Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil won their opening-round matches on Tuesday – one of the most eventful days ever for Canadians at the US Open.
Andreescu, playing at Flushing Meadows for the first time since winning the title in 2019, needed all of two hours and 48 minutes to overcome a determined Viktorija Golubic 7-5, 4-6, 7-5. Shapovalov got back on track with an emphatic 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 dusting of Federico Delbonis and Pospisil capped a spirited comeback with a 2-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, 7-6(4) win over Fabio Fognini on a cozy Court 10 overflowing with passionate spectators.
After disappointing summer hard-court results, Andreescu was an unknown quantity heading into Flushing Meadows off losses to No. 22-ranked Ons Jabeur in her second match in Montreal and to No. 23 Karolina Muchova in her opening round in Cincinnati.
Her willpower and guile enabled her to win several three-set thrillers when she won the 2019 National Bank Open in Toronto and then the US Open in New York. On Tuesday night, overlapping into Wednesday morning, the 21-year-old was doing it again – teetering on the brink before finally overcoming the No. 45 ranked Golubic, a sweet-stroking Swiss with a gorgeous one-handed backhand.
Andreescu won the first and third sets, both from 4-2 down, producing her trademark fearless, explosive shot-making in the clutch. In the second set, she led 4-3 before dropping three games in a row, losing the ultimate set point on a clumsily played backhand half-volley into the net off a looping shot from Golubic.
At 2-2 in that set, a teary-eyed Andreescu had stopped play to sit in her courtside seat and await a visit from the trainer and the doctor. “My food was like rumbling in my stomach,” she would later explain in her post-match, on-court interview. “I just felt like I had to throw up – just super nauseous, which is super random because I ate like five hours ago.”
In back-to-back, change-over visits from the trainer and doctor she was given tablets that soon kicked in. “It was totally fine like after a couple of games,” she said.
There was a sense throughout that if she could just tap into her top level, or close to it, she could take over the match – although there were many moments when it appeared possible that might not happen. At her best, Andreescu is arguably as good as the two most successful Grand Slam champions of recent times – Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka.
She isn’t there yet but there were times when she showed her rare ability to hit laser-bolt, break-out winners in rallies. There was one such shot in the very last game of the match when, trailing 30-15 on the Golubic serve, she just exploded a backhand cross-court winner that was well out of reach of the totally out-manoeuvered Swiss. Two points later, a pair of Golubic unforced errors, and Andreescu had the win and a spot in the second round against No. 98-ranked Lauren Davis, a 5-foot-2, 27-year-old American who will not be able to try to challenge Andreescu’s firepower as Golubic did. She will instead have to hope her tenacity and retrieval skills can hold off the 2019 US Open champion.
Andreescu didn’t play a single tournament in 2020 and so far in 2021 there have not been any results, except reaching the final of the Miami Open in April, that can be considered commensurate with her talent and past success.
“It’s definitely emotional,” she said right after winning at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday morning in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I didn’t play here last year – I honestly didn’t play anything in 2020. I’ve been struggling a lot this past year. I’m just thinking about all those struggles and about how it’s all worth it. Winning on this court again – it’s just incredible.”
About what she had just been through against a resourceful Golubic, she said, “there were some downs throughout the match, but I just fought my butt off and I’m just super ecstatic.”
After battling injuries as well as a bout of COVID-19 in the spring, Andreescu claimed to be in fine shape after the grueling, emotionally-draining contest. “I feel great honestly, I’ve been working so hard physically,” she said. “I feel like I could have gone for another set.”
There has been a remarkable list of fifth-set (and women’s third set) tiebreak results at the 2021 US Open and Pospisil’s gem with Fognini on Tuesday evening ranks right up there.
The match’s eventual rousing conclusion seemed improbable when Fognini convincingly won the first two sets. But Pospisil broke the 34-year-old Italian in the first game of the third set to spark a turnaround – and from then it was ‘game on.’ He won the third set 6-1, and the fourth with a break to 5-3 before serving it out.
That was all prelude to the drama that boiled over in the fifth set when Fognini looked to have regained control after breaking serve to 2-0 and then extending to a 4-1 lead – until Pospisil broke back to 4-3 and held to 4-4 as things got a lot more interesting.
