Tsonga posts comeback win over Shapovalov

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MELBOURNE, Australia – The last 10 minutes of his second-round match against Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said, were the reason he fought so hard for the first three hours and 20 minutes.

Down 0-3 in the fifth set, down a break point that, if converted, would have put him down 0-4 and two breaks, the 32-year-old Frenchman hung on and never lost faith.

He came all the way back in a 3-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory that put him into the third round of the Australian Open.

There, Tsonga will meet Aussie Nick Kyrgios in a clash that has a fireworks alert already registered.

Shapovalov wasn’t just up 3-0. He also was up 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set. He decided he was quickly going to turn the page and add it to the experience bank.

“As much as the loss hurts, you know, I don’t find it as a loss. I find it as an opportunity to learn. Yeah, I mean, I’m turning it into a positive. Hopefully next time I’m in this situation, I play things a little bit differently,” said Shapovalov, who defeated Tsonga in four sets in the second round of the US Open last September.

“I’m the type of guy when things don’t go my way, instead of sulking or getting mad, down on myself, I go back on the court and try to work twice as hard so next time when I’m in that position I can hit some good serves, you know, just close the match out,” he added.

Experience vs. youth

Shapovalov pointed to Tsonga’s experience as perhaps one factor. “I don’t have that much (experience), that could have been the difference. He picked up his game when he needed to,” he said.

Tsonga, older by 14 years, didn’t necessarily agree. “I think I just played well after that. What I didn’t do most of the match, I didn’t return that well. At the end I returned well. That’s it,” he said.

Shapovalov
Tsonga’s patented spin and leap was impressive after his win over Shapovalov, considering what a gruelling match it was.

The veteran said that most of the time, you don’t think about how young the player across the net is. But in this case, Tsonga tried to use it to pump himself up and play a few Vulcan mind tricks with his brain.

“I said to myself that he’s young, you never know, at the end, when he’ll have to finish, maybe he’ll make a few wrong choices. That was mostly to help me hold on, but that was the only time I thought, he’s 18 years old,” Tsonga said.

The bigger difference-maker was the fact that the first time they met, on Arthur Ashe Stadium last summer, Tsonga had never played Shapovalov before. 

“I knew he was able to do things, crazy things like he did today. I think, yeah, was something great to play him for the second time here,” Tsonga said.

Front tweener a highlight

One key moment came at 5-5 in the fifth set, at 30-all. Tsonga, whose calf had been barking at him (he also said he felt a few mini-cramps in both his forearms as he headed over from the players’ centre to his press conference) got his feet stuck on a ball he thought was going to be a backhand but ended up going to his forehand.

He couldn’t get over in time. And so he hit the ball between his legs. Shapovalov missed the next ball. Eventually, Tsonga broke in that game and served it out at love.

Shapovalov
The match lasted 3 1/2 hours, so it’s not surprising that Shapovalov might have gotten a little peckish.

For Shapovalov, there was certainly hope that he could go further – at least to a clash with Kyrgios.

The Canadian and the Aussie bonded a little as part of “Team World” at the Laver Cup last September.

And the victory over an out-of-sorts Kyrgios at his hometown event in 2016, the Rogers Cup, put the Canadian teenager on the map for the first time.

But it won’t happen. Not this time.

“I thought I could have returned better. There (were) a couple games where I was getting a lot of looks on the second serve and just shanking a couple, not doing enough with the ball. With the second shot, he was stepping up. That’s definitely one area I still want to improve a lot. I think it’s gotten unbelievably better, but there’s always room to grow,” Shapovalov said.

“The other part I would say is my volleys. I think I’m volleying a lot better. Still sometimes I’m not setting on my feet, I’m going for too much. I think it’s just going to the net more, having these chances to play more volleys.”

The kid had his moments, though. Many of them.

Shapovalov is provisionally back in the ATP Tour’s top 50. But there are a lot of players still alive in the draw who could jump past him.

Next up is Davis Cup in Croatia, on an indoor clay court. 

Another new experience.

