The Laver Cup: overall, a great debut

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Pretty much everything Roger Federer touches turns to gold.

So why anyone would have any doubt that the first edition of the Laver Cup would be anything but a smash?

It was, on every level, a huge success. Sellout crowds, high-quality tennis, plenty of drama and emotion, a bulletproof format … and Roger and Rafa.

It was a such a perfect storm that even the absence of many top players turned out to be a plus.

Team World (Team America, really) ended up a young squad of millennials – both real and throwback. They decided to have their own private party in front of 14,000 people inside the O2 Arena, and millions more around the world.

“They had the better chants and the better moves, but in the end, Team Europe got it done,” said Laver Cup maestro Roger Federer, who pretty much notices everything and has a uniquely passive-aggressive way of letting you know.

Team World wins the “Team Fun” award

inauguralOutmatched on the court for the most part, Team World won the fun contest

The contrast between Team World and Team Europe couldn’t have been more stark.

Obviously most of the older players were on Team Europe. At times during the weekend you almost got the sense they were exchanging stock tips while Team World recreated The Floor is Lava, this summer’s trending challenge on YouTube.

Just keeping track of Frances Tiafoe’s ever-changing head gear was a trending challenge in itself. Veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey were young again. And green rookie Denis Shapovalov got more corrupted by the day. He may never be the same.

But by the very end, the last 20 minutes of the Roger Federer match, Team World stepped it up – led by an emotional and demonstrative Rafael Nadal.

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Yes, Nadal actually did this in the heat of the Sunday drama. He got a little excited.

Superb staging

The “black” court turned out to play dark gray on television. And it immediately became a visual that will always be associated exclusively with the Laver Cup. 

The ball stood out on the stark backdrop for television viewers. But the blue and red lighting around the court and in the stands prevented it from being too drab.

As well, the stark white of the high-end sponsors also stood out. Don’t think that wasn’t a huge factor as well.

They really did think of everything. One complaint fans often have when watching tennis on television is that the radar gun that measures the serves is hard to find, and often hard to see. In this setup, the numbers were big and bright and always easy to find.

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The stage where the rest of the teammates cheered was also perfectly set up. The fans could access both teams during changeovers (and even during the matches) for autographs. But if the players wanted to leave the court – especially the losers – they could do so in a straight line towards the locker room. If they didn’t want to deal with the autograph seekers, they didn’t have to.

At the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore and to a large extent at the ATP Tour Finals in London, the fans are often in the dark as the court is lit up. It makes for a bit of an isolated atmosphere although it does hide any empty seats. At the Laver Cup, the stands were lit in a way that fit in perfectly with the court. But it also allowed you to see the fans.

It was pitch-perfect. It almost didn’t even look real.

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Next-Gen graphics, camera angles

A company based in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles called Girraphic was the mastermind behind the graphics, which were unlike most of what you see all season long.

They were spectacular, especially the ones superimposed on the net. 

Great variety of camera angles

The camera angles were also varied. The baseline cam (affectionately referred to as the “butt cam” because they often close in on the derrière of the player returning serve) has been used before. But rarely this often.

They also had an improved version of the net cam; Bob Feller, the legendary ESPN tennis producer, says, “stay tuned”.

Federer annihilated it at one stage, which was amusing. They had a fish-eye lens at the net that showed the entire court in a new way. There were slow-motion replays of emotional moments and Team Fun routines. It was frantic, but it didn’t feel that way.

Having the coaches on court – and the players playing coaches as well – made for far more interesting cutaways than you’ll see at a regular tournament. There, the endless go-tos are countless shots of Mirka Federer biting her lip, or Jelena Djokovic looking like she might lose her stuff at any moment, get old quickly.

They had to dim the microphones at times, given some of the cussing by Team World. (There were no such issues for Team Europe; captain Bjorn Borg said more during his trophy ceremony speech than he said on court for three days).

Trying too hard

For whatever reason, the braintrust behind the Laver Cup decided that the word “exhibition” was a bad word.

It was clear that a talking point went out to everyone to emphasize that it wasn’t an exhibition. That it didn’t feel like an exhibition. And that it meant something to these guys. They were devoted in their dedication to bringing home the Laver cup to their (country? continent? world section?). And that it meant the world to them.

The thing is, why is the word “exhibition” by definition a bad word?

That’s exactly what this was. Perhaps out of this, a new category somewhere between tournament and exhibition called “special event” may be created.

But they tried so hard. Way too hard.

It’s worth remembering that every single person trying to convince you the Laver Cup “wasn’t an exhibition” had a financial stake in the event. The players received a ton of money up front (and an additional $250,000 each for winning). Federer’s management company, Team 8, for which he is the biggest earner, made a major investment.

Everyone from the chair umpire to the all-star cast of commentators and analysts took home a nice additional paycheque for their participation. It was to the point where the commentators were making excuses for some salty language on Team World’s side with platitudes like “It just absolutely shows how much these guys want to win for Europe and the world.”

Actually, it just showed that they use profanity. As many of us do on a tennis court. As they do during the regular Tour events as well. But they’re not used to being amongst a gaggle of buddies on a tennis court with the microphones on.

Giving the players (and captain) such a pass would only happen in an exhibition. In many ways, the vibe on that level was much as it was for that first, money-heavy season of IPTL. Which was, of course, much derided as “merely an exhibition.”

Format on point

The very nature of the team format was going to make for great competition.

In a standard exhibition, where two top players fly in and out of a city for a one-nighter, they’re playing for themselves and the crowd. 

Regardless of the circumstances, if you play against two of the greatest of all time, you’re going to go all out. And if you are one of the greatest of all time, you didn’t get there by not taking it seriously every time you step on the court.

The place was packed. Everyone had fun. Everyone came out a winner. The fans loved it. Everyone made lots of money.

There is no downside, and little need to preach semantics.

The stated intention to honour the champions of the past in naming the event after Rod Laver, and having Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as captains (neatly dovetailing with the opening of the movie based on their rivalry) put a nice, sincere veneer on what is very much a money-making enterprise.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

What’s ahead

The pitch-perfect execution of the inaugural edition is a double-edged sword, in a sense.

Not that this is a bad problem to have.

But it’s going to be awfully hard to duplicate – for so many reasons.

First of all, the event is going to move around. Next year, at the same time, it will take place at the United Center in Chicago.

We know this, because the Laver Cup already had a video message ready from the mayor of the city, and they had a press conference in Chicago just after noon.

The well-heeled crowd in Prague was enthusiastic but extremely civilized. It was only in the waning moments that they began to do those things the diehard fans hate, like cheering for missed first serves.

The crowd in Chicago will be quite different.

The makeup of “Team World” also will be quite different.

What a perfect world it would be if this year’s cast were playing “at home” in Chicago. Their act would play even better. And imagine, conversely, that players such as Nishikori, Murray, Raonic, Anderson and del Potro had been on “Team World” instead of Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Isner and Sock.

Team Fun probably a one-off

The atmosphere would have been completely different – not nearly as lively. And John McEnroe, as captain, wouldn’t have had nearly the same positive impact. That’s going to be impossible to recreate next year.

What if, next year, Federer and Nadal aren’t blessed with the same health and good form they’ve enjoyed this year, their renaissance year? It’s inarguable that these two are definitely on a year-to-year basis, at this stage.

Without them, it’s not the same event. It’s arguably barely a top-flight event, despite the illustrious resumés of the other player options. In the special-event solar system, star power counts exponentially.

It’s also worth noting here that Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori had not committed to the Laver Cup before their injury woes. Will that change now that they’ve seen it work so amazingly well? It might. It might not.

Federer and Nadal transcend borders. The others, not nearly to the same extent. You know Federer is committed as long as he’s healthy, given his business ties. Countryman Stan Wawrinka likely would do him a solid. But did Nadal just do a one-off favour for his frenemy? We’ll find out.

They should also consider shortening the time between matches. It could run a half hour or more. We realize the need to sell merchandise and adult beverages. But with only one match to talk about, the commentators had a tough time filling. And it’s easy to lose your audience these days.

Collateral effects

Overtly or not, this event has been positioned as a potential alternative format to the century-old Davis Cup competition. That’s partly because of the weekend team format. And it’s also because of the fact that Nadal and Federer played it while skipping representing their country this year.

No doubt there are plenty of secret board meetings over at ITF headquarters. And the drama is made even more real by the fact that the USTA and Tennis Australia – two federations that run Grand Slam tournaments under the ITF umbrella – are involved in a major way. At the very least, the huge money the players were paid just to show up dwarfs the relative pittance they earn for representing their country – with far fewer weeks’ commitment.

But the effects go beyond that, right to the heart of the Tour that made all these players rich and famous.

There were two 250-level ATP Tour events the week of the Laver Cup – Metz and St. Petersburg, Russia. There are two 250-level events in faraway China this week that brush up against the end of the event, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Stars needed at the 250s

It’s no secret that the 250-level tournaments are struggling to varying degrees. The only way they can make a good go of it is if they can attract a big name to play in the event. That draws the fans; more crucially, it also draws corporate sponsorship.

Metz and St. Petersburg were out of luck. (There was a story reporting that Djokovic had committed to the St. Petersburg tournament before he shut down his season). Tomas Berdych, who would have been the No. 3 seed in Shenzhen, pulled out before the event began. (Why he even entered it, knowing as far back as February when he was doing Laver Cup promotion in Prague with Federer that he’d likely play, is a question for him).

Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in Orléans this week. With his subsequent rise, he obviously was a big drawing card. He pulled out late in the game.

Tiafoe also withdrew from Shenzhen. He’s a crowd-pleaser. But it also cost him a chance to earn some ranking points which, at this stage of his career, he still needs. Denis Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in France this week. He only played on the Laver Cup’s opening day; he pulled out of Orléans that very day. That’s late in the game.

Tired, jet-lagged top seeds

Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the No. 1 seeds in Shenzhen and Chengdu, respectively, remain on board so far. But they’ll arrive in Asia very late, after a very long trip.

Alexander Zverev is the top seed in Shenzhen this week, and was likely well-paid for it. He’ll arrive pretty drained, and jet-lagged, with little rest of prep time to face Steve Darcis in the second round.

They’ll be jet-lagged – and perhaps even a little hungover from the post-victory celebrations. They won’t have given themselves the best chance to win. That does them a disservice. And it also hurts the tournaments that no doubt paid them handsome appearance fees, as top-10 players, to show up.

And who knows if any other Laver Cup participants might have considered playing?

In the end, the Laver Cup seems to be here to stay. As well it should; it was all kinds of fun and, no doubt, quite profitable for all.

It’s only an exhibition. But it combines the best elements of everything tennis has to offer right now. It needs to stay.

What remains to be worked out is how it best can fit into the overall tennis landscape. Because it needs to fit. The alphabet soup of competing tennis factions all need to figure out a way to make that happen.

(All screenshots used for this post came from the Laver Cup’s livestream)

Roundup – Davis Cup WG playoffs

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The France vs. Serbia and Belgium vs. Australia World Group semifinals weren’t the only Davis Cup ties going on this weekend.

There were eight other crucial tussles. The winners stay in the World Group for 2018 (or earned a promotion). And the losers either were relegated to the dreaded zonals, or remain there to hope for another playoff tie in 2018.

Here’s a summary. We note which players are missing for each squad. Because the absences list is significant.

Beyond Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, who haven’t played Davis Cup recently (and Wawrinka, obviously, is not available), notable among the no-shows were many of the German players.

That obviously includes the Zverev brothers, Alexander and Mischa.

For Canada, Milos Raonic missed yet another Davis Cup tie. It’s a legitimate absence, after he had a procedure done on his wrist a few weeks ago. But still; they’re getting kind of used to carrying on without him at this point.

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Canada: Denis Shapovalov, Vasek Pospisil, Brayden Schnur, Daniel Nestor
India: Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Rohan Bopanna, Purav Raja

Missing: Milos Raonic, Peter Polansky (CAN), Leander Paes (IND)

The Canadian team, which seems to have had the goods to compete for the big prize the last few years, has been held back because of regular injury absences from top player Raonic.

