INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The plus side of being a seed at the BNP Paribas Open is that if you have title aspirations, you have one fewer match to play.
The downside is that as you begin that quest, your opponent will already have at least one match under their belt.
But if Denis Shapovalov began slowly against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain Saturday, he finished in style in a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory that puts him in the third round.
The conditions were pretty ideal, but it was a messy battle nonetheless. Shapovalov earned 14 break points against Davidovich Fokina, but the Spaniard saved nine. Shapovalov faced 14 on his own serve, but saved 11.
He had seven aces and nine double faults; Davidovich Fokina didn’t hit a single ace, and had four double faults.
A 10-minute game turns the tide
It could have gone south for Shapovalov – until he managed a break at 3-3 in the second set, after a battle that went on for 10 1/2 minutes.
And then, in the next game, the Canadian was down 15-40 on his own serve and looked to be giving the break right back. But he extricated himself from that situation and after that, things turned around.
“Alejandro is a pretty tough opponent. He showed a couple of guys this year that he shows up to play. Against Felix, and I think he had match points against (Jannik) Sinner in Dubai. He also had a match under his belt, playing in first round here, so he was bit more confident,” Shapovalov said. “I think I just fought really well. I tried to throw him off a little bit in the second set, throw in some slices, change the rhythm a little bit. And I was able to get a get a break and buy myself a little bit more time heading into the third set.”
“And then from the third set, I started to feel more and more my game and was able to dictate play quite a bit.”
Feisty vs Feisty
The match was one between two … fairly feisty characters. But for Shapovalov, whose serenity on the court is a work in progress but where there has been clear improvement, it almost has to have a calming effect to know that even if you lose your cool, you still might be calmer than your opponent.
The similarities didn’t escape Shapovalov.
“I knew that he’s a very aggressive personality and, yeah, likes to kind of own the court. We’re pretty similar in that sense. So I just tried to stay calm as much as I could. Obviously I was a little frustrated not to be able to find my game,” Shapovalov said. “It does count a lot, knowing that you could get into the guy’s head a little bit, knowing he can get a little frustrated.”
Next up in the third round is American Reilly Opelka.
Shapovalov has faced him twice – and beaten him twice.
The first time was in the qualifying at Queen’s Club, nearly five years ago. Shapovalov escaped in a third-set tiebreak.
The second time was in the third round of this year’s Australian Open, when he got through in four sets in just a shade over three hours.
“You just try to make as many returns as possible, kind of kill his confidence a little bit with that because obviously if he’s serving big and he feels confident on that, it’s going to be super difficult,” Shapovalov said. “You just try to make his service games as long as possible and just try to move him.
“I think actually he doesn’t get enough credit for his baseline game. He’s super-solid if you don’t move him. So you constantly have to keep him moving. And still take care of business on my serve and still play my game, not get away from myself too much.”
More serves in play
Shapovalov has added a Wawrinka-like forehand bunt return in the last year or so, and goes to the slice on the backhand side more often to get more returns in play.
In that way that top-class tennis players have that mere mortals can only dream of, he just started experimenting with it – and found it worked.
“It’s just something I just started feeling, tried it in a match or two. And I found it’s come fairly easily to me. Obviously it doesn’t always work in the matches, but it’s a great resource to have,” Shapovalov said. “That’s exactly what I was doing in Australia against him. So definitely try it out and hopefully it works well. In case it doesn’t, I’ll have to try to adapt a little bit. But it’s a great add to my game.”
The American had 17 aces in that four-set match in Melbourne. But he also won a relatively pedestrian 72 per cent of points with his first serve (Shapovalov was at 80 per cent) and 51 per cent on his second serve.
Shapovalov created 12 break points against that big delivery, converting three.