In a battle of teenagers, the younger prevails

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MELBOURNE, Australia – One of the finest junior matches in recent memory came at Wimbledon in 2016, when 17-year-olds Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas battled in the semifinals.

Two one-handed backhands. Both serve-volleying, chip-charging and using the entire court like a couple of savvy veterans.

Shapovalov, younger by eight months, won that one and defeated Aussie Alex de Minaur to win the title.

A year and a half later, the two met for the first time as pros.

And Shapovalov proved to still be a little ahead of the curve.

The 18-year-old handled the occasion – and the swirly, difficult winds – with more aplomb in a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory that puts him in the second round against No. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

“We’re going to play so many times in the future, I’m going to win some, I’m going to lose some. I think he’s developed quite a lot as well. I just managed to play better today,” said Shapovalov, who was stronger on every level and hit 33 winners to Tsitsipas’s 11.

“Bringing back the match in juniors, it was a hell of a match, I think we’ve both improved quite a bit from back then. But just today I was able to play better than he did.”

Slice return proved effective

Shapovalov added a slice backand return in the offseason. And he used it well on Monday. It was a necessary response to the opponents already having picked up on his tendancy to hit full-out topspin backhands on most returns, and trying to rush him out wide – especially on the deuce side.

“It’s definitely one area I’ve focused on in the offseason along with coming to the net more, stuff like this. I feel it’s a variety that I’ve added to my game that’s definitely helped me these few matches. Hopefully I can keep improving it, and have a good slice like Roger (Federer) one day,” Shapovalov said.

“It’s a combination of getting more returns in and staying inside the points. Sometimes when I go for the topspin it takes me too much out of the court positioning, With the slice I feel I can recover faster, and get in the point.”

Tsitsipas was clearly tight to start the match. He qualified for the main draw at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, but lost in the first round. It was the first Australian Open for both, but Shapovalov had more experience.

“I went a little bit deeper in the Grand Slam in New York. I was bringing back a couple of old memories playing the few Grand Slams that I have,” he said. “But definitely I felt from the beginning I would be a bit more comfortable, and that’s what happened. He was a little more tight to start, and I just used that advantage.”

Tough conditions

By the third set, Tsitsipas appeared to be struggling with the conditions even though it was not a hot day at all. The swirly wind was definitely strength-sapping. Shapovalov is more compact and muscular; Tsitsipas, who hasn’t finished filling out his long, lanky body (he’s built something like Alexander Zverev), was more affected.

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Tsitsipas was doubled over by the end of the match, but it was all over but the shouting anyway. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

By the very end, he appeared to be starting to cramp – first in the leg, and then in the stomach area. No doubt nerves played a part.

“I remember staying on one side and I felt like the wind was against me, I felt like I was forcing all my shots. So then I thought, the following game, when I went to the other side, I would be with the wind. But I got to the other side, and it felt even heavier,” Shapovalov said, laughing. “It was really swirly for both guys. We had a couple of weird points. It was tricky, but it’s part of the game, just something we had to deal with.”

Tsonga next – again

Shapovalov finished up before knowing the identity of his next opponent, whose match was played late night.

It turned out to be Tsonga, the player he defeated in the second round of the US Open on his way to the round of 16.
“I had really good feelings playing him last year, an unbelievable match from my side. It would be an honour to play him again. Another matchup that I would like, and I’m excited for the match,” he said.

Shapovalov out in Brisbane first round

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Since the heady days of Denis Shapovalov’s North American summer, the victories have been a lot harder to come by.

And the Canadian teenager certainly didn’t get his 2018 season off to an ideal start in Brisbane Tuesday.

Shapovalov was defeated 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4 by Kyle Edmund. The Canadian has played just 30 ATP Tour-level matches, and he was facing the 22-year-old Brit for the fourth time in less than a year.

It was very close, and it took 2 1/2 hours even if Shapovalov could well have lost the first set.

He double-faulted to hand the break to his opponent at 4-4. But when Edmund served for the first set, Shapovalov roared back and broke, then took the set in a tiebreak. 

