The Canadian Davis Cup team rode the wave of Denis Shapovalov’s sensational play to assure itself a spot in the 2018 World Group after the 18-year-old won two matches against India this past weekend – including a tie-clinching 6-3, 7-6(1), 6-3 victory over Ramkumar Ramanathan on Sunday at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.
Shapovalov, a whirling dervish of a splendid shot-maker, probably wasn’t at his absolute best on Sunday but he was resolute in the one moment of semi-crisis against the No. 154-ranked Ramanathan. Facing three set points at love-40 in the second set trailing 5-6, and another on an ensuing advantage for the Indian, he only had to win one of them after his serve – putting away a smash on the first set point. On the three others, Ramanathan was unable to get two service returns in play and watched an ace go by on the final one.
“I just thought ‘go for it’ at that point – I had nothing to lose,” Shapovalov said in his post-match, on-court interview.
He served big, making three out of four first serves on the set points and later explained, “I think just the confidence I’ve had the last little while has helped me. When things aren’t going my way, (I) just try to re-focus. I really used it to my advantage after I won that game to flip the momentum and continue it in the tiebreak.”
Possibly feeling the disappointment of not converting the set points, Ramanathan double-faulted on the first point of the tiebreak and Shapovalov pounced. “Flipping the momentum” as he said, he streaked through the tiebreak 7-1 on a run that included of 14 of the next 15 points following Ramanathan’s final set point at 6-5.
Shapovalov was not broken in the two-hour-and-five-minute match, a match he began by winning the first 11 points on the trot.
“(Captain) Marty (Laurendeau) told me ‘walk out there like you own the court, show a little bit of confidence from the beginning,’” Shapovalov said. “That’s what I tried to do. Obviously I felt a lot looser because of Vasek’s and Danny’s (Pospisil and Nestor) performance yesterday, they played so well in doubles. I would have been a lot tougher if they had went down but luckily they played really well.”
Laurendeau, also Shapovalov’s personal coach, noted about his player, “it helps to have those 18, 19 wins (this past summer) behind him and he was really focused today (Sunday). I really liked his energy. He was on mission to win that match and it’s just another one under his belt for his experience.”
Things weren’t unfolding quite as the Canadian side had envisioned after Brayden Schnur dropped the opening match in four sets to Ramanathan on Friday, only to be followed by Shapovalov having to pull out a five-setter against Indian No. 2 Yuki Bhambri. But Saturday’s doubles win by Nestor and Pospisil over Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja changed everything – lifting the players’ spirits and giving the home team a 2-1 boost heading into Sunday’s reverse singles.
“The doubles was huge,” Laurendeau said. “It’s not easy for Daniel – he hasn’t been winning much all year. And he’s lost a lot of Davis Cup matches lately. So not coming in super-confident and Vashy was still protecting his back (injury) and really didn’t know what territory he was entering with his condition. That was a huge win and I think it helped Denis relax a little bit today. It was a pivotal match. It felt good getting the win.”
The mission of the Canadian team was to maintain its World Group status for 2018 – for a seventh successive year. Laurendeau and his players were keenly aware of the dangers of losing and being relegated to zonal Davis Cup play next year – a fate that now faces the Indians for the seventh time in a row.
Indian captain Mahesh Bhupathi (on left as he and Ramanathan argue with French umpire Alexandre Juge late in the third set on Sunday) was complimentary about Shapovalov. “Denis played well, we all expected that,” he said. “Ram (Ramanathan) fought hard and put himself in a position to even the match (the four set points in the second set). But against quality players if you get a chance and don’t take it – very rarely do you get another one. That was our window and we didn’t capitalize.”
About the overall tie, he summed up, “I think it was closer than a lot of people thought. The second match with Denis and Yuki (on Friday) – it was one-all in the fifth set. And the doubles of course, we should have won the second set and we did win the third. Obviously we’re disappointed – we thought we had a shot at winning this tie.”
