ROEHAMPTON – A year ago at this time, in hot and steamy London, Brayden Schnur was one victory away from his first career Grand Slam main draw.
After two routine victories in the first two rounds, he came out with the wrong game plan against American Christian Harrison and ended up on the short end of a 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-1 defeat that left a bitter taste.
A year later, the 23-year-old is still looking for his first Grand Slam main draw.
But after not expending too much energy in his first two rounds – again – he’s going to come out swinging against Salvatore Caruso of Italy on Thursday.
Schnur defeated fellow Canadian (more truly, Spanish-Canadian) Steven Diez 6-3, 6-4 Wednesday to advance to the final round.
On Monday, he dispatched Maxime Janvier of France 6-3, 6-2.
There’s another week still to go before the rest of the top players come trickling back onto the circuit, after a post-Australian Open break.
But in the meantime, the typically wacky February things are happening.
On Long Island, an unseeded 21-year-old and a 23-year-old qualifier squared off looking for their maiden Tour title.
In Rotterdam, two warhorses emerged from injury funks (one of them a wild card) to produce a display so entertaining, it’s yet another example of why there’s no rush for the current generation of 30-somethings to leave the game.
And in Buenos Aires, a local fellow named Diego Schwartzman reached both the singles and doubles finals – and won a total of five games.
Next week, with events in Marseille, Rio and Delray Beach, offers promises of similar nutsiness.
ON THE UPSWING
Kei Nishikori (JPN): No. 7 ————-> No. 6 (With his effort in Rotterdam, Nishikori slips past Roger Federer by 90 points)
Daniil Medvedev (RUS): No. 16 ————-> No. 15 (Another career high for Medvedev, who is 14-3 on the season so far).
Marco Cecchinato (ITA): No. 17 ————-> No. 16 (The Italian’s title in Buenos Aires only moved him up one spot. But it’s a new career best).
Gael Monfils (FRA): No. 33 ————-> No. 23 (The Rotterdam champion puts himself back into the seeded conversation, as he should be).
Stan Wawrinka (SUI): No. 68 ————-> No. 41 (It’s been a long road back after two knee surgeries. But Wawrinka has to be encouraged by his recent performances).
Reilly Opelka (USA): No. 89 ————-> No. 56 (A career high, a maiden Tour title. Good week on Long Island for the 21-year-old American).
It must have been the toughest challenge of the week for Canadian Brayden Schnur to leave the New York Open in a blaze of elegance.
But that’s exactly what he did.
The 23-year-old withstood a barrage of 135 mph-plus serves from Reilly Opelka, the 21-year-old American also in quest of his first career ATP Tour title.
He came back from losing the first set in 18 minutes to bring it down to a point or two, at the very limit.
And then, just when it appeared Schnur had earned his first match point with an ace down the middle, a 7-7 in the third-set tiebreak, after saving five match points again him – fate intervened.
Or rather, the electronic replay system.
It took awhile it to come up. For Opelka and Schnur, it must have felt like an eternity.
With that, Schnur had to produce the toughest second serve of his young career,. And he had forever to think about it.
The ball hit the top of the net … and cruelly dribbled back over to his side.
Opelka squeezes out the victory
And so Opelka, who had double-faulted at 7-6 in the second set on match point, made no mistake on the do-over in a nearly identical situation. Ace No. 43 went uncontested and the 6-foot-11 American clenched his fist in triumph.
I just tried to keep my mouth shut, but it was tough how that point and the whole match seemed to be going,” Opelka told the ATP Tour website. I felt like I had all the break points and opportunities, and somehow he kept getting himself back in. It almost just felt like his week.
The victory launched Opelka, who had out-nerved his elder doppelgänger John Isner in three tiebreak sets the previous night in the semifinals, from No. 89 to No. 56 in the rankings. It also put $119,000 US in his pocket.
For Schnur, the defeat was not the way the stars had aligned. Coming out of the qualifying, he had escaped so many tight spots this week, it almost seemed predestined he might somehow find a way out of this one, too.
But it seems the Canadian cat had used up all of his allotted nine lives just getting there. And the sight of that ball falling harmlessly back onto the wrong side of the court was those stars aligning for Opelka instead.
He, too, had escaped. Isner had six match points Saturday night, and Opelka had somehow managed to play another day.