That was the case again this weekend in Edmonton. But 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov came through and won both his singles matches. Legend Daniel Nestor and 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion Vasek Pospisil, both battered with injuries, came up with the third point in a four-set doubles win Saturday.

You would expect Raonic to be back for 2018. And Félix Auger-Aliassime is not far away from joining the team. With Vasek Pospisil still having his best tennis ahead of him at age 27 (you would hope) and Daniel Nestor around for one more year, you know the seeded nations don’t want to run into Canada in the first round.

Kazakhstan: Mikhail Kukushkin, Dmitry Popov, Aleksandr Nedovyesov, Timur Khabibulin
Argentina: Diego Schwartzman, Guido Pella, Maximo Gonzalez, Andres Molteni

Missing: Juan Martin del Potro, Leonardo Mayer, Horacio Zeballos, Federico Delbonis, Guillermo Duran (ARG). Alexander Bublik (KAZ)

The defending champions of 2016 will have to compete in the Americas zone in 2018. That just shouldn’t happen. And it’s something the ITF must address – even if its proferred solutions so far probably won’t make a whit of difference.

The key was Schwartzman, who is having the best season of his career. But he was beaten by Kukushkin, well capable of beating anyone on the day, in the fourth rubber.

As well, two Davis Cup rookies, veterans who don’t even play together, was the best they could come up with for the doubles. That also hurt.

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Russia: Karen Khachanov, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev, Konstantin Kravchuk
Hungary: Marton Fucsovics, Attila Balazs, Zsombor Piros, Gabor Borsos

Missing: Mikhail Youzhny (RUS). 

The Russians went with a youth movement. And it didn’t pay off.

But despite having to crawl their way back up to the World Group in 2018, there’s no doubt a squad that features Khachanov, Rublev and Medvedev will make some waves in Davis Cup in the years to come.

It also happens, at this juncture, that they are the three highest-ranked singles players the Russians have.

Notably, Igor Kunitsyn is the Russian captain, which explains why you saw him so often around Khachanov and Rublev at the big events this season. It’s strange not to see Kamil Tarpischev snoozing on the bench. But with the youth movement arriving, it’s a good thing.

The Hungarians, led by journeyman Fucsovics, pulled off a major victory. He defeated Rublev in five sets on Friday, and Khachanov in straight sets on Sunday. For a 25-year-old who has played Davis Cup in the zonals since 2010, this may remain his career highlight – especially doing it at home.

Hungary has played Davis Cup since 1924. It has been in the World Group just twice – in 1994 and 1996. Until now.

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Netherlands: Robin Haase, Tallon Griekspoor, Thiemo de Bakker, Matwe Middelkoop
Czech Republic: Jiri Vesely, Lukas Rosol, Adam Pavlasek, Roman Jebavy

Missing: Tomas Berdych, Radek Stepanek (CZE). Jean-Julien Rojer, Wesley Koolhof (NED)

The Netherlands, with just Haase in the top 250 in singles, were serious underdogs against even this diminished edition of the Czech Republic squad, which notably won the Davis Cup in 2012 and defended it in 2013.

Berdych hasn’t played since the first round in 2016 (he didn’t play at all in 2015). And Stepanek has barely been on the court for a year because of back issues.

Still, they have quality players. So to go back to the zonals is a tough blow.   

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Switzerland: Henri Laaksonen, Marco Chiudinelli, Adrian Bodmer, Luca Margaroli
Belarus: Dzmitry Zhyrmont, Yaraslav Shyla, Max Mirnyi, Andrei Vasilevski

Missing: Roger Federer, Stan Wawarinka (SUI), Egor Gerasimov, Uladzimir Ignatik (BLR)

The tie was the 55th in the career of the Beast, Max Mirnyi of Belarus.

And despite being played at home in Switzerland, it was notable for the rather sparse crowd that attended. In a nation that has big tennis stars but doesn’t have an overwhelming tennis culture, the fans are led by the stars. 

Things looked especially grim when the highest-ranked player on either side, Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland, went down to unknown 24-year-old Belarussian Yaraslav Shyla (ranking: No. 390) in the first rubber.

Interestingly, Laaksonen had made a quick racket switch from his longtime Wilson (which he used at the US Open) to Technifibre. To say he had a bad day is an understatement – to take nothing away from Shyla.

Mirnyi did his job in doubles even if the two unknown Swiss took him and Andrei Vasilevski to three tiebreakers.

On Sunday, the favorites did the job. Laaksonen went back to his Wilson and forced a fifth rubber. And Marco Chiudinelli, Federer’s lifelong friend, may have played his final Davis Cup rubber in clinching the win for Switzerland.

The question, of course, is this: with Switzerland in the world group in 2018, will Federer and Wawrinka consider another run?

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Croatia: Marin Cilic, Viktor Galovic, Franko Skugor, Nikola Mektic
Colombia: Santiago Giraldo, Alejandro Falla, Alejandro Gonzalez, Juan Sebastian Cabal

Missing: Borna Coric, Ivo Karlovic, Ivan Dodig, Mate Pavic (CRO). Robert Farah (COL)

It probably wasn’t easy for Marin Cilic to go all the way down to Colombia after his US Open disappointment and summer injury. But he did it.

And obviously it made all the difference in a routine win. 

Cabal was without his regular partner Farah, who is injured. But he and Falla still pushed the Croats to five sets in the doubles. It wasn’t enough.

Croatia, Davis Cup finalists last year, mercifully remain in the World Group.

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Germany: Jan-Lennard Struff, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, Tim Puetz, Yannick Hanfmann
Portugal: Joao Sousa, Pedro Sousa, Gastao Elias, Joao Domingues

Missing: Alexander Zverev, Mischa Zverev, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Florian Mayer, Dustin Brown (GER)

The Germans were missing some big faces. But they were deep enough that they were able to take care of Portugal.

The opening day was a shocker, with favored Joao Sousa losing for Portugal and favorite Struff losing for Germany. But it ended 1-1, as it probably should have. 

Elias and Sousa, who played the Olympics together in Rio, lost a heartbreaker in five sets to the pickup team of Struff and Tim Puetz. And Sousa lost another heartbreaker in five sets to Struff. That 8-6 tiebreaker in the fourth set, with Sousa up two sets to one, was everything.

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The Centralito – gone from the tour, but not forgotten.

On the plus side for Portugal (not that it will make them feel any better), the Centralito was back in action.

No longer used since the ATP Tour event in Portugal relocated, it remains one of the most picturesque courts in tennis.

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Japan: Yuichi Sugita, Go Soeda, Yasatuka Uchiyama, Ben McLachlan
Brazil: Thiago Monteiro, Guilherme Clezar, Marcelo Melo, Bruno Soares

Missing: Kei Nishikori, Taro Daniel, Yoshihito Nishioka (JAP). Rogerio Dutra Silva, Thomaz Bellucci, Joao Souza (BRA)

With Brazil winning the doubles – finally being played early Monday morning in Japan – this World Group playoff tie was the last one to be live. Yuichi Sugita put it away with a straight-sets win over Thiago Monteiro.

Typhoon rain washed out play in Osaka Saturday. And the government wouldn’t allow play to go on Sunday because of a typhoon red alert.

At 25, ranked No. 141, McLachlan actually is the highest-ranked Japanese doubles player.

The story? Well, he was born in New Zealand. And raised in New Zealand. But two weeks ago, he switched his allegiance to Japan, which he can do because his mother Yuriko is Japanese. 

Another player who might have suited up for Japan, Akira Santillan, has returned to his Australian roots after a few years representing Japan.

The 2018 World Group draw will be made Wednesday morning in London. It’ll be pretty interesting to see where everyone falls.

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For more on this weekend’s Davis Cup ties, go to their website.

Shapovalov to carry the load for Canada

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NEW YORK – The Canadian Davis Cup team nominations for next week’s World Group playoff tie against India will be announced shortly.

And the pressure of keeping the nation in the World Group for 2018 will fall squarely upon the shoulders of 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov.

Milos Raonic is on the shelf after a procedure on his wrist. Vasek Pospisil is dealing with a disc problem in his back. So that may curtail his participation in the tie, or at least limit it.

Peter Polansky declined. The venerable Daniel Nestor, who turned 45 Monday, has struggled to win matches this summer. Not only that, he has lost four of his last five Davis Cup doubles rubbers, with various partners.

Shapovalov
Pospisil has a bad back, and Raonic is out with a wrist problem. So Canada’s two best Davis Cup singles assets will essentially be missing. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

So, it will be up to the teenager who took the tennis world by storm over the last month. Shapovalov made the semifinals at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. And then he made a star-making run from the qualifying to the fourth round of the US Open over the last two weeks.

Nominations Tuesday

The team is expected to be Shapovalov, Pospisil, Nestor and … Brayden Schnur, who will be making his Davis Cup debut.

It’s a tough ask. On the plus side, the Indian squad is far from a top-10 nation.

Shapovalov

Team India doesn’t have a single player ranked in the top 150 in singles. Ramanathan is the highest-ranked at No. 155. Bhambri is No. 158, and Myeni is at … No. 490.

Bopanna is the top-ranked Indian doubles player at No. 17. But if you thought maybe they would go hard to try to win the doubles rubber, they have left three top-100 doubles players off the four-man roster. Divij Sharan, Purav Raja and the legendary Leander Paes are left off the list.

The tie will be played on an indoor hard court in Edmonton, out in the western (and northern) part of the country. And most of the Canadian squad is expected to assemble there this weekend.

Pospisil’s back is back

Pospisil retired after one set of his first-round match at the US Open against Fernando Verdasco. And he pulled out of the doubles as well.

He has been the player who often carried the squad when Milos Raonic was unavailable due to injury – which has been most of the last three years. But Pospisil has his own career to think about; the 27-year-old has been dealing with back issues on and off the last few years. And the last thing he needs is another extended period out of action.

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If not Pospisil, who?

The powers-that-be have evidently decided that the other Canadian teenage phenom, Félix Auger-Aliassime, will continue to play a series of Challengers in Europe. It might be time to put in a call to Frank (The Tank) Dancevic, in that worst-case scenario.

No rest for weary Shapovalov

What Shapovalov probably needs, after the physically and mentally draining month he’s had, is a week on the beach somewhere. But he has to continue pushing on. 

But not only will he be counted on to win both his singles matches – both best-of-five sets, as at the US Open – he will then head straight to Prague after an invitation by captain John McEnroe to represent “Team World” at the Laver Cup against the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

It’s a lot to ask of himself, with so many opportunities still available this fall to improve his ranking even more – and perhaps even think about being seeded at the Australian Open next January.

Shapovalov’s dream US Open ends

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NEW YORK – It was going to end, eventually.

For 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, the end of the dream run came Sunday, in the round of 16 at the US Open.

The teenager lacked some of his previous spark in a 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) loss to No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta.

As it happens, the Spaniard was – and is – the highest-ranked player remaining in the bottom half of the draw. And so, on paper, he’s the favorite to make the final.

On Sunday, he played a quality, consistent match even while he showed plenty of emotion and bellowed plenty of “Vamos!” along the way.

Shapovalov an Ashe veteran

It’s emblematic of the US Open Shapovalov has had that this was his third consecutive appearance on Arthur Ashe Stadium. For Carreño Busta, 26, a top-20 player and a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon this year, it was the first time in his singles career he’d ever had a rendez-vous on the biggest stage in tennis.

On the other side, the Canadian appeared to finally show the effects of the three extra matches he had to play in the qualifying just to get to the main draw.

“I think I had a lot of chances. I don’t think I played as well today as I have been these past two weeks, but, I mean, that’s tennis. It’s going to happen. I think Pablo played a very great match. He stayed very tough mentally in the big points. Yeah, he just played three tiebreaks that were better than mine. I was up in the first, up in the third. I definitely had my chances. Very disappointed that I wasn’t able to keep my leads,” Shapovalov said.

“But, you know, at the end of the day, it’s tennis. I still have a lot of things to learn. Yeah, so hopefully I can come back and, you know, hopefully one day I can make it further here.”

First set crucial for the kid

Shapovalov was up 5-2 in the first set, and served for it at 5-3. He also had set points at 5-6 on Carreño-Busta’s serve. But he couldn’t put that first one on the board.

And on this day, given how high the odometer had run on his legs and heart, it was crucial.

“At the beginning I was a little bit scared, maybe a little bit nervous. But after, when he broke me, I talk to my coach. I don’t know if he heard me, because there was a lot of noise. But I told to him that I can win the match, but I need to be very aggressive because he plays really good,” Carreño-Busta said. “And I just try to do it. I continue fighting all the times with 5-2 in the first set, with 6-5, 15-40 in the first set.

“And then in the tiebreaks, I just play perfect. I played very aggressive. I served really good. It was very tough, because three hours, three sets, three tiebreaks, but of course it was an amazing victory for me,” he added.

Shapovalov never stopped fighting, or running, or trying. But it was clear that he had none of the same zip that brought him to the middle Sunday. 

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Energizer bunny runs out of gas

It was in the eyes. All week Shapovalov’s baby blues had been wide open and eager. On Sunday, that spark was gone. He’s a player who expends a whole lot of energy – both physical, and emotional – in every match. That’s something he will learn to manage better with time.

But the fact that he had clearly hit the wall and still took the No. 12 seed to three tiebreaks and nearly three hours speaks well for him.

On his way out, Shapovalov stopped, dropped his bags, and walked to the center of the court to acknowledge the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd – in much the same way after coming out on the winning end.

“Favorite memory in the past ten days? Honestly, I think it was the sound, the roar of the crowd when I put my bags down and I went to applaud them. Yeah, they were all screaming. It was so loud, and it was a great moment for me,” he said. “It really has a special place in my heart, and, you know, now New York for sure, it will always have a special place for me. Hopefully I can come back here for many more years, and just try to do some damage.”

Unknown a month ago

Carreño-Busta said he hadn’t even heard of Shapovalov until the Rogers Cup in Montreal. There, the Canadian upset Carreño-Busta’s countryman, frequent practice partner and great friend Rafael Nadal.

“I watch him playing against Rafa, and he made unbelievable match. He won really good matches too, not just against Rafa. And in this tournament, he beat Tsonga and other good players. So he maybe is on fire, no? He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s very young, so in the future, he will be one of the best,” he said. 

Shapovalov leaves New York with another $235,000 in prize money to add to the $220,760 he won in reaching the semifinals of the Rogers Cup.

He’ll be just outside the top 50 when the new rankings come out a week from Monday. And in terms of the rest of the season and the fall Asian swing, that’s a game-changer.

He also leaves having added a whole legion of fans. At some point, that hanging chad on the front of his backwards ballcap is going to become the “Shapo chapeau“.

Shapovalov eases through first round

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FLUSHING MEADOWS – Denis Shapovalov, the 18-year-old making his US Open main-draw debut, wasn’t up against a seeded player or a top gun.

Still, 21-year-old Daniil Medvedev is three years older than the Canadian. And, relatively speaking, he has a lot more experience.

Medvedev defeated Stan Wawrinka in the first round at Wimbledon this year, and played his first career five-set match in the next round (in a losing effort).

So it was fairly surprising that the younger of the two Next-Gen contenders had such a relatively drama-free, straight-sets win in the first round of the US Open Monday.

Shapovalov won, 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 before a packed house in Court 7 and earned a date in the second round with No. 8 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.

He got some help in the third set, when Medvedev double-faulted three times in a row at 2-2 and pretty much handed it over to his younger opponent.

“I think I played a very good match. Stayed very solid from beginning to the end. I had a couple fall-throughs, being a break up, having him break back. I did a good job of staying mentally solid on those situations and getting the break when I needed it,” Shapovalov said.

“He actually, I think, fought pretty well in the (first set). Second he had a little bit of a letdown, I thought. But, yeah, I don’t know. He was a little bit up and down today. He broke me back in the third. Then he gave me the game with three doubles. Thank you to him for that,” Shapovalov added, smiling. “I was ready for everything. I knew he could come and fight in the second and third. So I just did a good job of staying focused, playing my game, just trying to take it to him from the first point till the last.”

Once again, there was a mad rush on Shapovalov after the match. The crowds were fairly big even during qualifying. And at some moments, the teenager looked a little overwhelmed by it.

The security looked to be stepped up now that the main event has begun. And Shapovalov had a couple of guys sticking very close to him as they navigated their way off the court and back to the locker room.

He’s done a lot of interviews, gotten a lot of publicity. And it’s just getting started.

Next up is Tsonga

Shapovalov will likely get a much bigger court against Tsonga for their match on Wednesday. One more step up.

“Jo has been on the tour forever. I grew up watching him play, just like I did with Rafa and DelPo. It’s a match I’m going in with nothing to lose. Obviously the pressure is more on him,” he said. “I’m just hoping to have a good fight, a good match. It’s going to be very tough. He’s an incredible player. He’s achieved so much in his career. It’s going to be a good test for me once again.”

This summer, Tsonga is also a player who hadn’t won on the North American summer swing until he defeated Marius Copil of Romania Monday in his own first-round match. He dropped his first matches in both Montreal and Cincinnati.

Denis Shapovalov qualifies in New York (video)

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NEW YORK – The qualifying at the US Open can be a mine field for the top seeds.

And for players like Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who would be straight into the main draw had this week’s rankings been the criteria, it’s even tougher.

No. 1 qualifying seed Leonardo Mayer of Argentina was in the same boat as Shapovalov. His current ranking was more than enough to get him into the main draw; but he got it there too late.

And Mayer lost on Friday to Germany’s Maximilian Marterer. (He did get in as the lucky loser, a spot made available when Shapovalov’s countryman Milos Raonic withdrew).

Shapovalov

No. 4 seed Sergiy Stakhovsky, who has some solid Grand Slam scalps, was beaten in the final round by a 23-year-old Czech named Vaclav Safranek.

In the end, only three of the top 10 seeds in the qualifying made it through, and only seven seeds overall out of 16 qualifiers.

Everything to lose

Your mind is half thinking you shouldn’t even have to play, even though you do your best to shut it out. Meanwhile, your opponents are all players in the range where making it to the main draw and guaranteeing at least $50,000 in prize money is a game changer.

The 18-year-old Canadian lost the first set against just such a player – 27-year-old Jan Satral of the Czech Republic.

Ranked No. 196, Satral had earned just over $62,000 this season coming into the US Open. And so he would nearly double that by making the main draw in New York.

That’s something he has done just once in his career. It happened here a year ago. And then he overcame a two-sets-to-none deficit in his first round to win that. Since then, he has lost a couple of heartbreakers in the final round of qualifying at both the Australian and French Opens.

To put that in perspective, Shapovalov made nearly as much in one week in Montreal than Satral has earned in nearly eight years as a pro.

But he got through it. And it was bedlam, by qualifying standards, after the win, which came before a packed house on Court 13.

It was just as bad after the second round, with less protection around him.

Step one done, Medvedev next

Now, in the first round, he’ll face another Next-Gen player in Daniil Medvedev of Russia.

Medvedev, just 21, is ranked near his career best of No. 48, at No. 53.

Here’s Shapovalov on various subjects: being determined to survive the qualifying, how his life has changed, and playing Laver Cup among the legends.

No longer anonymous, Shapovalov busy in New York

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NEW YORK – Had he not had such a momentous week at the Rogers Cup in Montreal two weeks ago, 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov might have been able to slip into New York City unnoticed.

He would have been just another first-time competitor in the US Open qualifying – albeit one with a junior Wimbledon title and a 2015 junior US Open doubles title with his good pal Félix Auger-Aliassime.

But that’s no longer possible.

Shapovalov’s current ranking would have given him direct entry into next week’s main event. But it came after the cutoff deadline. And so he’s the No. 2 seed in the qualifying and came up against a tricky customer in the first round.

American Denis Kudla is a bit of a streaky player, but he’s dangerous. On a scorching hot day, Shapovalov got through efficiently, 6-3, 6-4 to move onto the second round.

Here’s match point.

On Thursday, Shapovalov faces another talented opponent in Gastao Elias of Portugal.

In the meantime, he’s been busy.

Shapovalov a man in demand

After the win, Shapovalov went into the ESPN studios to shoot some material. They made him dance. And play with a chair And they made him run his hand through his hair a few times. Definitely out of his comfort zone. But you couldn’t ask for a more cooperative subject, and the final product is going to look great.

Shapovalov Shapovalov

And then, Shapovalov shook the hand of every single person on the crew and thanked them. (He and Auger-Aliassime clearly have the BEST parents).

Over the last few days, Shapovalov also did some photos for Nike along with Auger-Aliassime and fellow Canadian Françoise Abanda. They’re all part of the next generation of players. 

Shapovalov

Was that enough? Shapovalov then hung out with Roger Federer and Rod Laver as he was named captain John McEnroe’s captain’s pick for the Laver Cup next month, as part of the “world” team.

Laver

That’s some pretty major “Team Europe” company he’s keeping right there.

He’s probably sick of himself already!

But Thursday is back to work. Elias, now 26, was in the top 60 at the end of last season but has dropped just outside the top 150.

He’s in that “transition to full-time ATP Tour player” area that can prove to be a challenging jump. Of late, he’s played more on his favoured clay. And he went from the qualifying to the quarters in Lyon just before the French Open this year. In that event, Elias defeated Juan Martin del Potro before falling to Shapovalov’s countryman Milos Raonic.

He was down in the Dominican Republic last week – still on the clay – and lost in the semifinals of a Challenger there to eventual champ (and homeboy) Victor Estrella Burgos in a third-set tiebreak.

A decade ago, Elias was a top-10 junior and very promising. Sometimes it takes awhile. Sometimes it doesn’t quite happen. But the talent level is true.

Shapovalov prepares 1st US Open

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MONTREAL – After only a couple of days at home in Toronto, 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov was back in Montreal Wednesday.

Barely recovered from a tough physical week, he began to prepare for his first attempt to qualify at a Grand Slam tournament.

Shapovalov lost in the first round of qualifying at his first major, at the French Open last May. He was given a wild card into the main draw at Wimbledon.

Then just 16, Shapovalov won the US Open boys’ doubles two years ago with his good pal Félix Auger-Aliassime. Auger-Aliassime was just 15.

Just two years later, both will try to qualify for the men’s singles main draw.

Auger-Aliassime will be unseeded, and rusty after being off the court nearly two months with a wrist injury.

Shapovalov will be brimming with confidence after his career-launching week at the Rogers Cup last week.

On Thursday, Shapovalov and coach/Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau were out on the Grandstand court in Montreal – the sounds of the dismantling of a Masters 1000 event resounding in the background.

Shapovalov back to the grind

They spent considerable time on the volley – specifically the backhand volley.

Shapovalov, always a natural, instinctive volleyer, had some issues with that shot last week in Montreal. And it’s a big part of his game.

“Marty told me from the beginning when I started working with him that it was going to be at least three years until I can really get my volleys going. So every day, every week, we try to put work into it,” Shapovalov said.

Here’s what it looked like.

After the practice, Shapovalov held a press conference for the media in Montreal, pretty much covering the range of changes in his life after last week.

The hunted, not the hunter

He heads to New York likely as the second seed in the qualifying event, which begins next Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see, given the ongoing search tennis fans enjoy for the best new, shiny thing, how much of an impact he has and how many people will come out to see him play.

Also fascinating will be to see how he reacts before a smaller, quieter crowd after being buoyed by the big home-country crowd. And, if he plays an American, how that mightshake out.

What’s next for … Denis Shapovalov?

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Hopefully Canadian Denis Shapovalov is kicking back, Nikes off, at his Toronto-area home and processing just how much his life has changed in the wake of a star-making week at the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

(Ed: Barely. After a couple of days, Shapovalov was on his way back to Montreal Wednesday morning to get ready for the US Open qualifying)

The big splash mercifully has forever veered the focus away from the unfortunate Davis Cup incident last February, and back to the 18-year-old’s talent, pizazz and potential as he prepares to take it to the next level.