Shapovalov’s backhand was firing. But he didn’t put enough second-serve returns in play to trouble his opponent enough on serve. (Screenshot: Channel 7 app)

Edmund the more patient player

Shapovalov was in trouble from the start of the third set, broken at the outset, and couldn’t catch up.

The 18-year-old out-aced Edmund 18-5. But he could convert just one of six break-point opportunities, while Edmund had fewer chances but a much better success rate (2-of-3).

The Brit doesn’t have the same high-level weapons on court that Shapovalov has. But he is patient. And he hits the ball hard enough. As well, he has a slice that can mix things up. And he’s willing to block back returns to at least get the point started on a tough first serve.

That’s something Shapovalov has not yet incorporated into his arsenal. 

Late in the match, the Canadian was trying to pull the trigger too early, while Edmund stayed the course on a day that featured very tough conditions.

In the match on Pat Rafter Arena that preceded their encounter, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza went into a full-body cramp and was forced to retire.

Shapovalov waves graciously to the crowd, as he always does, after the loss to Edmund in Brisbane. (Screenshot: Channel 7 app)

That it would be that close isn’t all that surprising. Two of their three encounters in 2017 didn’t have a proper ending, so it was difficult to judge. Edmund won by default in that infamous Davis Cup tie in Ottawa in February, after Shapovalov fractured chair umpire Arnaud Gabas’ orbital bone with a ball struck in frustration.

At the US Open, it was Edmund who retired early in the fourth set.

The one match they did complete, won by Shapovalov at Queen’s Club last June, went 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4.

Edmund is ranked No. 51; Shapovalov one behind him, at No. 51.

Wins hard to come by

Shapovalov has been very, very busy since he qualified and reached the round of 16 at the US Open.

In fact, he has barely stopped.

He went from New York, to Davis Cup in western Canada, and right to the Laver Cup in Prague.

Both of Shapovalov’s knees were taped in this photo posted on his Instagram feed. Dec. 26.

Shapovalov only played one match there. But he then went to Asia. At that point, a wrap began to appear just below his right knee.

His first stop was Tokyo, which he had originally entered but then didn’t play. He did practice, and do some promotional work for his new racket sponsor.

Given a wild card in Shanghai, he lost in the first round. He also lost first round in Antwerp, Belgium the following week. And, after he defeated Yuichi Sugita in a third-set tiebreaker in the first round of Basel the week after that, he lost to France’s Adrian Mannarino in the next round.

Milan debut a struggle

Shapovalov lost in the first round of the Paris Masters to French veteran Julien Benneteau the week after that. And then, the week after that, he lost two of his three matches at the Next-Gen Finals in Milan.

The only match Shapovalov managed to pull out was against Italian wild card Gianluigi Quinzi, who had toiled the previous week in a wild-card playoff and arrived at the main event on fumes, with not much more left but a big heart.

By Dec. 18, there was a wrap on Shapovalov’s left knee. During the Asian swing, it was the right knee (from Shapovalov’s Instagram feed)

The kid didn’t have much of a break in that elusive notion in tennis known as an off-season.

He went right back to work at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

By the end of his preseason, Shapovalov had wraps on both his knees.

All of which to say, the kid has run himself ragged the last six months. And the victories have been hard to come by – not that he wasn’t already fully aware that the cloud he was on late in the summer wasn’t something sustainable.

He’ll have another chance in Auckland next week, before his first official Australian Open.

Federer, Shapovalov among ATP awards winners

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Denis Shapovalov fell just short in his quest to make the semifinals at the Next-Gen Finals in Milan Thursday.

But a few minutes later, came a small consolation prize.

The 18-year-old was voted the “Most Improved” player of the year on the ATP Tour. Shapovalov beat out top-10 players Alexander Zverev and David Goffin for the honor. Ironically, he also beat out the player he had just lost to in Milan, Russia’s Andrey Rublev.

Shapovalov also got the “Star of Tomorrow” award last month.

In another bit of irony, South African Neville Godwin won the “Coach of the Year” award for the good work he did with countryman Kevin Anderson. 

Anderson was a surprise finalist at the US Open in September.

Just a few days ago, Anderson announced that the two had parted ways after four years together.

Three prizes for Federer

Roger Federer, as has seemingly been a slam-dunk in recent years, captured both the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship award as well as the “Fan Favorite” award.

A new addition this year was the “Comeback player of the year” award

awards

That’s 15 consecutive years for Federer and the “Fan Favorite” award. Federer has won the sportsmanship award 13 out of the last 14 years; the only exception was 2010, when Rafael Nadal took that prize.

The “Fan Favorite” award, as its name indicates, is voted on by the fans. The Sportsmanship award is voted on by Federer’s fellow players.

Other award recipients

The Bryan brothers won the “Fan Favorite” in the doubles category for the 13th consecutive year. The award has only been in existence for 13 years.

On the tournament side, the players voted for Indian Wells in the Masters 1000 category, Acapulco in the 500 category, and Doha in the 250 category as tournaments of the year.

It’s the fourth consecutive year for the big-budget BNP Paribas Open. At the 500 level, Dubai was the perennial winner, until being overtaken by Queen’s Club in 2015 and 2016 (it won the award at the 250 level in 2013 and 2014, but then was upgraded). 

Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his efforts in championing children’s rights & education in Romania.

The “Player of the Year” prize goes to the year-end No. 1. And so the winner, Nadal, was determined last week. He’ll receive his trophy after the 2 p.m. match between Federer and Jack Sock Sunday at the Tour Finals.

Since 2008, Nadal has won Player of the Year four times. Novak Djokovic also has won it four times, Andy Murray and Federer have taken it once each.

Draws made at Next-Gen Finals

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The biggest curiosity at next week’s inaugural Next-Gen finals arguably isn’t the group of eight young players who will compete in the event.

At least as much attention will be paid to all the rules changes and innovations planned for the exhibition tournament.

But there will be tennis – probably some excellent tennis even if the young guys are on fumes by now, after their long and successful campaigns.

The two round-robin pools were finalized at a launch party on Sunday (sponsored by Red Bull, of course, a beverage of choice for Next-Geners everywhere).

They could have named the pools “Federer” and “Nadal” groups. Or the “Becker” and “Chang” groups, a nod to the two youngest teenagers to win Grand Slam titles.

Or even the “Pietrangeli” and “Panatta” groups, to honor the two male Italian Slam winners.

But they’ve gone with … “Group A” and “Group B”.

(The tournament did name the various sections of the arena: #Vision, #Emotion, #Passion, #Innovation, #Speed, #Future. Tickets are available in five of the 10 sections for the opening session, and in all 10 sections for the Tuesday night session.)

Two rather formally-dressed women held up the pool group cards, and the tournament made the young guys “select” their model. A rather tone-deaf move, given all that’s going on in the world at the moment.

Group A

Andrey Rublev (RUS)
Denis Shapovalov (CAN)
Hyeong Chung (KOR)
[WC] Gianluigi Quinzi (ITA)

Group B

Karen Khachanov (RUS)
Borna Coric (CRO)
Jared Donaldson (USA)
Daniil Medvedev (RUS) 

Doubles specialists Bruno Soares and Jean-Julien Rojer were on hand to interview them.

The action begins on Tuesday.

The 2 p.m. day session kicks off with Khachanov vs. Medvedev, followed by Shapovalov vs. Chung. That is scheduled to be followed by an exhibition between the highest-ranked Next-Gen absentee, Alexander Zverev, and alternate Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Coric and Donaldson open the 7:30 p.m. night session. Rublev and home-country favorite Quinzi will follow.

Meanwhile, the Next-Geners have revealed their favorite emojis.

Coric showed everyone the bag of freebies in his hotel room (nice cutaway shot to the host hotel’s logo – yeah, a lot of this is about the benjamins).

Not to be left out, Shapovalov and Medvedev went sightseeing.

Shapovalov, Wu get Shanghai wild cards

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Denis Shapovalov may not be able to play Tokyo this week, because of visa issues.

But the silver lining is that he’s directly into the next Masters 1000 event in Shanghai next week.

The Shanghai Rolex Masters announced that Shapovalov and US Open junior boys’ champion Yu Wibing have been given the first two main draw wild cards into the tournament.

It begins Oct. 9.

“These two young men have produced some outstanding tennis this year and it is exciting to watch them taking their early steps on the world tour,” tournament Director Michael Luevano said in the press release.

Wu, who is just 17, went straight from winning the boys’ title in New York to winning the appropriately-named Road to the Rolex Shanghai Masters Challenger event the very next week.

Visa issues take Shapo out of Tokyo

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A lot of Canadian Denis Shapovalov’s fans were looking forward to his next tournament appearance at the Rakuten Japan Open in Tokyo, after he was given a wild card into the qualifying.

Unfortunately, the 18-year-old, currently ranked No. 52, pulled out at the last minute. He was replaced by alternate Franko Skugor of Croatia.

(On the good news side, the Rolex Shanghai Masters announced Saturday that Shapovalov has been given a wild card into the main draw of the Masters 1000 tournament, which takes place the week after Tokyo).

There was speculation (including here at tennis.life) that the reason was because of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, which falls between Friday sundown and Saturday sundown – which wouldn’t have allowed him to play if he’s observant.

But it turned out to be rather more mundane than that: visa issues.

According to the ATP, Shapovalov (who had earlier entered the Tokyo event but withdrew) did not have the correct Japanese visa to compete in the event. The wild-card card into the qualifying came late in the game, we were told.

It seems the original plan was just to go to Tokyo for some promotional work with his new sponsor, Yonex. That may have required something less than the work visa needed to compete in the tournament.

Shapovalov finally confirmed it on Sunday, via Instagram.

They had Shapovalov on the posters and everything.

There’s footage on YouTube of Shapovalov returning serves during a practice session with countryman Vasek Pospisil, and it looks like he had trouble with his right knee.

The person who posted the (undated) video said Shapovalov didn’t stop practice, though. And he continued to practice through the weekend.

He did manage to get a photo shoot in Thursday.

 

A post shared by Denis Shapovalov (@denis.shapovalov) on

That Shapovalov’s Instagram post on this got nearly 17,000 likes is evidence of his crazy-quick change in status. From 2,760 Twitter followers back in February, he’s now up to 41,000.

A year ago, the (then) 17-year-old played the series of three $100,000 Challenger events that his friend Félix Auger-Aliassime (and fellow Canadians Frank Dancevic, Brayden Schnur and Filip Peliwo) are currently taking part in. Shapovalov went 1-3 on the mini-tour, winning just one match in the qualifying of the first of the three events.

After that, he went to train in Austria with Dominic Thiem and his coach Günter Bresnik. But he rolled his ankle over there, and didn’t play any matches for the rest of the season.

The result of that is that he has zero ranking points to defend the rest of 2017. In fact, he has virtually nothing to defend until next March, when a couple of good Challenger results come up for renewal.

Crazy-busy fall schedule

It may be the last extended period of his career in which that’s the case. And with some big tournaments coming up, he can perhaps even think about getting a seed in Australia in January.

Shapovalov’s tournament plans after the US Open were unclear when he was in New York. With Davis Cup the following week, he had already played 23 weeks this season through mid-September.

It turns out he was booked nearly every week, beginning with the Laver Cup.

Despite not playing in Tokyo, he will be in action next week after receiving a wild card for the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai.

The week after that (Oct. 16), he’s entered in the ATP tournament in Antwerp, Belgium. After that, he also made the main-draw cut at Roger Federer’s hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland.

The week after that? The qualifying at the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris. The week after that? He’s likely to qualify for the inaugural Next-Gen finals in Milan, Italy. 

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.

inaugural
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.

inaugural

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.

inaugural

 

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. And they’ve both signed on for doubles, as well.

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.

Shapovalov

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.