Shapovalov wins battle of Canada over Raonic

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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.

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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. 

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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)
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“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.

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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

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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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Shapovalov off the clay schneid

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As they say, Denis Shapovalov is finally off the schneid.

After a week off the match court, the Canadian returned a retooled player in his first career appearance at the Madrid Open Sunday.

The 19-year-old stifled American Tennys Sandgren 6-1, 6-4 in less than hour in his first-round match.

It was a comprehensive victory that didn’t feel nearly as close as that score.

The first set took just 18 minutes.

Sandgren won just nine points – just two on Shapovalov’s serve. He hit zero winners to Shapovalov’s 11.

If he didn’t get off to the greatest start – at 26, this also was the American’s Madrid debut – Shapovalov didn’t give him the slightest opportunity to change the narrative.

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Sandgren got off to a slow start – in large part due to how well his opponent was playing. And once Shapovalov had the head of steam, he never let up. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

Shapovalov was a little less stingy in the second set: he gave Sandgren four points, out of 24. 

Fast and furious in Madrid

The conditions in Madrid, it turns out, were the perfect antidote.

Shapovalov’s first career ATP clay-court campaign began with a first-round loss  in Monte Carlo to Stefanos Tsitsipas.

We now know, Tsitsipas is having a breakout moment. But we didn’t know it then. The two only had some French Open junior history on clay. And in that match, Shapovalov was the easy winner in part because his fellow 17-year-old likely had played far too much tennis coming into that event.

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Shapovalov’s first career win at the ATP Tour level on clay was an impressive one. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

Shapovalov’s second clay-court effort this spring was an impatient, straight-set defeat at the hands of Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia.

In Shapovalov’s defense, Basilashvili was already playing his eighth match of the spring on his preferred clay. But the Canadian kid did not impress.

The Madrid courts are fast. The slight altitude (nearly 2,200 feet, enough to make a noticeable difference) gives his serve that extra pop. 

And with that increased confidence on his lefty delivery came added faith in everything else. Shapovalov volleyed beautifully. He was patient when he needed to be. He was calm. In short, he looked comfortable for the first time this spring.

Next up, a Frenchman

Shapovalov’s second-round opponent will be the winner of an all-French clash between No. 15 seed Lucas Pouille and Benoit Paire.

That will take place Monday.

Pouille comes into Madrid winless on the clay as well. In fact, he hasn’t won an ATP Tour match since Dubai in February, although he did pull off a pair of singles wins against Italy in Davis Cup, on clay, on Genoa last month.

He’s 3-0 against Paire at the ATP level. And Paire has just one victory in three clay-court tournaments so far. 

It’s not just the clay that is a new experience for Shapovalov. It’s the opponents, as well. He had never played Sandgren. He has never played either Pouille or Paire. Every match is a learning experience.

Mom in charge

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Mom/coach Tessa Shapovalova’s shorter ‘do almost makes her twinsies with her son. All she needs is the backwards ball cap with the hanging tab. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

Notably absent from the supporters’ box in Madrid was Shapovalov’s coach, Martin Laurendeau.

So mother Tessa (her new, shorter ‘do kind of channels her son’s long locks, doesn’t it?) has been in the coaching chair both during last week’s training week, and this week.

Laurendeau, tennis.life was told, is expected back for next week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Rome.

Shapovalov also is entered in the Geneva event the week before the French Open.

VR and AI in Madrid

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Next week’s Madrid Open will have some nifty innovations for fans on site.

It will “become the first ATP/WTA event to broadcast matches live in Virtual Reality, with the highest resolution tested so far,” per its press release.

VR glasses will be distributed in a special section in the stands.

Matches in 360º will be broadcast on the TVE network’s YouTube channel from Wednesday (Spain only).

Fans can use the tournament app to send their seat number to a FanCam atop the stadium. The camera will then send a photo of themselves right to their phone. 

Feliciano Lopez tapped as next Madrid TD

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Subject to Tour approvals, Feliciano Lopez will be the new tournament director for the Madrid Open in 2019.

The 36-year-old, currently ranked No. 36, will be assistant to Spanish legend Manolo Santana in 2018. Santana will become honorary president after that.

“It has been a very beautiful day and very important in my life,” Lopez said in a radio interview with Marca.

Lopez said he would play the event in 2018. The Tommy Haas case at Indian Wells would indicate he couldn’t play in ’19 as tournament director.

From Santana’s body language, so many things must be going through his mind.

Nick Kyrgios is the Q&A maestro

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How many top-20 players would do what Aussie Nick Kyrgios did early Friday morning (EDT)? Not many.

A little more than 12 hours after announcing the end of his season, Kyrgios took to Twitter for a “quick Q&A”.

After 2 1/2 hours, and some 130 questions answered, he finally begged off.

The questions were a cut above the usual “Will you go on a date with me?” or “what’s your favorite ice-cream flavor” Q&A piffle, too.

And Kyrgios’s answers weren’t limited to two words, or one emoji.

He was by turns honest, funny and introspective.