The first decision in the wake of a career-making moment was to pull out of a $100,000 Challenger this week across the country in Vancouver.

Shapovalov had made a firm commitment to be there. And his coach/Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau reiterated as late as Friday that he would.

But it was the right move. There’s a lot to take in. And there is the not-insignificant toll of five matches at the top ATP Tour level to recover from. That’s something he had never done before.

With the US Open qualifying beginning in a week, the teenager has to gear down, reload and rev up again in short order.

In other words, he has to do it all over again.

Shapovalov did apologize on national television in Canada about missing Vancouver.

He told the fans that he would be back. Given his current ranking, and the expectation that it will rise even further, that would be considered an all-star guest appearance going forward.

Shapovalov added he hoped the fans in Western Canada would come see him in Edmonton in mid-September, for the Davis Cup World Group playoff tie against India. Of course, the Canadian squad hasn’t been named yet. But with Shapovalov’s results, and his coach being the captain of the team, and top Canadian Milos Raonic’s spotty attendance record in recent years, that’s pretty much a given.

The US Open – the hard way

There was a lot of instantaneous reaction that Shapovalov should get a wild card into the US Open singles draw. But that’s not how wild cards are given at Grand Slams.

Tennis.Life looked at all the men’s and women’s US Open singles draws since 2007 to see how often the US Tennis Association had gone outside its mandate of developing homegrown talent.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov is going to have to get onto Arthur Ashe Stadium the old-fashioned way. He’ll have to earn it. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Had it given out free passes to players other than Americans, or the beneficiaries of the reciprocal agreements the USTA has with the French and Australian federations?

In other words, has pre-US Open buzz ever factored in?

No.

And it’s hard to find an instance at any Grand Slam where this has been the case. Perhaps you could argue giving Marcus Willis a singles qualifying and doubles wild card into Wimbledon this year was because of his notoriety. But Willis is a Brit.

In all cases, the “exception” wild cards went to past champions of the event. Those included Juan Martin del Potro last year, Kim Clijsters in 2009 and … Maria Sharapova. That was announced on Tuesday.

So it wasn’t realistic. Shapovalov will have to earn his main draw spot the old-fashioned way. 

Not top dog

In fact, when the US Open men’s singles qualifying tournament gets under way Tuesday, Shapovalov (despite jumping from No. 143 to No. 67 in the rankings Monday), won’t even be the top seed.

That likely will be Leonardo Mayer. The 30-year-old Argentine, who has played the US Open eight times and has been seeded in the main draw, was at No. 152 at the entry deadline July 3. But Mayer currently is ranked No. 53.

The players in qualifying range from just outside the top 100 to about 250 in the world. In other words, the type of opposition Shapovalov has faced, for the most part, this season. 

Challenger-level losses

 Shapovalov has played just three ATP-level events this year. And he’s done well at two of them.

On the Challenger side over the last four months, he was beaten by such players as countryman Peter Polansky (No. 118), Thomas Fabbiano (No. 103), Marco Cecchinato (No. 105), James McGee (No. 219) and Vincent Millot (No. 156).

Does one magical week instantly raise his level to the point where he would never lose to players of that calibre again? Maybe. But it would be very unusual.

“It’s been an exceptional week but the reality is there’s still lots of tennis to be played this year. It’s tough to produce weeks like that every week, unless he becomes a top-10 player before the end of the year. But at least it’s a reference for him to know at what kind of level he’s capable of playing,” coach and Davis Cup captain Laurendeau told the Tennis Canada website. “We all saw it and it will be good for him to have it as a reference – to know he can beat top-10 players, he can beat top-50, top-30 players. It’ll help him keep working hard to improve his game.”

Back to the grind

Shapovalov maximized on the biggest tennis stage in his country, before a packed stadium, on national television in both official languages, with just about every supporter in the stands on his side.

It’s a textbook example of seizing the day. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, and it was cumulative. But Shapovalov won’t be stepping into a similar situation until … a year from now in his hometown of Toronto, when the Rogers Cup comes around again.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov smiles and signs autographs after his career Grand Slam debut, a first-round loss to Marius Copil at the French Open in late May. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The teenager played his first Grand Slam qualifying tournament a couple of months ago in Paris at the French Open.

After suffering le bagel in the first set, he lost in three sets to Marius Copil of Romania (No. 94).

The match was on Court 6 – a nice court, but one that seats a few hundred fans.

He made his Grand Slam main-draw debut a month later at Wimbledon, after receiving a wild card based on his ranking and his status as last year’s junior champion.

The court, No. 7, was even smaller. The opponent, Jerzy Janowicz (No. 143), was a player he had faced a few months before, and so he knew what to expect.

He lost in four sets in a competitive match.

It was the first time in his life that Shapovalov had played more than three sets. And, so far, the only time. As any player will tell you, best-of-five sets is a completely different animal.

Target on his back

The day after a big tournament result is factored in and a big rankings leap is achieved is the day a player start working towards having to defend those points in a year’s time.

In Shapovalov’s case, he played little from this point to the end of the 2016 season – just three Challengers as he dealt with an ankle injury. And he earned zero ranking points at those. So anything he does the rest of the season will only cause his ranking to rise.

This is bonus time. He can do nothing but go up, with no pressure on his ranking. It’s a great opportunity to put some points in the bank to forestall the likely damage of not repeating his Rogers Cup effort in 2018.

But Shapovalov is the man to beat now. He’s the kid with the target on his back (Ask Genie Bouchard – politely – what that feels like).

Going into the qualifying at Flushing Meadows, before a small crowd of diehards in warm temperatures with plenty of humidity, the aspirants all will be wanting to take him down.

If the majority of them will never have a chance to defeat Juan Martin del Potro or Rafael Nadal during their careers, the next best thing is to beat the guy who did defeat them.

You know they were watching attentively.

On the plus side, Shapovalov will go in with his confidence through the roof, and with the more familiar best-of-three set format. 

And, in a new twist this year, he can have coach Laurendeau, or his mom/coach Tessa, yell advice to him from the stands.

Davis Cup pressure

After the US Open? There’s Davis Cup.

Shapovalov’s first official Davis Cup experience was one to forget. The next time around, he could be carrying a country on his back.

Canada hosts India on what will be a skating-rink speed court in Edmonton, Alberta in mid-September.

India doesn’t have any rock stars. But it does have a couple of singles players in the top 200 who are playing well at the moment in Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan. Ramanathan is into the second round this week in Cincinnati. Bhambri qualified and reached the quarter-finals in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

Shapovalov currently is the No. 2 ranked male player in Canada. And top gun Milos Raonic (who withdrew from Cincinnati with a wrist issue) has not been a faithful Davis Cup attendee in recent years.

So the teenager could conceivably be playing No. 1 singles, with his country’s hopes of remaining in the prestigious World Group on his slender shoulders.

His debut in Ottawa in February didn’t go well even before the incident with the chair umpire. 

That’s a lot to handle.

Chasing rainbows, or slow and steady?

Shapovalov can benefit from his new ranking in any tournament that begins Sept. 28 or later.

He has yet to enter any of the fall tournaments. The first of them, Beijing and Tokyo the first week of October, are 500-level tournaments with tough fields. The deadline is Monday; based on last year’s cutoffs, in the low 50s, the Canadian wouldn’t make it in. He has yet to enter any Challengers during that week, either.

The wild-card offers surely will come. As the new “it” player in tennis, the temptations will be major to try to cash in financially while he’s a hot commodity. As it was, Shapovalov did a lot of off-court promotional stuff last week in Montreal. 

Maximizing the opportunity

It will be interesting to see how the members of Team Shapovalov handle their charge’s newfound circumstances.

Will they take it slowly and steadily? Or will it be pedal to the medal, putting the youngster in situations that might be too much for him, too soon?

Shapovalov

Shapovalov’s learning curve was shortened considerably in Montreal last week. But the game development and the maturity necessarily will lag behind the confidence. Those are elements for which the journey cannot be shortened. 

Rafael Nadal alluded to it after his loss to Shapovalov, musing on how much easier it it so play freely when you’re 18, compared to when you’re 30.

Roger Federer, too, had some wisdom on the subject. At Shapovalov’s age, his ranking was similar although he had spent significantly more time at the ATP Tour level. But he remembers being that fearless.

“I guess, let’s say, the first three years on tour – first two maybe –  just because opponents don’t quite know your patterns yet. They don’t know what you’re going to do. You don’t know yourself what you’reShapovalov going to do on the break point. Are you going to take it and then go for it?

“Are you going to say, ‘Let me close my eyes for one second’ and go for it? Maybe you shank one, then the next you belt it. You’re like, ‘Hmm, let’s do that next time around.’ It works. It works again. You just fuel your confidence like that,” Federer said.

Patience, Shapovalov fans

The 36-year-old watched Shapovalov hit his way out of trouble in his junior Wimbledon semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas last year. He couldn’t believe it, but posited that perhaps for Shapovalov, it was normal.

“Obviously it’s risky. Doesn’t always play off. Playing forward, doing that on Court 4 against a journeyman is a different story than doing it on center court,” Federer said. “We all know that. But not everybody can go up to that level. It seems that Denis has an extra gear.”

As Rogers Cup champion Alexander Zverev put it, with all of his 20 years, after defeating Shapovalov in that Next-Gen semifinal, it’s a process.

“I felt like the crowd and the tournament, the whole city of Montreal, was really supporting him all the way. It was an amazing story. I think this is just the beginning of a very long story. Hopefully he can continue doing what he’s doing,” Zverev said.

Shapovalov
Zverev sees off his future rival, after defeating him in the Rogers Cup semifinal Saturday in Montreal (TennisTV.com)

“But on the other hand I will say don’t expect him to win (the) US Open in the next few months coming up. He still needs some time. This is I think the best tennis he played in his life. For him to play this level consistently, it might take him, you know, another two to three years,” he added. “But the other hand he has shown what level he has in himself and what talent that he is. It’s going to be amazing watching him and playing against him.”

Hopefully, the Canadian fans, and new admirers around the tennis world, can be patient enough to see Shapovalov through the inevitable growing pains.

Stephens fooled by Shapovalovalikes

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In a thoroughly random twist of the tennis tale, American Sloane Stephens is a big fan of this week’s breakout star, Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

And after she bowed out to Caroline Wozniacki in the Rogers Cup semifinals Saturday, she told this story, which took place last winter.

” I thought I saw him at a restaurant in Toronto like maybe eight months ago. And I can’t even tell you guys.

“I was with my boyfriend (Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore) and a couple of friends, and I had just seen him on TV probably like two days before that playing the Davis Cup. And I was like, ‘Man, I really love this kid. He’s so good.’

“And I saw someone that looked identical to him at a restaurant and I was like, ‘Oh, man. Like, we got to send him a drink or something. And then I was like, ‘but he’s 17 or something.’ So I was like, maybe not.

“So we’ll send his parents, like, a bottle of wine. So we did and, yeah, they enjoyed it. They were like, you know, whatever. Everything is cool. Yeah, it must be him because it looks like the mom on TV, you know, all this stuff. And I looked it up and he lives in Toronto. So I was like, okay, this makes sense. It’s totally him.

Shapovalovalikes
The real Shapovalovs, not the imposters.

“And then I started Googling pictures of him and the hair and stuff. I was like, ‘Maybe it’s not him.’ Basically, we ended up sending them vodka and all this stuff.”And then, an hour after the meal, I had someone, like, go into the bathroom with the kid – well, the person I thought was Denis – and it wasn’t him. And I was so disappointed because I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I thought it was him.’ And everyone was just like, ‘You’re an idiot.’

“But I love him and I’m a huge fan. So, you know, go Canadian tennis.”

GREAT story.

So, some lucky, random family in Toronto got plied with legal beverages by Sloane Stephens and Jozy Altidore. And they might not even, to this day, even have a clue.

Which takes nothing away from the fact that it was a thoroughly restaurant-quality move by Stephens.