It didn’t come easy but Vasek Pospisil and Denis Shapovalov used superior power and being opportunistic when it mattered most to lead Canada to a 2-1 victory over Italy at the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid on Monday.
Pospisil defeated Fabio Fognini 7-6(5), 7-5 in the opening match before Shapovalov pulled out a thriller 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 7-6(5) over Matteo Berrettini. In the doubles which followed, Fognini and Berrettini rebounded to win 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 over Pospisil and Shapovalov after the Canadians dominated the second and third sets only to have an untimely lapse in the penultimate game.
With Félix Auger-Aliassime being given more time to prepare having come back from injury, Pospisil – now 10-10 in Davis Cup singles – was called upon by captain Frank Dancevic. He entered the tie with a record of 16-2 in his last 18 tour matches with the only losses coming to No. 4-ranked Daniil Medvedev 7-6(7), 7-5 in the third round of the Shanghai Masters 1000 event and to American Tommy Paul at the Knoxville Challenger when he had to retire with a back issue after the first set.
In Monday’s opener in Stadium 2, Pospisil broke serve to 3-1 in the first set against the No. 12-ranked Fognini before the 32-year-old Italian broke back to 3-4.
There was a crisis moment for Pospisil in the eleventh game at 5-all when he fell behind 15:40 on serve. A 201 km/hr ace, a 213 km/hr service winner and backhand serve return miss by Fognini and Pospisil was back to deuce, and effectively out of trouble.
“I rushed a little bit that game for sure,” he would say later. “Then I luckily kind of realized that and tried to re-focus and just go one point at a time and I knew I could probably hit a couple of big serves and suddenly it’s 30-40 and deuce. Definitely it could have been a different match if I’d been broken there. But I’d I like to think that I would have fought back if I hadn’t won the first set.”
The outcome would eventually be decided in a tiebreak that Pospisil led from start to finish and won 7-5.
With the courts playing fast, Pospisil was able to impose himself with better serving and heavier hitting than the artful but erratic Fognini who looked to be suffering with a leg issue early but showed few signs of it during the remainder of the match.
The second set went on serve to 5-all when Fognini found himself at love-40 on serve, saving the first two break points before missing a backhand to drop serve. Pospisil then served out the match in the final game, helped by his eighth and ninth aces (to go with three double faults).
Pospisil got the better of Fognini with bigger serving and better net play, and was able to hold his own in the baseline exchanges.
“I’m very happy with how I played,” he said. “I’ve been playing well the last few months. Definitely pretty high on confidence and feel that my game is in a good place, and so is my head. So I’m just happy I delivered the first point. It was a very important one obviously. Best-of-three matches, every match is very valuable. So I was just happy that I got the team off to a good start and Denis played amazing too to get the 2-0 win. It would have been nice to get the doubles but that’s how it goes when every match is very, very close. The doubles didn’t go our way but it was a great day.”
The match was competitive with Pospisil converting 2/5 on break points while Fognini was 1/5 – but Pospisil was generally in control after escaping that dicey 15-40 situation in the 11th game of the first set.
Control in the second match between Shapovalov and the No. 8-ranked Berrettini was constantly up for grabs as momentum shifts were a constant in a hotly-contested duel. In the first set Berrettini got out of a love-40 jam on serve in the third game and saved two more break points in the ninth game at 4-all. Then it was Shapovalov’s turn – he saved three set points to hold serve to 5-all.
The eventual tiebreak went Shapovalov’s way as he took a 6-3 lead with two serves to come. But Berrettini won both those points before missing a forehand volley into the net on the set point – a miss he would replay in gestures during the ensuing change-over as he spoke with captain Corrado Barazzutti.
There was bit of motif developing – a sense that Shapovalov was a slightly better player. He hit bigger off the ground but it was more in the essence of their game styles that gave him the edge. Where the 23-year-old Berrettini’s tennis seems mechanical and manufactured, Shapovalov’s is natural and fluid.
Shapovalov was also more resilient. In the second and third sets he had games when he double-faulted twice in a row – only to bounce back both times by winning the next three points.
After Berrettini leveled the match by taking the second-set tiebreak 7-3, the third set – overall Shapovalov was 0/7 on break points and Berrettini was 0/5 – proceeded to a third tiebreak after the Italian saved a break point in the fifth game. It probably came down to two points that illustrate the difference between the two players. Up a mini-break at 4-3, Berrettini served and volleyed but popped a make-able forehand volley long. Three points later at 5-all, Shapovalov had a make-able forehand volley and sure-handedly dispatched it for a winner. That made it 6-5 – match point – and Berrettini overhit a forehand long to end the two hour and 52-minute match and give Canada an insurmountable 2-0 lead in the tie.
