June 19, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

In a battle of teenagers, the younger prevails

MELBOURNE, Australia – One of the finest junior matches in recent memory came at Wimbledon in 2016, when 17-year-olds Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas battled in the semifinals.

Two one-handed backhands. Both serve-volleying, chip-charging and using the entire court like a couple of savvy veterans.

Shapovalov, younger by eight months, won that one and defeated Aussie Alex de Minaur to win the title.

A year and a half later, the two met for the first time as pros.

And Shapovalov proved to still be a little ahead of the curve.

The 18-year-old handled the occasion – and the swirly, difficult winds – with more aplomb in a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory that puts him in the second round against No. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

“We’re going to play so many times in the future, I’m going to win some, I’m going to lose some. I think he’s developed quite a lot as well. I just managed to play better today,” said Shapovalov, who was stronger on every level and hit 33 winners to Tsitsipas’s 11.

“Bringing back the match in juniors, it was a hell of a match, I think we’ve both improved quite a bit from back then. But just today I was able to play better than he did.”

Slice return proved effective

Shapovalov added a slice backand return in the offseason. And he used it well on Monday. It was a necessary response to the opponents already having picked up on his tendancy to hit full-out topspin backhands on most returns, and trying to rush him out wide – especially on the deuce side.

“It’s definitely one area I’ve focused on in the offseason along with coming to the net more, stuff like this. I feel it’s a variety that I’ve added to my game that’s definitely helped me these few matches. Hopefully I can keep improving it, and have a good slice like Roger (Federer) one day,” Shapovalov said.

“It’s a combination of getting more returns in and staying inside the points. Sometimes when I go for the topspin it takes me too much out of the court positioning, With the slice I feel I can recover faster, and get in the point.”

Tsitsipas was clearly tight to start the match. He qualified for the main draw at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, but lost in the first round. It was the first Australian Open for both, but Shapovalov had more experience.

“I went a little bit deeper in the Grand Slam in New York. I was bringing back a couple of old memories playing the few Grand Slams that I have,” he said. “But definitely I felt from the beginning I would be a bit more comfortable, and that’s what happened. He was a little more tight to start, and I just used that advantage.”

Tough conditions

By the third set, Tsitsipas appeared to be struggling with the conditions even though it was not a hot day at all. The swirly wind was definitely strength-sapping. Shapovalov is more compact and muscular; Tsitsipas, who hasn’t finished filling out his long, lanky body (he’s built something like Alexander Zverev), was more affected.

teenagers
Tsitsipas was doubled over by the end of the match, but it was all over but the shouting anyway. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

By the very end, he appeared to be starting to cramp – first in the leg, and then in the stomach area. No doubt nerves played a part.

“I remember staying on one side and I felt like the wind was against me, I felt like I was forcing all my shots. So then I thought, the following game, when I went to the other side, I would be with the wind. But I got to the other side, and it felt even heavier,” Shapovalov said, laughing. “It was really swirly for both guys. We had a couple of weird points. It was tricky, but it’s part of the game, just something we had to deal with.”

Tsonga next – again

Shapovalov finished up before knowing the identity of his next opponent, whose match was played late night.

It turned out to be Tsonga, the player he defeated in the second round of the US Open on his way to the round of 16.
“I had really good feelings playing him last year, an unbelievable match from my side. It would be an honour to play him again. Another matchup that I would like, and I’m excited for the match,” he said.

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