The match might be said to have come down to two factors – Pospisil serving better and being the more aggressive player, as well as the sense that Fognini might be a little more prepared to lose. And the converse – that Pospisil was a lot more determined not to lose.
A key moment came when the 31-year-old Canadian served to stay in the match at 5-6 in the final set and fell behind love-30. Then an attacking backhand volley winner, a backhand return error by Fognini, an ace (accompanied by a smile) and another return miss by Fognini and the score was even at 6-6 – with the outcome hinging on a tiebreak.
Pospisil won the first point on the Fognini serve with a forcing forehand that was unreturnable and from then on was always in the lead. He got ahead 4-1 and, even when Fognini got the mini-break back to 3-4, immediately retrieved it to take a 5-3 advantage. Ahead 5-4 with two serves to come, the final two points were Pospisil’s 24th ace and a missed forehand return into the net by Fognini to end a contest that had the rapturous crowd surrounding Court 10 riding every high and low of the dramatic-filled finish.
The numbers confirm that Pospisil was the more offensive player – his winners to unforced errors ratio was 40/40 while Fognini was 28/29.
“I tried getting it together after a pretty shaky start,” Pospisil said in a TSN on-court interview. About his rally in the fifth set, adding, “I was playing well and I was just trying to stay positive and wait for my opportunity. I was just trying to give myself positive thoughts, and telling myself that I’ll have an opportunity to break back. Obviously it doesn’t happen every time but I gave myself the opportunity with my mindset to come back and win this one.”
Fognini was a man of few words after the match but he did say about Pospisil, “his game is playing serve and hitting the first ball really hard…I think for him. But I regret a lot of things today so…”
Sitting courtside with Pospisil’s coach Vincent Millot, a retired French player, was retired basketball great Steve Nash. He’s a fellow British Columbian and friend whose proximity Pospisil admitted created some pressure (and inspiration) because he was such an awesome (two-time NBA MVP) athlete.
In Thursday’s second round, the 31-year-old Pospisil will face No. 53-ranked Illya Ivashka. It will be a first meeting with the 27-year-old Belarusian who won his initial career title last Saturday at the ATP 250 event in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Pospisil is into the second round of the US Open for the fourth year in a row, his most consistent record of performance at a Grand Slam.
The Shapovalov – Delbonis match in Louis Armstrong Stadium was really only competitive until 2-2 in the opening set – just until the Argentine had his serve broken and Shapovalov proceeded to go on a 9-0 game tear, all the way to 4-0 in the second set.
Delbonis is one of the most machine-like, expressionless players on the tour and against an opponent as fired up as Shapovalov – coming in off consecutive, substandard performances in losses in Toronto (Frances Tiafoe) and Cincinnati (Benoit Paire) – he didn’t really stand a chance. It has to be noted Delbonis is better on clay – 23-13 in 2021 on the dirt compared with a now 0-5 record on hard courts.
Shapovalov had 38 winners to just 11 for the 30-year-old Delbonis and did not face a single break point on serve during the one-hour and 49-minute match. He won 90 per cent (37/41) of his first-serve points, with the only negative on a very positive day being his 44 per cent (12/27) conversion rate on second-serve points.
“There were a lot of tough games that I was able to win and if I didn’t get those the match would have been a lot longer,” said Shapovalov, being charitable to his over-matched opponent. “So I’m just happy to capitalize the chances and to be back here with all the fans – it’s amazing.”
He has a bit of a surprise second-round opponent after Roberto Carballes Baena defeated No. 54-ranked Tommy Paul of the U.S. 7-6(5), 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 on Tuesday.
Like Delbonis, the No. 95-ranked Carballes Baena is more of a clay-court player and Shapovalov is well aware of that – having lost 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-3, 3-6, 8-6 to the pesky Spaniard in a memorable second-round match at Roland Garros last October.
He felt hard done by then when a line call went against him late in the match (with a Hawk-Eye replay later confirming his view), so he could have a little extra incentive in Thursday’s match.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
These are a couple of stylish T-shirts from the 2016 US Open – and you don’t even need snow to wear the one on the left.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa