Shapovalov through tough first round

WIMBLEDON – Canadian Denis Shapovalov’s first-round match in his second Wimbledon was, on paper, a tough one.

And so it proved to be in reality.

But the No. 26 seed raised his game and produced a top-quality performance to defeat French veteran Jérémy Chardy 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the second round.

“Against Jeremy, I knew it was going to be a very difficult match coming into it. He’s played exceptional tennis on grass this season, so, yeah, I knew it was going to be difficult. I thought during the match I had a lot of chances that actually I didn’t convert but I stayed calm and waited for the right moments,” Shapovalov said.

“Yeah, surely enough I got them. A big set was the third set where, you know, it kind of gave me the break in the set at the end. But I was putting a lot of pressure on all of his service games. So I think I played him really well. Yeah, I’m very happy with my performance.”

Chardy had a shot, early in the third set at 1-1, with 15-40 on Shapovalov’s serve. A break there would have given him momentum after taking the second set.

But Shapovalov saved both points. And after that, though it was tight, the even-steven feeling about the matchup began to swing Shapovalov’s way.

Another Frenchman next up

In the second round, Shapovalov will meet another Frenchman, the whimsical Benoit Paire.

Shapovalov has practiced a lot with Paire. He knows first-hand that he’s a tricky customer at the best of times even if he doesn’t appear to be 100 per cent.

Paire was reportedly a question mark coming into his first-round match against Jason Jung of Taipei (and Torrance, Calif.). The tape job around his left knee that practically looked like a cast bore witness to his issue.

Playing on despite an injury is a calculated risk with the new rules in place about withdrawals. Had Paire not been fit to play, lost in a rout, or retired before he finished the match, he might have been in line to get a “Mischa Zverev” fine.

Zverev was the first to pay the price for the new rule, when he was ill in Australia, lost first round, and was dinged with a record penalty.

In the hinterlands of Court 16

The Chardy-Shapovalov match was scheduled as a “to be arranged – not before 5 p.m.”.

That meant that the players not only had to wait around all day to play, expecting the start would be significantly later than that. They also did not know what court they would play on until very close to the match time.

In theory, those matches are held back in case there’s a retirement or several quick matches on one of the main show courts.

(The other “TBA” match, Jelena Ostapenko vs. Katy Dunne, ended up on Centre Court).

With the men being best-of-five sets, and the matches not going all that quickly on the big courts, the goal then became to ensure the match would finish before darkness.

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And so Shapovalov was told that he would go on Court 14 or Court 16, whichever became available first.

At that time of day, on that court (not nearly as pristine as the big show courts, it’s a bit of a different Wimbledon. The Hawkeye challenging system also isn’t available.

“It was a little bit of a weird court with the sun and, you know, going down. At some point there was like a lane, you know, with the sunlight, and I couldn’t see anything on that side,” Shapovalov said.

“Some of the bounces were weird, too. When he was serving short on one side it was bouncing really high, but then if he was serving a bit deeper the ball was just not bouncing at all. It was pretty tough conditions to return, but at the end of the day it goes both ways. We both struggled with it.”

Standing (or perching) room only

The other issue with a popular player and a small court is gridlock.

With so few seats available, fans were hanging everywhere they could just to get a glimpse of the next big thing.

It’s also hard to get seats for the players’ teams and families on those small courts. That was evidenced by the fact that Gabriella Taylor’s parents had to sit right next to Genie Bouchard’s coach and physical trainer for their daughter’s Wimbledon main draw debut.

There were people everywhere around Court 16. Some were hopping up in some rather precarious places before the Wimbledon safety enforcement officials came along to politely urge them to stand down.

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Even the posh folk up in the members’ area looked for a good seat to watch the 2016 junior Wimbledon champion. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

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All good things must come to an end. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Wimbledon ’18: Men’s singles draw analysis

WIMBLEDON – The pre-draw speculation on the men’s side of the game these days is big business.

With so many players who were at the summit not long ago having dropped in the rankings because of injuries, the early-round traps have increased exponentially.

Those traps are more than somewhat in theory, because those injured players who have taken a long time to return to form are not yet at their peak levels. At the same time, you know what they’re capable of on any given day – especially on the big stages.

Among the dangerous floaters of interest for this year’s Wimbledon were Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Gaël Monfils.

And the draw gods were not kind.

Murray vs. Paire

Murray, who as of Friday wasn’t 100 per cent decided if his surgically repaired hip was up to the rigours of best-of-five set tennis, drew the dangerous if mercurial Benoit Paire.

It seems, though, that he’ll give it a go.

Paire, silver hair and all, should have beaten Roger Federer in the first round in Stuttgart with a smidgen more belief and focus. That one could be enthralling.

Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov

As for Wawrinka, his return from knee surgeries has taken a whole lot longer than he would have hoped. His true ranking at the moment is a shocking No. 225.

And his draws so far during the grass-court season have not helped: Sam Querrey in the second round at Queen’s, and … Murray in the first round of Eastbourne after both took wild cards to get in more match play.

Wawrinka has been a Wimbledon quarterfinalist twice. And in 2015, he was unlucky not to go further as he lost 11-9 in the fifth set to Richard Gasquet.

His luck didn’t get better Friday,.

The draw gods decreed that he play 6 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.

Not only is he 2-4 against Dimitrov in his career, he’s 0-4 in their last four meetings.

As for Monfils .. same story. The flashy Frenchman will square off with countryman Richard Gasquet in the first round. He leads that longtime rivalry 9-7.

The last two times they met came on grass, in Halle and at Eastbourne last year. They split the matches, and both were very close.

Monfils played just three non-clay tournaments this season, until he finally surfaced on grass in Antalya, Turkey this week as a wild card.

He pulled off two tough wins, and was only a few points away from a straight-sets win over No. 1 seed Adrian Mannarino before finally ceding 6-4 in the third set in the semifinals.

But … he tweaked his knee. Monfils’s knees are not great under ideal circumstances. So we’ll see what the next few days bring.

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No, Gaël Monfils wasn’t taking a nap early in the third set in Antalya Friday. He slid and messed up his left knee, although it may not have been quite as bad as first appeared. (TennisTV.com)

Other first-round matches to watch

[12] Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. Tennys Sandgren (USA)

Whither Sandgren, who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth in recent weeks?

The American, who was a surprise quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, lost in the second round of qualifying at Wimbledon a year ago.

His fortunes have changed, as he broke into the top 50 in April. 

analysisSandgren lost in the first round of five of the six clay-court tournaments he played this spring.

The exception was Geneva, where he posted two victories. But he hasn’t been seen since. 

He had entered some events, but he hasn’t played a single point on grass while Djokovic found some of his trademark swagger – and game – as he reached the final at Queen’s Club.

The Serb couldn’t ask for a better opener. And his section of the draw is inviting, with Dominic Thiem potentially looming in the fourth round.

[26] Denis Shapovalov (CAN) vs. Jérémy Chardy (FRA)

For Shapovalov, the 2016 junior Wimbledon singles champion, this second grass-court season is proving a challenge.

He lost in the first round of Stuttgart to Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, ranked No. 169. And he lost in the first round of Queen’s Club in two tiebreaks to big lefty-serving Gilles Muller.

That’s one tough little section.

Finally, as the No. 3 seed, he posted up a three-set victory in Eastbourne over American Jared Donaldson, only to lose to Mischa Zverev in straight sets in his next match.

His opponent, Chardy, is playing the best tennis of his life at age 31.

He’s 12-2 on grass this season with a win at the Surbiton Challenger, a loss to Gasquet in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch final and a loss to Djokovic in the Queen’s semi.

It is going to be a big challenge for Shapovalov. And he’s in an absolutely loaded little section of the draw, too.

[24] Kei Nishikori (JPN) vs. [Q] Christian Harrison (USA)

The former top-five player still isn’t close to the form he displayed before a wrist injury took him out for the latter part of 2018.

And what of Harrison, whose story we chronicled on tennis.life

This will be his Wimbledon debut and while it wasn’t an ideal draw, it will at least be a matchup in which he can use his speed, and not be served off the court.

He’ll have a lot of folks rooting for him, too.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA) vs. Mischa Zverev (GER)

This one will be as close to old-school grass-court tennis as you’re likely to get, with both players willing and keen to serve-and-volley and move forward.

Potential round-of-16 matchups

[1] Roger Federer (SUI) vs. [16] Borna Coric (CRO)
[8] Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs. [11] Sam Querrey (USA)
[3] Marin Cilic (CRO) vs. [13] Milos Raonic (CAN)
[6] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. [9] John Isner (USA)

[7] Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs. [12] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
[4] Alexander Zverev (GER) vs. [15] Nick Kyrgios (AUS)
[5] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs. [10] David Goffin (BEL)
[2] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. [14] Diego Schwartzman (ARG)

Potential quarterfinals

Roger Federer vs. Anderson/Querrey
Cilic /Raonic vs. Isner/Dimitrov
Zverev /Kyrgios vs. Djokovic
Nadal vs. Del Potro

Upsets and revivals

There are some highly-ranked players who have made surprisingly little noise in recent month. And you’d think some of them will not make their seeding.

Then again, when it comes Slam time, so many players will rise to the occasion.

analysis

Jack Sock, the No. 18 seed, is in the throes of a mighty slump in 2018. While you wouldn’t expect him to lose to Matteo Berrettini in the first round, this might be the tournament where he can start getting on a roll.

He has a friendly section where his power will be a plus. The highest seed in it is No. 10 David Goffin, who similarly has been rather quiet of late and played just one grass-court match coming in.

No. 28 seed Filip Krajinovic of Serbia has not played since Miami – that’s more than three months now. He has entered a lot of tournaments, and pulled out of every one and were it not Wimbledon, you probably wouldn’t expect to even see him here.

He’ll have to be careful, though. If Krajinovic is not fully fit, he could end up with a “Mischa Zverev” fine for failing to take the late withdrawal money and remaining in the draw.

No. 17 seed Lucas Pouille also is struggling this season. And in wild card Denis Kudla, he faces a player in the first round fully in form on the grass and one who loves playing on it.

Top half on Monday

As it’s tradition for the defending champion to be the first to walk out on famed Centre Court, Monday at 1 p.m., so will the rest of the top of the draw follow suit along with Federer.

Among the Monday matches to keep an eye on: Federer vs. Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic, whom he defeated in straight sets in the second round a year ago.

Monfils vs. Gasquet will be another one, along with Dimitrov vs. Wawrinka. 

Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old Greek player, is seeded at a major for the first time at No. 31 – in only his fifth career Grand Slam main draw. So far, he has one victory at this level, at the French Open last month against Carlos Taberner.

analysis

Two years ago, he was fighting Shapovalov for a spot in the junior boys’ final in one of the best junior boys’ matches we’ve ever seen on grass – if not the best. He was just a couple of points away from winning it, and went on to take the junior boys’ doubles title with Kenneth Raisma of Estonia, over Shapovalov and countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime in the final.

And look at them now.

Tsitsipas gets French qualifier Grégoire Barrere in the first round, and he’s in Dimitrov’s section of the draw.

Grass next for Shapovalov after early loss

PARIS – It tells you just how far Denis Shapovalov has risen in a year that his second-round loss to Maximilian Marterer was considered a monumental win for his opponent.

Even though Marterer is nearly four years older, he has far less experience at the top level. But on this day, in a match that could well pave the way for a round-of-16 matchup with 10-time champion Rafael Nadal, the German looked like the more experienced competitor.

Shapovalov did not keep his cool well enough, for long enough in the 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-4 defeat. And while he couldn’t have been more gracious at the net with his opponent, his disappointment was evident as he walked off the court.

It started well enough, with high quality of tennis for the first two sets.

But then, the racket flew a few times. Shapovalov threatened to send it flying a few more times. And the unforced errors just kept piling up.

“I struggled a bit the whole match, especially when there were new balls, the serve was flying really fast coming off his racquet well. But like I said, I mean, first of all, I’m not the best returner, so I definitely want to keep improving on that aspect. And I haven’t played against too many lefties, so it’s a different view, it’s a different ball. It was tricky a bit,” Shapovalov said. 

“I don’t think I returned awful today. I think it was all right. Obviously I could do a better job, but I think the biggest difference today was definitely the serve of mine.”

Clay-court calm a work in progress

In the first-round win over John Millman, Shapovalov was distracted by the weather, the heavy, rain-soaked balls. He was able to gather himself in the latter half of the match when conditions improved.

ShapovalovAgainst Marterer, a tall lefty with a big serve, there was the wind, and some bad bounces, and a few other fates conspiring against him.

But at the base of it all is that Shapovalov’s game style is going to offer up matches like this at times. As he gets better and more mature, it will happen less often.

If he’s not serving well enough to dictate that second shot, he’s going to have more trouble on serve. If he’s firing at small targets and not making them on that day, the unforced error total is going to mount.

In the end, Marterer played at or near his current top level throughout the whole match. Shapovalov, on the other hand, can play a lot better than he did. If he were going to raise that level, late in the third set would have been the perfect time. But he couldn’t.

The Canadian gave his opponent full credit for his play, as well.

A more gradual rise for Marterer

As he turns 23 in a few weeks, this also was Marterer’s first career Roland Garros after losing in qualifying in his first appearance a year ago.

And, like Shapovalov, this is Marterer’s first year making main draws at majors, and playing a full ATP Tour schedule.

Shapovalov

He qualified for six Tour events a year ago (and received three wild cards in his native Germany). But he lost in the first round each time.

Still, Marterer’s path would be considered somewhat more … would “normal” be the word? Typical? Slow and steady and very much under the radar with the rapid rise of his young countryman and Davis Cup teammate Alexander Zverev.

Marterer will find himself in the top 50 for the first time, if he can defeat lucky loser Jürgen Zopp in the third round.

He’s slightly older than the Shapovalov-Tsitsipas-Chung “Next Gen” group. But he’s catching up quickly. And he has a great opportunity in his next round.

Marterer acknowledged the challenge in facing the Canadian, whose typically strong first serve sets up the point in his favor. But he gave himself credit for making it tougher on Shapovalov’s serve by lifting the level of his own return game.

“Denis is one of the players that play really good first shot after his serve. So when he started already in, like, first two service games in the match, it was already pretty impressive what he was doing, like, so aggressive from the first shot with his forehand, especially, have a good angle in it,” he said.

“He’s playing a really heavy, heavy forehand. So I tried to keep him a little on his backhand, playing not too much on his forehand, because it’s pretty solid, good bounce in it. And, yeah, I think I managed it really good after losing first set, especially. And, yeah, it was good that I could raise the quality of my return that he had also some problems in his service games after this.”

Next – time for grass

Despite the early exit, Shapovalov didn’t expect to be able to get home for even a few days, before he attacks what he calls the “most fun” part of the season on the grass courts.

ShapovalovIt’s a grind; Shapovalov will have been in Europe more than three months, when he finally gets a chance to go home after Wimbledon.

Again, it’s Shapovalov’s first true grass-court campaign. And it’s on his own ranking-based merits rather than his “potential”.

Last summer, he began the grass-court season with two Challenger events. But he lost in the first round in both.

But as the reigning Wimbledon junior boys’ champion, the teenager was given a wild card into Queen’s Club, and then a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw.

This year, he starts as early as can be – the week after the French Open in Stuttgart, Germany.

His plan seems to be the same as it was for clay. He’s entered in an event every single week of the short season on the turf.

After Stuttgart, he has Queen’s Club again. And then, Eastbourne. There, he could be seeded as high as No. 2, behind Kyle Edmund.

And then, of course, the big one.

Clay-court lessons learned

As Shapovalov leaves Paris for parts unknown (he expects to hit Stuttgart next Thursday), he can look back to a clay-court season that was as productive as it was instructive.

ShapovalovHe reset his clay-court clock after first-round losses in Monte Carlo and Budapest. He learned he could play aggressive tennis on the dirt in Madrid, where the altitude only helped to hone that belief.

Shapovalov also learned that he could grind his way through to the latter stages of a big clay-court event, getting through long, tough matches as he did in Madrid and also in Rome.

To follow up the Madrid effort with two good wins in Rome was another step up the development ladder. It’s one many young players fail early on, as they have a great week – but have nothing left for the next week.

And the Canadian also learned that Roland Garros is at a different level than those events. It was only his fourth main draw at a major, his first in Paris. And he’ll come back in a year’s time the better for the experience.

And now, the fun begins

“Grass is going to be a big part of the season for me. I think, I always enjoyed playing on it. It really suits my game style. But, you know, you don’t always know with grass. You know, every year it’s kind of different. You have different sensation,” he said.

“I’m excited, you know? It’s a short part of the season, but for me it’s the funnest part.”

(Shapovalov screenshots from FranceTV-Sports)

Rain can’t stop Shapovalov in RG debut

PARIS – Denis Shapovalov arrived at his first official French Open on a cloud.

So even if the rain clouds threatened to undo him at the start of his first-round match against solid Aussie John Millman, they couldn’t keep him down for long.

After a slow, angst-filled start, the 19-year-old Canadian found his zen amidst the raindrops and rolled to a 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

And his road to a potential fourth-round clash with 10-time champion Rafael Nadal was cleared of a couple of potentially dangerous American obstacles Tuesday.

Both Ryan Harrison (a doubles champion here a year ago) and struggling No. 14 seed Jack Sock were eliminated.

Shapovalov will play another youngster, Germany’s Maximilian Marterer, in the second round. 

Another young gun, and a couple of lucky losers

Marterer, although three years older at 22, is at a near-identical stage of his progress. He, too, lost in the first round of qualifying in Paris a year ago. He, too, qualified and made his Slam debut at last summer’s US Open and played the Australian Open for the first time, in on his own ranking.

If his ascension has not been as rapid as that of Shapovalov, ranked near his career high at No. 74, he remains a player on the rise.

The winner of that match will take on one of a pair of lucky losers in the third round.

It will be either Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium or Jurgen Zopp of Estonia. Zopp eliminated Sock in a five-set thrilled Tuesday in which Sock led 4-1 in the fourth set, and 4-1 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, before going down in five.

Rain, rain go away

Shapovalov was given a Court Suzanne-Lenglen assignment for his debut, first up at 11 a.m.. But while quite an honour, the day’s openers were the only matches to be undone by the weather.

Shapovalov and Millman played in steady drizzle for a significant portion of the early going. The umbrellas were already up as the first point was played. And the Canadian grew increasingly agitated as the officials wouldn’t stop play.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov was hoping for good news from supervisor Wayne McEwen when he took the court, but it far longer than he would have liked to halt the match. (FranceTV)

The fact that he quickly fell behind 4-1 only exacerbated his incredulity while Millman – who was leading – remained placid and unperturbed. To protect his racket from the rain, the Aussie just covered it with a towel.

Shapovalov dropped some profanity, bemoaned his fate to anyone who would listen. He looked up at the skies, shaking his head.

“Why are we OUT HERE?” he bellowed.

“We’re playing in the pouring rain … How can we be playing in this kind of weather? What has to happen? Does there have to be a lightning strike on the court for us to stop?” he asked. “I mean, it’s pouring. There’s no decision.”

Finally, after about 20 minutes, supervisor Wayne McEwen took the court. 

“It’s pouring. I don’t know how we can play right now,” Shapovalov said to him.

“I know it’s not ideal conditions, but the court’s fine,” McEwen told him.

“It’s DEFINITELY not ideal conditions!” was Shapovalov’s reply.

“I was a little bit surprised they didn’t stop it before. Obviously, I mean, it’s tough for them, first couple days there are so many matches. The court was still fine. So they had a point, you  know, that we can keep playing on,” Shapovalov said.

“But honestly, like I said, I tried to use the new balls to kind of help myself reset and take advantage of it. Yeah, but it was tricky out there with these tough conditions. It’s a little bit annoying, as the rain gets in your face, you get soaked. At the same time, I’m playing a guy that’s really solid, with heavy balls.”

They sat for a few minutes, to see if the rain would lessen. It did, slightly. But they played on.

Down 2-5 in the set, Shapovalov managed to hold serve. And after the new balls came in – lighter, not as soaked with rain – he managed to turn it around and win five games in a row.

There was an exchange of breaks in the second set. Each gifted his opponent with a double fault on break point; in Shapovalov’s case, two in a row.

Finally, after just over an hour of play, they stopped.

Shapovalov
Supervisor Wayne McEwen and chair umpire Alison Lang ponder the state of the universe Tuesday as the rain continued to fall. (FranceTV)

When they returned, slightly less than an hour later, Shapovalov was a different player.

Not incidentally, the weather was a lot better, too.

“After we came back from the rain delay, there was no more rain and the balls weren’t as heavy. I felt really good out there,” he said, “I felt like the third set we played really high quality tennis. It was fun for me.”

On the upward learning curve

Shapovalov had a big group for his press conference, which was in the main room even after he was scheduled on the second-biggest court at the event.

These are privileges accorded to the greats of the game. But Shapovalov knows he’s a long way from that, even if he had a rock-star sized entourage supporting him in his player’s box Tuesday.

It’s a perk of his rapid rise, and all the attention he’s been getting.

But he’s staying focused, and looking at the long term.

“Like I always say, doesn’t matter the week, doesn’t matter the result, I’m always trying to get back on the court and get better. I’m only 19. I have a lot to improve, a lot to learn, so it’s going to be a long (career) for me,” he said. “You know, guys like Roger and Rafa, they are improving at 36, 32. I’m 19. You know, I have a long way to go to get to where they are or even close to what they have achieved.”

First on the bucket list? Upgrading his service return, along with improving his net play and upping his first-serve percentage.

He doesn’t feel the pressure to do what some of the top players in the game did at his age. He mentioned Nadal winning Grand Slams at 19, Federer with 20 majors. (And Shapovalov could have added Novak Djokovic to that list, as well).

Shapovalov understands they are rarities. And on a men’s tour filled with players who seem to be hitting their peak later than was the case in the previous generation, he knows he’s way ahead of the curve.

Even the best are still improving at their age, he said. And that just underscores how much time he still has.

“For me it’s kind of calming, in a way. You know, I feel even if I don’t have the results right now, you know, this year, next year, I feel like I have such a long way, so much time to improve and to get to where they are right now,” he said.

“So for me, there is not much pressure. I’m 19. I’m playing freely every tournament. Everything is new for me. So  it’s just fun for me to go out there, first of all, in the matches and play at tournaments like this and big courts like Suzanne Lenglen. But at the same time, it’s fun for me to know that I can get better, and to actually see myself improving.”

Rather than give up on clay, Shapovalov will try to master it

PARIS – The feelings most North American players have for the European red clay are fairly well-documented.

Disdain? Fear? Annoyance? Abject lack of curiosity? A defeatist attitude?

Whatever it is, a lot of Americans delay that trip to Europe in the spring as long as possible. 

Part of that is the fact that with the two Grand Slams, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, within a month of each other and all the tournaments leading up to them, there’s no time to return home.

And so, if a three-month road trip can be cut down to two, so much the better on a surface most don’t feel they have a legitimate opportunity to do damage on.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov has the opposite mindset.

He entered a clay-court event every single week but one this spring. And it’s paying off – big time.

Here’s Shapovalov practicing on the weekend, with coach Martin Laurendeau and an entire team of folks.

First Roland Garros main draw

Shapovalov lost in the first round of the French Open qualifying a year ago, to Marius Copil of Romania.

He returns a year later as a seeded player – No. 24 – and will play his first-round match against Australia’s John Millman on the second-biggest court at Roland Garros, Suzanne-Lenglen.

Here’s what he had to say about his clay journey, during a pre-tournament availability over the weekend.

 

Shapovalov said he watched a lot of video of Rafael Nadal after the early losses on clay in Monte Carlo and Budapest.

If he had been trying too hard to play “clay-court tennis” – whatever he thinks that entails – he realized that he could play his own aggressive brand of tennis on the dirt and be successful, as Nadal does. And that he could use his leftyness to even more advantage.

Touching down in Madrid, where the altitude makes the court quicker and rewards that aggressive game, came at the perfect time for the Canadian.

Tuesday against Millman, a tough customer who will try to grind him out, he’ll put that to the test.

But Shapovalov said that even if he loses first round (and yes, he has looked ahead in the draw to what might lie ahead), he will still consider this clay-court season a success.

And then he’ll move on to the grass where – again – he’s entered in a tournament every single week.

Next Gen returns for round two in Milan

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

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

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)

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)

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.