Next Gen returns for round two in Milan

Save

The Next Gen Finals are held in Milan – and, indeed, the second-largest court at the Rome tournament is called the “Next Gen Arena”.

So it made sense to have a press conference Tuesday in Rome to preview the second edition of the event, which returns basically with the same format.

On the realistic side, the photo with the press release did not feature the far-and-away leader in the road to Milan, Alexander Zverev.

The 21-year-old did leave an opening in 2017, saying around this time of the year that he hadn’t ruled out trying to play both events. The Next-Gen Finals take place the week before the ATP Tour Finals in London.

This year, the Madrid Open champion, the world No. 3 right behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, will have ideas of perhaps winning in London. So there will be no fake news in that regard.

Zverev currently has more than triple the number of points earned by the next on the list, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas will be the marquee name, along with Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, 19. Shapovalov, who made his Milan debut last year, vaulted into third place in the race to Milan with his semifinal effort in Madrid last week and is now in the top-30 in the regular ATP Tour rankings.

He’s just four points behind Tsitsipas, with four fewer tournaments on his resumé.

A year ago, Tsitsipas slotted into 10th spot in the Milan race, just missing the cut.

2017 champion Chung graduated

Hyeong Chung, the 2017 champion, also attended the press conference, even if he had pulled out of the Rome tournament. He turns 22 on Saturday, and so no longer is eligible for the event.

Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Jared Donaldson and Borna Coric also have aged out.

The Next Gen of the Next Gen is probably not quite as advanced as that inaugural crop, in terms of the level they’re playing at the moment.

While Tsitsipas Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe are now established at the ATP Tour level, the rest of the field isn’t quite there yet.

Taylor Fritz, currently ranked No. 68, has made a couple of good runs at the ATP level this year – notably a fourth round at Indian Wells. But he hasn’t quite turned the corner – at least, not yet. 

Alex de Minaur is at a career high. But despite his great effort in the Australian Open warmup events to start the season, he’s still outside the top 100. In two clay-court Challengers in Portugal the last two weeks, de Minaur lost to Casper Ruud of Norway and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain – two young players around his age, but ranked much lower.

Another Aussie, 21-year-old Marc Polmans, has moved his ranking up at the lower levels. He went 19-1 during a series of four Futures events in Australia over the winter, and his only match above the Challenger level this season was a first-round qualifying loss at the Australian Open.

Auger-Aliassime, at the top of the alphabetical list, is the only 17-year-old in the top-60 in the Milan race. But he currently sits at No. 27, a long way back even if he is arguably far more talented than many of the players ahead of him.

But it’s early, yet.

Innovative rules remain

An interesting number the tournament put out was that despite the “shortened” format – first to four games, up to five “mini sets”, the average match was just three minutes shorter than the ATP Tour average in the regular best-of-three format.

The range was more limited, though. In part, that’s because the tournament is played on an indoor fast surface. The ATP Tour year-long average also includes a significant number of clay-court events.

For the Next-Gen, match times ranged from 60 minutes to two hours, six minutes.

ATP Tour, matches ranged from 39 minutes to three hours, 12 minutes.

On the downside, the pre-match warmup will be shortened even more.

In 2017, it had been five minutes from the time of the second player walk-on. That’s already significantly shorter than most warmups during the ATP Tour season, where the umpires are rather generous with the three- and two-minute warnings, and the time limits are often swayed by the length of the player introductions.

In 2018, they will shorten that to four minutes. That’s ranging into a territory where the warmup is so brief, the players will still be a little cold when they start the matches. And that can mean more muscle pulls.

Towel racks on court

Finally, someone has addressed the issue of the ballkids handling sweaty towels, offering personal service to the players between points.

There will be towel racks at the back of the court. And the players will be told to use them “to remove the onus on ball kids to handle towels.”

Given that will take a few seconds longer, either the players will go to the “rack” less often. Or they will complain about running out of time although the Next-Gen play at a far less pokey pace than some of the grownups.

There was no word about the opening ceremony, and whether the ladies hired to … spice up the proceedings will be back.

You’d think … not. But it’s in Italy, so you never know.

Shapovalov wins battle of Canada over Raonic

Save

Milos Raonic walked onto Arantxa Sanchez court to meet younger countryman Denis Shapovalov Thursday with a smile on his face.

He left it the same way, all smiles at the net, despite being upset by his teenaged rival 6-4, 6-4 in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open.

“Definitely one of my best days on clay. To be on the court against such a legend for me, and for my country, it was an honour. It was fun. There was no pressure on me, obviously a lot more on him playing a young guy coming up. But, I mean, I just enjoyed myself,” Shapovalov told the media in Madrid.

“To beat him, it was a huge confidence booster for me. The match felt like everything kind of went great. I was guessing a lot the right way on his serves. When I got my racquet on them, usually they were falling in. There’s nothing to criticize about my performance today.”

The No. 1 Canadian didn’t play the best tennis of his life. But he didn’t play poorly.

The match was on the racket of his 19-year-old countryman. And Shapovalov proved himself more than up to the task on an occasion that not only had significance as an opportunity to get to another Masters 1000 quarterfinal, but to upset the conventional order of tennis in his country.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov’s backhand was sturdy and stalwart in his win over Raonic. (TennisTV)

More balanced in his baseline attack than his more experienced rival, Shapovalov redlined his groundstrokes while minimizing his errors.

If that’s not a level of risk that will always work to his benefit, he made it work brilliantly on this day.

He hit 28 winners – 16 on the forehand, and made 17 unforced errors. Raonic was 14, and 14.

The 27-year-old had no answers from the back court. Worse, the depth of Shapovalov’s shots and Raonic’s inability to put enough serves into play made opportunities to come to the net on the return games rare. 

On Shapovalov’s serve, Raonic opted to stand much further back against the lefty than he had in the previous round against No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov. Shapovalov was able to both outside corners, with angle. And more often than not, Raonic was left defending.

He earned just one break point on Shapovalov’s serve. On his own serve, Raonic was fatally passive. 

Shapovalov
A mishit by Shapovalov in the seventh game of the first set resulted in the definitive break for Shapovalov, as Raonic couldn’t reach an impossibly awkward bounce. (TennisTV)
Shapovalov
“Sorry,” says Shapovalov, with an admirable effort at sincerity, as he breaks and goes on to win the first set. (TennisTV)

Serve not effective enough

And even when he was able to get a big forehand swipe on the ball, Shapovalov returned it back at him just as hard. When he left one short, Shapovalov put it away. Raonic rarely used his slice backhand, and in the topspin backhand game, he is very much Shapovalov’s lesser.

Shapovalov
Some of Shapovalov’s winning groundstrokes were so velocirapturous, even Raonic coach Goran Ivanisevic couldn’t help but be impressed. (TennisTV).

Raonic served at an 87 percent first-serve clip in the first set. He had seven aces in his first three service games. And yet, he won a fairly pedestrian (for him) 63 per cent of those points in that set.

He probably didn’t use the body serve enough. And he rarely tried the serve-volley play. 

Shapovalov put 16 returns in the court in the first set. He won 12 of those points (10 of the first 12). 

In the second set, Raonic was far more effective on the first serve, losing just three of 18 points. But his percentage dropped. And of the 10 second serves he hit, he managed to win just four points.

Placid versus peppy

The body language, no surprise, was at opposite extremes between the two. Raonic was benign, never mad at himself, but also never pumping himself up. There was very little reaction at all throughout.

Shapovalov was so full of nervous energy as he bounded to the net for the coin toss, he practically ran into chair umpire Damian Steiner. But he made that energy work for him. He seemed always in control from beginning to end.

It was a performance that allowed the 19-year-old to jump up a big rung on the maturity ladder.

His elder was very gracious at the net, approaching with a smile and offering a hug. And as Raonic left the court, he nodded to Shapovalov’s mother and coach, Tessa, who was applauding him off the court.

Raonic couldn’t really be mad at himself for what he didn’t do. Although he might look at the match again and rue the things he might have done.

He took the net 11 times, but won just five of those points. Shapovalov went 6-for-7.

Edmund next up for Shapovalov

In the Madrid Open quarterfinals, Shapovalov will meet another unseeded young player in Kyle Edmund of Great Britain.

Unlike his meeting with Raonic, which was a first, Shapovalov may know Edmund better than any other player he’s faced in his brief time on Tour.

This will be the fifth meeting between them, the first on clay. In the space of less than a year, between the first round of Davis Cup in 2017 and Brisbane to start this season, they played four matches.

Only two were completed. Shapovalov defeated Edmund 6-4 in the third set last summer at Queen’s Club, on grass. Edmund returned the favour in Brisbane, beating Shapovalov 6-4 in the third.

In the third round of the US Open last September, Edmund retired after the first game of the fourth set with a back issue.

They first met in Ottawa a little more than a year ago, when Canada took on Great Britain. That was the infamous match in which a clearly overwhelmed Shapovalov, quickly down two sets, let his emotions get the better of him and fired the tennis ball that hit chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye, fracturing the socket.

Fifteen months later, Shapovalov no longer seems overwhelmed or unprepared for anything.

He’ll jump to about No. 34 in the rankings with the win, virtually guaranteeing himself a seed in Paris. If he can beat Edmund, he would jump into the top 30.

Meanwhile, Edmund will make his top-20 debut on Monday. With his quarterfinal effort, he has exactly the same number of ranking points – 1,905 – as Novak Djokovic, the player he upset in the second round in Madrid. With a win, he could jump to No. 16.

It’s been a good draw for Shapovalov, who has yet to face a seed. He defeated Benoit Paire, who had already eliminated No. 15 Lucas Pouille. And then Raonic, who had dispatched No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov. And now, Edmund, who took care of Djokovic.

Edmund defeated No. 8 seed David Goffin 6-2, 6-3 in the third round. to reach the clash with the Canadian.

Canada vs. Canada in Madrid as Raonic meets Shapovalov

Save

There will be a Canadian in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open this year – guaranteed.

And on Thursday, Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov will take the same court for the first time ever to determine who that will be.

The match will be on Arantxa Sanchez court, not before 2 p.m. Madrid time (8 a.m. EDT).

Raonic, the king of Canadian men’s tennis for so long, has never played Shapovalov, his current heir apparent even if his elder is a long, long way from passing the torch.

In fact, the two barely know each other. It’s unclear if they have ever practiced together. 

Shapovalov began his Davis Cup career with a playoff tie in late 2016. Raonic hasn’t played Davis Cup since a first-round tie in 2015. 

Both hail from the same area of Toronto: Raonic from Thornhill, Shapovalov from neighbouring Richmond Hill. But the nearly nine-year age gap is huge. By the time Shapovalov might even made made a viable practice partner back at home, Raonic had long left town to pursue his career.

In an interview after last year’s US Open, Shapovalov said the two had met “a couple of times”. “Really nice guy. But we just haven’t talked tennis too much. Helps me with opponents a little bit,” said Shapovalov, who has forged a much closer relationship with another Canadian rival, Vasek Pospisil.

Not only have the two bonded at Davis Cup, they also share the same manager.

So what to expect, then, from this colossal clash? It’s a leap into the unknown

Previous matches no indicator

Shapovalov will have a completely different match than he had in the second round against Benoit Paire.

CanadaIt was a match he managed to pull out 6-4 in the third set. But it was also a match the teenager could have lost in straight sets, had his French opponent been slightly less flaky. 

It had brilliant moments, and brutal moments (Paire double-faulted three times when serving for the second set). And while Paire is a powerful server, he’s not in Raonic’s league.

Raonic’s win over No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov was an impressive one considering his lack of recent match play, and an ongoing issue with his meniscus that has to be managed carefully. 

But Shapovalov is a lefty. And the patterns will be completely different.

Comparables

Even Shapovalov likely would admit that he’s not among the best returners in the game, although he’s improving week by week – especially on the backhand side.

He’ll have to return well to beat Raonic. But there’s very little data about how Shapovalov has fared against the big servers in the game. He just hasn’t faced many so far.

CanadaThe 19-year-old has never played John Isner, or Kevin Anderson. He defeated Ivo Karlovic in Delray Beach this year, and Sam Querrey in Miami.

He faced 6-foot-11 American Reilly Opelka in the qualifying at Queen’s Club a year ago, and defeated him in a third-set tiebreak.

But if Raonic serves at his top level – the way he served in the first set against Dimitrov, for example – he’ll control his own fate.

For Raonic, the relevant comparable is his record against lefthanders.

He hasn’t, though, played a lefty with a one-handed backhand since he lost to Feliciano Lopez in Cincinnati in 2015.

Surprisingly, Raonic has hardly played any lefties over the last year and a half. Raonic lost to Adrian Mannarino (a completely different type of lefty) in Canada last year. But his wrist was already giving him trouble and he didn’t play the rest of the summer after having a procedure done in early September.

A year ago in Madrid, Raonic defeated Gilles Muller. He also defeated Muller at the 2017 Australian Open, and he was 1-1 against Rafael Nadal in their two meetings during the opening tournaments in 2017.

Key patterns

Raonic’s kick serve in the ad court

Madrid is one of the most effective courts there is in terms of the kick serve. And Raonic has a good one. One of his go-to plays is to kick it out wide to his (righthanded) opponent’s backhand, and volley or hit a forehand into the open court.

But that serve will go to Shapovalov’s forehand. So that’s a game-changer.

Shapovalov’s backhand return

Canada

Raonic will pepper Shapovalov’s backhand with the serve, going wide in the deuce court and down the T on the ad side. He’s going to get his share of aces, to be sure. 

Will Shapovalov be able to get his racket on enough returns on that side to make Raonic play on his serve? That’ll be a key.

Shapovalov’s forehand to Raonic’s backhand

The basic crosscourt pattern takes on an extra dimension in this match, as Raonic will try to run around and hit as many forehands as he can in the ad-side corner. But as a lefty, Shapovalov will be able to get enough shape and angle with his forehand to make Raonic hit more backhands than he’d like to. 

It’s a pattern Shapovalov is going to try to maintain, while Raonic does his best to change the direction. The problem with that is that Raonic will have to hit his backhand down the line well to make that change. And that’s not a great shot for him.

You’d expect that whomever is serving is going to be able to dictate that pattern more often than not. 

Canada

Shapovalov’s backhand to Raonic’s forehand

That’s a pattern that favors Raonic. But not as much as it might against some players, as Shapovalov can be explosive on that side. Raonic has to be forceful enough with it to pull Shapovalov out wide, to neutralize the ability he has to hit backhand winners when he’s balanced, and has time.

To get the rallies on his side, Shapovalov will also have to hit his backhand down the line. It’s not a shot he’s known for; every highlight reel of his backhand features mostly crosscourts. 

But Shapovalov hit a fair few of them against Paire on Tuesday. And he hit them well. 

Shapovalov’s ability to pass

Scrolling through the list of Shapovalov’s opponents the last year, it’s hard to find one who regularly came to the net and tested his passing shots.

There’s no doubt Raonic will try to test it. He has been very aggressive moving forward in his matches this season. And against Dimitrov, he was hugging the baseline – jumping into the court, even – to return serve. 

For his part, Shapovalov wasn’t averse to using a “Raonic-type” pattern against Paire. He served out wide to Paire’s backhand on the ad side, and came in to either hit a forehand into the open court, or put away a volley.

Neither player is going to want long rallies. But if there’s one of the two more amenable to staying in them than the other, it’s probably Shapovalov. 

He is likely to have to hit a lot of passing shots Thursday, as Raonic tries to be the first to shorten the points.

Raonic against his countrymen

Until this year, there was only one fellow Canadian Raonic had to worry about running into at the ATP level.

That was Vasek Pospisil, a contemporary who was in the top-30 not that long ago. 

The two have met only twice on Tour, but both were big occasions. A semifinal in Montreal at their home-country Masters 1000 in 2013 was won by Raonic in a third-set tiebreak. The other was the final of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. the following year, also won by Raonic. 

But he did have a somewhat similar experience in the second round of Indian Wells in March, as he met Shapovalov’s good friend Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime, an up-and-coming 17-year-old and a good friend of Shapovalov’s had qualified for the tournament with two good wins, and defeated Pospisil in the first round. 