The aforementioned zonal competition destiny, which Canada avoided with the win, is now reality for the Indians. “We’ll fight hard and we’ll put ourselves in the position again next year,” Bhupathi said about his team and 2018. “But it’s not easy. We come from a country where tennis is not widely-rated and we’re constantly playing the top teams who have quality players like Denis. Last year we played against Rafa (Nadal), the year before we played against (Tomas) Berdych. It’s a big ask but we’re up for it. I think the team is motivated, so we’ll try again next year.”
Laurendeau used the French word soulagé (relieved) to express his feelings after the weekend win. “Look at the countries that are back in there,” he said about zonal play citing the results of this past weekend’s other World Group playoffs, “the Czech Republic and Argentina. There are so many good teams worldwide so it was very important for us to take advantage of another relegation match in Canada and make the most of that chance.
“We’re missing our top player (Milos Raonic) and Vasek was hurt at the beginning of the week and it was really doubtful. So it was a great team effort – everybody just pitched in. The staff really did a good job to have our guys in good competitive shape. Vasek was able to play Saturday and he was ready to go today. Shapo had a really long match – nearly four hours – on Friday and he looked fresh and good. It was a good effort from guys and just an overall good feeling.”
Canada now awaits a draw at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. ET in Canada) on Wednesday at International Tennis Federation headquarters in London to find out its first-round opponent, and the site, for 2018’s World Group first round next February.
I could be any eight of the following – either home, away or determined by a draw.
Great Britain – away
France – home
Belgium – home
Croatia – draw
Switzerland – draw
Australia – draw
Serbia – home
Italy – away
As for its future, the team might be even better with Shapovalov having established himself as genuine top-class player, Raonic already among the elite of the game, a healthy Pospisil a big asset and even 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime, already ranked No. 168 (No. 51 Shapovalov started 2017 at No. 250) a possibility alongside Nestor as the doubles old reliable.
“Just clinching for my country,” said Shapovalov, who played before a crowd of 4,974 on Sunday, regarding what he was most proud of after the weekend. “That’s huge. I grew up wanting to play on the team to help my country win and this week is a huge honour. For sure I’ll be back for many years if I’m invited to play. It’s a fun event and I love doing it.”
The tie officially ended 3-2 for Canada after Bhambri defeated Schnur 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in a two-out-of-three formality fifth match. (Above Schnur on right as he and Shapovalov and Pospisil leave the court for the last time.)
The magical rise of Shapovalov prompted a question during Sunday’s post-match media conference about whether he thought he could possibly improve his ranking enough this fall to be among the 32 seeds for next January’s Australian Open.
“That’s miles away, I’m 51 now and the goal is still top-50,” he said. “And I haven’t hit that yet. If I do I’ll be happy and maybe I’ll regroup. I don’t know if that’s even a goal – 32 – I’m not thinking about that. I’ve achieved so much this year that I think if I reach top-50 I’m just going to play the last couple of tournaments freely – just enjoying it and regrouping in the new year.”
His fall plans are not completely nailed down but it appears likely he may play the ATP 250 in Antwerp, Belgium, the ATP 500 in Basel, Switzerland, and possibly the ATP Masters 1000 in Paris. He has zero ATP points to defend for the rest of 2017, so it’s almost a certainty his ranking will go higher but No. 32, or even close, would require some serious successes.
In the meantime, he’s off to Prague for next weekend’s inaugural Laver Cup event where he will be on the ‘rest of the world’ team against a European squad that includes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
His teammates will be Juan Martin del Potro, Nick Kyrgios and Americans Sam Querrey, John Isner and Jack Sock.
Shapovalov got to know guys like Kyrgios and Sock at the US Open and said, looking forward to Friday’s start on a team captained by John McEnroe, “they’re actually pretty loud in the locker room so it’s going to be a fun atmosphere.”
So the excellent adventure of Denis Shapovalov continues, and this time among the most elite of associates – company that he seems increasingly comfortable keeping.
The Hotel Macdonald, named after Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and opened in 1915, joining a number of Chateau style hotels across Canada. Known locally as ‘The Mac,’ it fell into disrepair in the 1980s and its existence was threatened until a major renovation took place and it reopened in 1991.
The Mac, now part of the Fairmont chain, is located high on the bank overlooking the North Saskatchewan River.
FEATURE PHOTO: SUSAN MULLANE