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Tebbutt: Denis and Roger

Oct 02, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

It seems remarkable to hear some Canadian tennis followers sounding disappointed about Denis Shapovalov’s results this year.

He’s only 19 years old and, after starting the year ranked No. 51, he’s now No. 31 and scored an impressive win Monday by beating No. 23 Hyeon Chung 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 at the Japan Open.

It’s preposterous to suggest he will one day have as good a career as Roger Federer – who will? – but it provides some perspective to look at where the great Swiss was at the same time in his career.

That would be the year 2000 when he turned 19 in August – four months later than Shapovalov turned 19 in April. He started the year ranked No. 64 and ended it at No. 29. Those numbers are both similar to Shapovalov at the moment.

In terms of matches won, Federer was 36-30 in 2000 while Shapovalov currently stands at 32-24 with five tournaments left to play.

Federer had not won a tournament but had been a finalist in Marseille and at his home event in Basel.

Shapovalov has not been a finalist but has twice been a semi-finalist at the Masters 1000 level – in Montreal at the Rogers Cup in 2017 and this year on clay in Madrid.

Probably Federer trumps him by having reached the bronze medal match at the 2000 Olympic Games – that’s how long it has been since he was 19 – where he won four matches before losing to No. 48-ranked Tommy Haas in the semi-finals and then to unheralded No. 62 Arnaud di Pasquale of France 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-7(7), 6-3 in the bronze medal match.

It was also at the Sydney Games where he began a romance with compatriot Miroslava Vavrinec – one that endures to this day and has resulted in their family of twin daughters and twin sons.

Photo: Adriano Fuorivia

Shapovalov (above as a hitting partner with Federer in 2014 at the Rogers Cup in Toronto) has talked about how Federer was one of his idols, particularly because of his one-handed backhand. While he has played Rafael Nadal twice – beating him in a memorable round-of-16 in Montreal in 2017 and then losing to him in the round-of-16 in Rome this year – he has never been on the court against Federer or Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.

He came within a match of facing Federer in the quarter-finals in Basel last October but was beaten 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 by No. 28-ranked Adrian Mannarino in the second round.

“Denis almost leads the pack of the next generation of players coming through,” Federer said at the time about the prospect of playing Shapovalov. “It would be great if we played each other. I think a lot of him and his game and his talent. He already did amazing against Rafa back home in Montreal and now it would be in my backyard. We’ll see so much more of Denis so it would be very fitting for us to play each other.”

Since Basel last year, Shapovalov and Federer have played in seven tournaments together – in 2018 Federer has only played nine compared to Shapovalov’s 23 – and the closest they have come to meeting was at the grass-court event in Stuttgart last June when Shapovalov needed to win his opening two rounds to face the great Swiss in the quarter-finals but lost to Pragnesh Gunneswaran of India in the first round.

In 2018, there are probably only two chances left for a Shapovalov-Federer match-up – next week at the Masters 1000 in Shanghai and then two weeks later at the ATP 500 in Basel. Both would be entered in the Paris/Bercy Masters 1000 the following week but Federer is always questionable there if he does well in Basel, as he did last year when he won his eighth title in his hometown.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

Probably the perception of Shapovalov as not progressing as much as some might expect results from those sensational 2017 wins over No. 2 Nadal and No. 31 Juan Martin del Potro at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and then over No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the US Open.

So far in 2018 his only top-20 wins have come over No. 14 Sam Querrey in Miami, No. 17 Tomas Berdych in Rome, No. 14 Fabio Fognini in Toronto and No. 16 Kyle Edmund in Cincinnati.

He has lost all four matches against top-10 players – to No. 6 Dominic Thiem in Acapulco, No. 3 Sascha Zverev in Madrid, No. 2 Nadal in Rome and No. 5 Kevin Anderson at the US Open.

Currently he’s 0-0 with Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka – the latter, 33 and ranked No. 74, is on his way back from two left-knee surgeries in August of 2017. He will be Shapovalov’s opponent in the second round of the Japan Open on Wednesday and should provide a good reference point for him against the older generation.

Photo: Kaoru Takeda

This year’s Japan Open is being played in the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza instead of the Ariake Coliseum, which is being renovated for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The Musashino arena above – with two courts in the same space – will be the site for badminton at the 2020 Games.

Photo: Kaoru Takeda

All and all, with a top-30 ranking still very possible with five tournaments – plus the non points-giving Next Gen ATP finals in Milan – remaining on his schedule, Shapovalov has had a solid 2018.

At 19 years and five months, he is the youngest player in the top 100 and the only teenager along with No. 38-ranked Alex de Minaur (19 years and seven months) of Australia. By comparison, current most promising young (21) pretender, No. 5-ranked Sascha Zverev, was No. 24 exactly two years ago when he was 19.

Most tennis observers think Shapovalov is the real deal and, as such, moving up about 20 spots in the rankings in 2018 would appear to be right on course for bigger and better things.

ROLLING THE DAVIS CUP DICE

Photo: Team Canada

There was celebration in the Canadian Davis Cup team locker room after its 3-1 win over the Netherlands 16 days ago in Toronto. That’s somewhat tempered now by the very real chance that it will have to travel in February to either Slovakia or Portugal to play on clay in the 2019 qualifying for the new Davis Cup finals to be held in Madrid in late November.

Canada awaits the winner of one of two Europe/Africa Zone relegation playoffs – Portugal hosting South Africa on clay Oct. 19-20 in Lisbon and Slovakia hosting Belarus on clay in Bratislava Oct. 26-27.

Of those four possibilities, only Canada vs. South Africa would be in Canada with all three other options away Feb. 1-2 immediately following the Australian Open.

It makes all the efforts of Milos Raonic winning two matches, and Denis Shapovalov coming back from two sets down to beat No. 1 Dutch player Robin Haase in Toronto September 14-16, seem rather futile. As was mentioned here several times, to provide greater incentive and make those ties more meaningful – in this new Davis Cup format – it would have made sense to award home ground to the winners for the qualifying ties next February.

But the reality is very likely Canada will travel to Slovakia, Portugal or maybe Belarus to play on clay. That could be problematic because it involves a surface change from the Aussie Open as well as putting into question Raonic’s participation. He pulled out of the clay-court season this year after the Madrid Open and, with his various injury concerns, clay probably is not a surface that computes with his tennis these days, especially if it involves a quick change after the Plexicushion hard court at Melbourne Park.

Shapovalov, possibly Vasek Pospisil and Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is at home on clay, would be the obvious other options. From a positive standpoint, with the change in format to best two-out-of-three-set matches, at least Canadian players no longer have to be concerned about being dragged into long, drawn-out, five-set matches against savvy clay-courters.

Davis Cup has enough concerns with its new 18-nation grand finale without some questionable recent moves such as last week awarding its two wild cards for the 2019 final to Argentina and Great Britain. With No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 14 Diego Schwartzman, the Argentines had a case for a wild card but Britain, home to the International Tennis Federation, is another matter. Its top player for its tie vs. Uzkekistan at home two weeks ago – No.16-ranked Kyle Edmund – elected not to play and its two singles players wound up being No. 70 Cameron Norrie and No. 222 Dan Evans, as well as No. 11 Jamie Murray and No. 23 Dominic Inglot in doubles. Sure Andy Murray is eventually a possibility but he’s ranked No. 259 at the moment and his future as a top-flight player is in doubt following his hip surgery last January.

The argument that has been made that Argentina and Britain were the two previous winners – before France last November – is bogus. Davis Cup champions are not like Grand Slam winners such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – the enduring crème de la crème of tennis’ elite – they frequently win because of crucial situational factors like having home court advantage and/or opposing teams not having their top players available for a variety of reasons. No one dominates Davis Cup year after year. It’s more, unlike the Grand Slam champions, a matter of musical chairs.

A much better argument for the wild card could be made for Switzerland with Roger Federer No. 2 and No. 88 Stan Wawrinka or the Serbs with No. 3 Novak Djokovic and No. 33 Filip Krajinovic – if only for the importance of the star power of Federer and Djokovic at a fledgling event.

Now the Swiss – who had players ranked No. 120, No. 386 and No. 1211 representing them in singles when they lost at home to Sweden two weeks ago – will likely have a similar team when it faces Russia (with No. 24 Karen Khachanov, No. 32 Daniil Medvedev and No. 68 Andrey Rublev) at home in early February.

So, without Federer and Wawrinka, Switzerland will likely lose, meaning there’s no chance of either one being at the new Davis Cup final in November 2019.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

An argument could be made that Canada was a better choice than Britain for a wild card because it basically has two legitimate top-30 players in Raonic and Shapovalov, an excellent doubles player in Pospisil and the most promising 18-year-old – already ranked No. 124 in the world – in Felix Auger-Aliassime.

This reporter is a supporter of the new format, believing that it has a better chance of getting the top players participate, which is always the No. 1 priority in giving any event credibility.

But there’s entirely too much sketchy stuff in Davis Cup these days. How, for example, does Sweden get to move up six places from No. 21 to No. 15 while Canada falls three places from No. 14 to No. 17 after the World Group Playoffs two weeks ago. Canada won over the Netherlands and Sweden beat the depleted Swiss with No. 1094 Jonathan Mridha overcoming No. 1211 Sandro Ehrat in the fifth and deciding match.

Sweden got extra points for beating Ukraine and Portugal in 2018 Europe/Africa zonal play, but Canada maintained its place in the World Group by beating the Netherlands – and it has played all of its 13 ties since 2012 in the elite 16-nation World Group. Sweden, with brothers No. 128 Elias and 298 Mikiel Ymer (both chose not to play against Switzerland) as its top-ranking players, has played 16 zonal ties since 2012, and only one in the World Group – the World Group Playoff against Switzerland. And yet it still moved ahead of Canada.

The Davis Cup World Group is equivalent to the Grand Slams and Masters 1000s on the regular tour, while zonal competition, where Sweden has lodged, is like ATP 500s and ATP 250s. How can results at a lower level vault Sweden ahead of Canada when it did not lose its World Group position – it actually defended it?

That seems unfair, just as not awarding home ties to the winners of September’s World Group Playoffs has essentially rendered them meaningless. So Canada won but its reward was a worst-case scenario – a difficult challenge on clay away from home in February.

NAOMI: POST US OPEN

Thanks to Reem Abulleil of Sport 360 for this video of an interview with US Open champion Naomi Osaka at this week’s China Open in Beijing. There are some thoughtful and interesting insights from the 20-year-old about her US Open final victory over Serena Williams in a highly controversial match.

THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LOSING

Both Genie Bouchard and Rebecca Marino had disappointing first-round losses last week – Bouchard at the WTA event in Tashkent, Kazakhstan, and Marino at the ITF $60,000 tournament in Templeton, California, right after winning the $25,000 ITF in Lubbock, Texas, the previous week.

Bouchard took advantage of her early exit to become just an ordinary tourist exploring the historic attractions of Tashkent.

She’s entered in the WTA event in Linz, Austria, next week.

Marino, a west-coast woman from B.C., found herself on a California beach for a little R&R after her loss. This week she’s playing the $60,000 ITF event in Stockton, California, and faces a qualifier in the first round.

(Feature photos: Mauricio Paiz)