For the runner-up – especially under these circumstances – the post-match trophy ceremonies must be excruciating.
All you probably want to do is go into the locker room and perhaps empty the contents of your tennis bag against the wall. Maybe call your girlfriend or wife or parents and let it all out. Hit the bar post-haste.
But you have to smile. If for no other reason, out of respect for your opponent. He has just earned what you had so coveted.
He will look back at those moments, those photographs, down the road and remember just what a banner day it was.
And the guys wearing the suits deserve that smile as well. Because without them, you aren’t even there.
So Schnur tried his level best. It was as though he was reaching down into an abyss to find even a slight smile for the official photos with the sponsors, the tournament directors – even an artist who painted the likenesses of the two players. And there was a smile for the man who was holding the bigger trophy, as well.
But when it came time to speak, the exhausting of a week that began with Schnur heavily under the weather and featured the most impressive, combative tennis of his life, finally got to him.
Honestly, I’m emotional just because this has been an amazing week for me,” he began. But he couldn’t continue.
The crowd felt for him, applauding as he composed himself.
“This is something I dreamed of as a kid. And there have been so many people who have helped me along the way. It’s too long a list to thank them all. From the early mornings, my parents helping me so much … If someone had told me (in December) I’d be an ATP final … it blows my mind.”
Opelka was deadpan even after some of his most impressive shots. But he allowed himself a fist pump or two in the waning moments. And in the end, just in the nick of time, his inner composure matched his outward calm.
“Super-stoked that my first title was in the United States, especially here in New York City,” he said. “Unbelievable week for Brayden. I watched him, pretty much down and out against Steve Johnson early in the tournament. He’s fought back in every match, so it was no surprise to me that I was going to come up against some adversity.”
Sportsmanship in Buenos Aires, in Rotterdam
There were other ATP Tour finals on Sunday.
An exhausted Diego Schwartzman was no match, even at home in Argentina – especially at home – for reigning French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato.
In Rotterdam, a pair of aging but resurgent veterans battled in a thoroughly entertaining, if uneven match played in the best of spirit. And Gaël Monfils defeated his friend Stan Wawrinka to win.
“It’s always tough to lose in the final. Especially in a final like tonight. but if I had to lose to someone, I’m happy it was to you, Gaël,” Wawrinka said during the trophy ceremony.
It was another moment of grace, at the polar opposite end of a career.
But if one final is remembered a little longer, it might have been the one between the two New York neophytes. If the tennis featured a little too much serving to be a classic, it will be memorable for the firsts – and for Schnur’s humanity and grace.
Schnur, Opelka ‘serve’ notice
It’s too soon to know how far their talents will take them. For Opelka, a natural successor to Isner who moves with a little more grace but doesn’t yet have the same level of net skills, the sky from which he serves is the limit.
Anyone – including his future opponents – who watched him fight through two incredibly tough matches this weekend will be wary of the giant of a man from the very first round of every tournament he plays. And now, with his ranking at a new level, the best in the world are going to be running into him every single week.
For Schnur, a three-time All-American at the University of North Carolina who is just now getting his pro career into gear, it will be a match he can look back on and draw huge inspiration from, whenever he gets into a tight spot.
He was in so many dire situations this week. And he extricated himself from every single one of them. Until that final one.
When it happens again, he’ll know what to do. More importantly, he’ll know he can do it.
Stay calm. Keep fighting. Make the first serve. Guess right.
And hope that FoxTenn Real Bounce, the next time, is his friend.
Brayden Schnur’s New York Open may well have exceeded his expectations after he won his first career ATP Tour main-draw singles match on Monday night.
But as the week has gone on, he has had to set his sights higher with every passing day.
The 23-year-old from Pickering, Ont. pulled off a third consecutive upset win in Saturday’s semifinal – his best so far.
Schnur withstood the big-serving attack of No. 6 seed Sam Querrey and prevailed 7-6 (7), 4-6, 6-3.
And so in the same week he posted his first win, the Canadian will play in his first-ever ATP final.
“The first set was a real nail biter, could have gone either way. I think I flipped the switch in the tiebreak at 5-5. In the second, I had a bit of a letdown. Sam played some good tennis to get up two breaks on me. In the third set I stayed strong, focused on one point at a time, and used (the crowd’s) energy,” Schnur said during his on-court interview.
“Sam’s obviously a tough veteran, I’m kinda new at this. But it’s a tennis match. I’ve played millions of tennis matches in my career, and this is just another match,” he said about successfully serving it out. “I tried to treat it as just another match.”
In search of his maiden ATP Tour title, Schnur will face a player even younger, who also is looking for his first. American Reilly Opelka, 21, defeated 33-year-old John Isner in a three-tiebreak serving spectacular Saturday night.
The two have never met, not even at the Challenger level.
Schnur kept it simple for his first trip to an ATP Tour weekend, asking friends and family who were thinking of making the trip to Long Island to stay home.
But he had an enthusiastic group of supporters just the same – some old friends, some new.
“It was incredible. Obviously these guys, my Day Ones from college, came up from Washington, D.C. And my Day Ones for this week – starting from Monday, they’ve been absolutely incredible,” he said. “And tickets for you guys tomorrow again. Let’s go!”
Schnur had earned just over $30,000 this year, coming into this week. Nearly half of that came from losing in the first round of qualifying at the Australian Open. He earned another $13,000 by reaching the Newport Beach Challenger final.
He has already earned twice that much this week. And if he can win on Sunday, he would get up to nearly $150,000 in prize money for the first six weeks of the season.
Even without the title, Schnur already has earned more in 2019 than he did all last season.
More crucially, his ranking will soar.
Already at a career high of No. 154 coming in, Saturday’s win will put him at No. 107. And if he can win, he would jump into the top 90.
His short-term goal to start the season was to get seeded at Wimbledon – in the qualifying. In other words, be in the top 140 or so.
“It seemed farfetched,” he said. “Now, obviously, I’m pushing to try to get into the main draw. That’s the next step.”
Schnur has two Challenger semifinals to defend between now and May. But he also has three zero-pointers on his rankings tote board. So there’s everything to gain.
Making the semis this week allowed Schnur to get into next week’s Delray Beach Open with a “special exempt”. He will face France’s Adrian Mannarino (also still in New York as he’s in the doubles semifinal) in the first round.
It’s a bonus tournament for Schnur, who hadn’t intended to stick around the U.S. after this week.
The Canadian would be just a couple of spots out of making it into the Indian Wells qualifying for the first time, with a few weeks still to go for spots to open up. And he easily would make it into the qualifying in Miami.
He could still enter Miami, as the deadline isn’t until Feb. 25. It would be the first time Schnur played in a Masters 1000 tournament other than his home-country event, the Rogers Cup.
But Schnur is sticking with the original plan. He’s headed to Asia to play a series of Challengers.
He won’t play the week of Feb. 25 in Yokohama, Japan, because of Delray Beach. He’ll need time to refresh the body a little after eight straight weeks of tournaments. Not to mention get over the jet lag.
But after that – instead of trying his luck at two of the biggest events on the ATP Tour – he’ll be grinding it out in a series of $54,000 Challengers in Zhuhai, Shenzhen and … Zhangjiagang. (Yes, we had to Google Map that one, too).
The schedule was made during the offseason with Schnur’s Tennis Canada coach, former Tour player Fred Niemeyer.
Schnur shares Niemeyer with Filip Peliwo, a 25-year-old former top junior champion (two junior Grand Slam titles and two finals in 2012) still working his way up the ranks. Peliwo also is going to China.
“We said that regardless of what happens, let’s put this plan in place and stick to it no matter what,” Schnur told Tennis.Life.
The two were separated by about 45 spots in the rankings to start the season. That gap is now an abyss. But Schnur points to several examples of players who have done a good job building on big results the same way.
“Kind of like (Mackenzie) McDonald did last year. He moved up to 110-115, and still went and played three Challengers in Korea. (Cameron) Norrie has done the same. It’s not the worst thing in the world to cement my level of play.”
After that – a medical timeout
If Schnur is loading up on the tournaments to start the season, it’s for a good reason.
He’ll have an enforced five-week break in the spring.
On the schedule is surgery to fix a deviated septum, after which Schnur has been mandated not to step on the court for 2 1/2 weeks.
“I’ll take a little vacation, too. Because I didn’t even take one in the offseason,” he said.
After 10 tournaments in three months – and a big step up of level in store come the spring and summer – he not only deserves it.
Canadian Brayden Schnur has basically been on the road since … 2018.
And in his sixth tournament of the new season, he’s having a career week.
The 23-year-old from Pickering, Ont. squeezed by 37-year-old veteran Paolo Lorenzi of Italy in a 6-7 (7), 7-6 (5), 7-5 win that sent him to the New York Open semifinal.
In the same week Schnur won the first ATP Tour-level match of his career, he has taken it into the weekend.
“I haven’t been playing all that great. But I’m serving well, and it’s been keeping me alive,” Schnur told Tennis.Life.
There has been a lot going on, as Schnur struggled at Challengers in Cleveland and Dallas the two previous week with the ‘flu. He said he was drained after just an hour on court.
While he was still hacking during his second round match, the 23-year-old looked a lot better against Lorenzi in a match that was draining both emotionally and physically. “I’m over it now. The energy level is back and the cardio level is pretty good,” he said.
Schnur’s other challenge has come with his rackets, which he feels haven’t been strung at a consistent tension. “Today, they were super-loose. In the first set I was switching every two games. Finally I stuck with one, and figured it out.”
The match was break-free for nearly 2 ½ hours. There weren’t even that many opportunities.
Until 5-5 in the third set.
Lorenzi gift-wrapped the first – and only – service break by missing the most routine of volleys. It clearly rattled him; Schnur served out the match with barely any pushback.
Along the way, Schnur coughed up a 5-0 lead in the first set tiebreak, and lost it 9-7. He didn’t do anything dramatically wrong other than perhaps getting tight on the third set point, at 6-4. An inside-out forehand as he had control of the point went into the net. Lorenzi stepped up his level at just the right time.
But rather than be discouraged, or worry that he didn’t have enough energy to go three, he bounced back.
Schnur took far better care of his second serve in the second set. In the third, it didn’t matter as much. He served at a 74 per cent clip, and lost just two points with that first serve. His 24 aces were a difference-maker.
New high ranking a game changer
The effort on Long Island is a game-changer for Schnur, who was ranked No. 233 in the latter part of 2018 and not going in the right direction.
He began 2019 at No. 172, and arrived for the New York Open qualifying at No. 154. And now, he will head to Delray Beach, Fla. next week ranked no worse than No. 121.
If he can defeat No. 6 seed Sam Querrey Saturday, he could move up another dozen spots.
Big attitude adjustment after Australia
Schnur went down to Australia to try to qualify for his first Grand Slam full of confidence. But he was anything but serene in a 6-4, 6-3 first-round loss to Kamil Majchrzak, a Polish player six months younger and ranked about 20 spots higher.
“I had a good end of the year at the Challenger level, and put in a really good offseason. So my expectations were so high for Australia. I really thought I was going to qualify,” he said. “I really believed it. It was going to be my shining moment.
“I was never able to really calm down and settle myself and play my game. I ran into a guy who played good tennis, but I left a lot out on the court.”
Schnur went right to the Challenger in Newport Beach, Calif. And after a conversation with coach Fred Niemeyer, he took a couple of steps back. Back to the process. Back to worrying about improving his game, and letting the results take care of themselves.
The effect was immediate, as Schnur reached the Newport Beach final, losing to top-50 player Taylor Fritz and jumping some 30 spots in the rankings.
He struggled with his stamina in Cleveland and Dallas. But he still reached the quarterfinals at both events.
Schnur keeping it simple
There will be no big band of Schnurs, or former University of North Carolina teammates, heading his way for the semifinal on Saturday.
A conversation with Philip Bester, a Canadian former pro he looks to as a mentor, about Bester’s experiences as a top junior got him thinking about keeping an even keel.
“We talked about the pressure of family and having everyone come. At this level, all of a sudden if you start doing well, and people want to show up and fly out. But it’s those changes that can sometimes make a huge difference,” he said. “I put everyone on hold. I told them, ‘I love you guys so much for wanting to fly out,’ and for my buddies from college to come up. But there’s enough pressure I put on myself for these matches to win,” he said.
The Canadian does have a couple of friends who happen to be working in New York City this week. There also are three other guys who discovered him during his second-round win over Steve Johnson, and were raucously cheering him on. He hooked them up with tickets for Friday’s match, and he thinks they might come back Saturday.