Both matches featured fierce, low-trajectory hitting – and not an abundance of long rallies.
Shapovalov had played on similar courts in reaching the final of the Paris Masters 1000 (losing to Novak Djokovic) three weeks ago.
“It’s pretty quick,” he said about the hard-court surface. “I think Paris was pretty quick as well so it’s pretty similar – and a little bit more altitude here. I like to play on fast courts. I think it really suits my game. I’m happy with the courts.”
Shapovalov had 13 aces to Berrettini’s 15 but the highs and lows of the Canadian’s game were evident by his total of 13 double faults to just two for his opponent.
“Matteo is such a great player and he’s had an unbelievable season,” Shapovalov said. “For me to be able to get another win like this is a huge confidence booster. It was a really tough match. We both played really good today – just serving bombs and on these courts. It’s another kind of step forward that just shows me where my game is at.”
There was a genuine Davis Cup atmosphere in Stadium 2 – with the 300 Canadian supporters more than holding their own in terms of noise level and enthusiasm.
Shapovalov winning the first set seemed to somewhat mute the Italian fans but him showing his feisty side got them riled up in the middle of third set. A few delays and interactions with umpire Marijana Veljovic resulted in some booing and jeering at the 20-year-old Canadian. At one point he responded with three aces in a row – one on a second serve – and then cupped his hand around his ear as if to indicate he wanted to hear a reaction.
Captain Dancevic later commented that he had no issue with Shapovalov’s gesture – saying it was all about his emotions and the emotion of the moment.
“I love the atmosphere,” Shapovalov said. “I think at a time like this – the end of the season it’s… you’re not really looking forward to playing events and stuff like this. But to play Davis Cup and you walk out and the atmosphere is like this. It’s so hectic, it’s like nothing else that we experience. It’s unbelievable. For me it’s just fun to get into it. Honestly I don’t think the crowd was too good today – like talking a lot in between my first and second serves and clapping on doubles (double faults). I mean I was getting into it. Of course in the heat of the moment and maybe I over-reacted but at the same time I was just having fun with it, just enjoying it. It’s a bonus to be here and represent your country and for me it’s just fun to kind of get into it. And I feel like after I did the ear thing it turned into a really fun match. I feel like both sides of the fans really got into the match.”
The day ended with a scoreline of 2-1 when Fognini and Berrettini made a kind of Houdini-like escape in the doubles. After Pospisil and Shapovalov came out flat – both losing their serves in a 6-2 first set, they took over. They lost only four points in five service games in the second set and then zero in the first three games of the third compared to eight in the Italian pair’s first four service games.
But with Pospisil serving at 3-4, Shapovalov missed a forehand volley and then Berrettini, not the most player adept at the net, came out on top in a rapid-fire net exchange. Fognini, ever capable of magical ball-striking, then hit a couple of big shots, including a screaming backhand through the middle on the second break point to set up Berrettini to be able to serve out the match on an ace in the final game.
On Tuesday, Canada faces captain Mardy Fish’s United States team in its second and final Group F match. A win guarantees a spot in Thursday’s quarter-finals against the winner of Group D featuring Australian, Belgium and Colombia.
It appears likely Dancevic will go with the same line-up of Pospisil and Shapovalov against the USA. Explaining why he substituted Pospisil for Auger-Aliassime on Monday, he said, “Félix was struggling a little bit with his ankle. He hurt it a few weeks back. We thought we’d use a little precaution but at the same time Vasek has been playing great tennis – so Vasek indoors and at altitude is also a great pick. Given the situation today – Félix was a little sore with his ankle and Vasek’s been playing great so – so it was an easy pick to play Vasek.”
Looking ahead to the Americans, Dancevic said about their probable singles players, “to be honest, we both play similar game-styles. It doesn’t matter who our opponents are – they have three big servers and they’ll probably play them – (6-foot-5 Sam) Querrey, (6-foot-4 Taylor) Fritz and (7-foot Reilly) Opelka (but not Frances Tiafoe). That’s my prediction but I’m not sure. We have to focus on ourselves, what we’re doing well. Our guys are playing well, using their weapons, playing short points, playing aggressive tennis and we’re going to go out and do the same thing no matter who we play.”
Dancevic and his players were in the media conference room at 12:30 a.m. and were followed by the Italians at 1 a.m. early Tuesday. That was with a 4 p.m. start on Monday. With a 6 p.m. start Tuesday things could easily go well into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. “I think it’s absurd that it’s so late,” Dancevic said. “But at least we get to sleep in – we play late tomorrow (Tuesday). If we had to play first match tomorrow it would be tough.”
On a Sunday morning walk around the Madrid neighbourhood of Chamberi, we came across a proud papa who didn’t mind having this picture taken of his two young children in a stroller.
(Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak)