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.
It 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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
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.
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.