For his part, Raonic had played just four matches in 2018, and was clearly not match tough or match fit after an off-season spend nursing a knee injury. 

But the notion of losing to a kid he remembered as a 6-7 year-old running around the national training centre in Montreal clearly sparked something. Raonic defeated Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-4 and went on to reach the semis in Indian Wells and the quarterfinals in Miami (losing to Juan Martin del Potro both times).

As difficult as the last few years have been because of one injury after another, you know Raonic has enough pride in being the alpha dog that he will summon all the energy and motivation he has to keep the kid – who’s gaining fast – in his place.

Canada
The Indian Wells opener against young countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime was a tricky one, but Raonic played solidly. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Shapovalov hot on his heels

Shapovalov had an opportunity back in February to leapfrog Raonic in the rankings, had he won in Delray Beach. He couldn’t do it. And since then Raonic has resurrected his ranking back near the top 20.

The youngster will jump into the top 40 on Monday with what he’s done so far in Madrid.

If he can beat Raonic, he would move into the top 35 and all but guarantee himself a seeding at the French Open. (He could still do that in Rome next week).

A year ago, Shapovalov played the qualifying for the first time in Paris and lost in the first round. To arrive at Roland Garros a year later as a seed would be quite the feat.

Shapo coach goes full haz-mat (video)

Save

MIAMI, Fla. – As long as anyone can remember, Denis Shapovalov coach Martin Laurendeau has been a fierce proponent of sun protection.

On Sunday in Miami, he went full haz-mat.

It wasn’t anywhere near the hottest day ever at the Miami Open. But it was sunny and warm. And Laurendeau, 53, dressed for the occasion.

Cap, wraparound on the face, sleeves, gloves, full pants. Only a few square inches of skin peeked through between the shirtsleeves and the sleeves, and the bottom of the sleeves and the gloves. 

No doubt there was liberal sunscreen applied to those areas, along with his face.

We talked to Laurendeau about this some years ago. And he said it wasn’t because he’d had skin cancer and was trying to prevent a recurrence. He hadn’t. But he doesn’t want to.

Yes, he looks completely ridiculous. He’d probably admit that.

But Laurendeau is also a whole lot smarter than the rest of us – including the tennis players – who expose our skin to the searing sun as the tennis tour follows that sun around the world every season.

So if we tease a little, there’s also major admiration for his willingness to go out like that in public. 

Meanwhile, his student, Shapovalov, ditched his ballcap on this day.

haz-mat

He sported a little topknot as he worked on his return of serve on an off-day, in preparation for his Monday match against American Sam Querrey.

Perhaps Shapovalov was trying to even out the ballcap tan on his forehead? Or, possibly, all the caps were in the laundry and he was waiting for the clean bag.

As you can see, it was a sweaty day.

Meanwhile, Shapovalov and Querrey, the No. 11 seed, are meeting for the first time.

And despite being in the third round of a Masters 1000, Shapovalov’s ranking hasn’t budged. That will remain true even if he beats Querrey.

The 18-year-old reached the final of a Challenger in Guadalajara, Mexico a year ago this week. Therefore, he has to defend those points.

After that, he has no more points to defend until the grass-court season.

With his result in Miami, Shapovalov has gone over the $1 million dollar mark in on-court earnings. Now that he’s an official resident of the Bahamas, he can enjoy a little tax relief on that.

Denis makes desert debut (video)

Save

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – It feels as though Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov is already a fixture on the ATP Tour.

He’s a top-50 player, he’s made a couple of ATP Tour semifinals and he’s made a run at a Grand Slam.

But in reality, he’s still a rookie.

A year ago at this time, Shapovalov was playing a $25,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Sherbrooke, Quebec – about 90 minutes outside of Montreal.

His ranking was just outside the top 250. And he wasn’t even close to getting into the qualifying at the BNP Paribas Open, let alone the main draw.

And so, after arriving from Acapulco, when the 18-year-old hit the practice court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden Saturday, it was the first time he had ever even seen the place.

Big hitting

Shapovalov and Andrey Rublev pounded the bleep out of the ball in their practice session; Next-Gen special.

If there was a takeaway, Shapovalov discovered what most players do when they get here for the first time: the courts are REALLY slow.

It’s hard to hit winners. It’s hard to get the ball to go through the court. And they’re a little sticky.

He’ll have several more days to acclimate before the main event begins.

Showtime in Delray as Tiafoe reaches final

Save

You would expect plenty of meaty clashes between 20-year-old American Frances Tiafoe and 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov over the next decade, or more.

Saturday’s semifinal in Delray was, only a little surprisingly, the first.

It was the American who prevailed. And in Peter Gojowczyk of Germany, he has a beatable opponent as he plays on home soil.

The 7-5, 6-4 Tiafoe victory was entertaining, in that both players are shotmakers who like to fire up the crowd and make the highlight reels. This is a very good thing for tennis going forward. It’s … FUN.

But for Shapovalov on the night, it exposed the slight cracks in his game that he must still putty over, to take that next step.

Backhand under attack

Tiafoe pounded the lefthander’s backhand mercilessly – especially on serve.

And the errors piled on. Taking big cuts at the returns, when the serve too often comes in at 125 mph or more, requires perfect timing and extreme confidence. And it’s no coincidence that so many of the players who’ve been at the top all these years – Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Murray – have incorporated a forehand bunt return into their arsenal, to at least give themselves a shot at winning points against big servers.

Shapovalov, as a lefty, needs to find a reliable equivalent on the backhand side.

His frustration was evident, and he expressed it often to his camp. But his options were few. Whenever he tried to slice backhand returns, Tiafoe was all over his own second shot and made him pay nearly every time.

It’s a conundrum he no doubt will solve, although it will be important to him not to lose the aggressiveness that drives his game. It’s a delicate balance.

Tiafoe
Shapovalov expressed satisfaction with all aspects of his game going into Saturday’s semifinal. But his backhand let him down against Tiafoe. (TennisTV)

In his pre-match interview on Tennis Channel with Jimmy Arias, Shapovalov vaunted his play during the week. “I think I’ve been playing extremely well off the ground this week. Last match I served extremely well, and I’ve been returning well throughout the tournament,” he said.

Maybe he jinxed himself, just a little.

Shapovalov and Tiafoe got to know each other during the Laver Cup, as both were part of the young “rest of the world” side that included Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. They have practiced often together.

The respect between the two was very much on display.

Two years older, Tiafoe was a little more experienced. And already having a victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the tournament, and another over No. 8 seed Hyeon Chung in the quarters, he was full of confidence.

The American had to double up on Saturday, after his match with Chung was finally called off in the wee hours because of persistent rain. He was just two points from victory, after all that waiting.

Tiafoe needed five match points to wrap it up Saturday afternoon, and then returned to court some six hours later to face Shapovalov.

When it was over, Shapovalov dropped his bags at centre court to salute the crowd. It’s an endearing, sincere gesture that will do him well.

Tiafoe

Shapovalov so close to history

For Shapovalov to win his first career title in Delray would have been a study in symmetry and significance.

Had he done it, not only would he have moved into the top 40 for the first time, he would have squeezed past Milos Raonic to become the top-ranked player in Canada.

That’s something nearly unimaginable just a year ago. Raonic was at No. 4 then. Shapovalov was ranked No. 250.

Tiafoe
Had Shapovalov won the Delray Open, he would have leapfrogged Milos Raonic to become the No. 1 ranked Canadian.

The symmetry would have come as he now heads to his next tournament in Acapulco. Shapovalov will face former top-10 player Kei Nishikori, unseeded as he returns from a wrist injury, in the first round.

Exactly 10 years ago in Delray Beach, another 18-year-old won his first career title in Delray Beach. That was Nishikori, who has won 10 more since then, reached a Grand Slam final, and a career-best ranking of No. 3 three years ago.

Tiafoe, should be able to hold his nerve and defeat Gojowczyk, a 28-year-old who has become a steady performer over the last year, will claim his first career title. 

He would also improve his ranking from its current No. 91 to No. 61, one off his career best.

Tsonga posts comeback win over Shapovalov

Save

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

Save

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.

teenagers
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

Save

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

Save

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.