the pressure off to not be the only Canadian player of this generation in the Top 20 or the Top 10. So to have Denis too is good, and good for Canadian tennis.”
Shapovalov can dream big as he prepares for his quarter-final match-up with Rafael Nadal on Tuesday. The top half of the draw opened up with the late (forced) withdrawal of the man who was to be the No. 1 seed, Novak Djokovic. As a result, if Shapovalov can beat the sixth-seeded Nadal, he would face either No. 7 Matteo Berrettini or No. 20 Gael Monfils in the semi-finals, with a potential final beckoning against No. 2 and clear-cut favourite Daniil Medvedev.
Looking ahead to Tuesday, Shapovalov said, “it’s always an honour to go up against a player of Rafa’s calibre. But at the end of the day, it’s just another match and I’m going to go about it the same way – try to play my game as best as I can and take it to him.
“We played not too long ago in an exhibition [in Abu Dhabi last month in a third-place playoff match that Shapovalov won 6-7(4), 6-3, 10-8] – completely different conditions, a completely different match. It’s always going to be a battle against him.”
In their head-to-head, the No. 5-ranked Nadal leads 3-1, getting wins in 2018 and 2021 in Rome and at the 2019 Davis Cup finals in Madrid since a 18-year-old Shapovalov beat him on a memorable, magical night in Montreal in 2017.
Improbably, Shapovalov has not had another win (0-16) over a top-five ranked player since that upset of the then No. 2 Nadal well over more than four years ago. It would seem only fitting if he were able to beat him now and bookend that streak of futility with another victory over the already legendary Spaniard.
Auger-Aliassime will go for the third Grand Slam quarter-final of his career – Wimbledon 2021 (QF) and 2021 US Open (SF) – when he plays the 27th-seeded Cilic in John Cain Arena not before 2 p.m. on Monday (10 p.m. ET Sunday in Canada).
That daytime scheduling may be favourable to him because Cilic said after upsetting No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev on Saturday night, “in the evening it is a little bit cooler, so you can go for a bit more on your shots and it really went well for me. I served great and that is the way to go against the guys at the top. If you are giving them a chance to hit, you will have trouble. So I was trying to be aggressive and it paid off.”
The 33-year-old Cilic has a 3-0 head-to-head advantage against Auger-Aliassime. He said Saturday that he has worked hard and has improved his game since last summer – so has Auger-Aliassime.
The 6-foot-6 Croat lost the 2018 Aussie Open final to Roger Federer in five sets and reached a career-high No. 3 ranking that same month. But he is now No. 27 and Auger-Aliassime, 21, is in the Top 10 at No. 9 – suggesting the younger man may be playing at the superior level. That’s something he will attempt to prove Monday in 10,500-seat John Cain Arena, the so-called ‘people’s arena.’
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak