BRISBANE, Australia – The young – and youngish – guns abound in Group F at the ATP Cup.
Canada has both Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov. Australia has Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios. Germany has Alexander Zverev.
And Greece has Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas is the most highly ranked of all of them. He’s also basically a one-man team (with all due respect to any athlete who plays, or aspires to play, professional tennis).
But with Denis Shapovalov’s 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) victory over Tsitsipas in a match of No. 1s that was a testing way to start a tennis season, Canada clinched a victory..
Earlier, Auger-Aliassime had the relative good fortune to square off against Michail Pervolarakis, a 23-year-old ranked No. 487.
And afterwards, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov finished off the sweep with a 6-2, 6-3 victory in doubles over Pervolarakis and … Petros Tsitsipas, a late substitute for his brother.
Goliath slays David
Pervolarakis’s last match came in December – at a $15,000 ITF event in Heraklion, Greece.
That’s the lowest level of pro tennis. And that day, he was beaten in three sets by No. 689-ranked Artem Smirnov of Ukraine.
Friday, he played his first career singles match at the ATP Tour level.
And while he showed he definitely had some game, Pervolarakis was overpowered 6-1, 6-3 by Auger-Aliassime, who is ranked 678 spots higher than Smirnov.
Here’s what it looked like.
“It truly feels good to be back on the court. With the injury I had a longer pre-season, was able to train well to get fit, and I just felt like I was doing some good things, practicing well, but the first match you don’t know what to expect,” Auger-Aliassime said.
“I didn’t know the opponent, also, so that’s a factor that is always challenging when you’re a player and so I tried to focus on what I had to do. But I was happy that overall in the match I had a great first set, couldn’t ask any better, and I was able to be solid in the second. So overall very happy to be back.”
Shapo v Tsitsi an early-season challenge
In a typical season-opening run towards the Australian Open in Melbourne, a player like Shapovalov, ranked No. 15, generally is going to get a lower-ranked player in a regular 250-level ATP Tour event. Maybe even an Australian wild card.
But with this format, almost every team’s No. 1 is a top player. That’s sort of the point of the exercise. And it’s definitely a selling point, because the top two singles players are required to play.
And so, first out of the box for Shapovalov, it was Tsitsipas. Rivals from back in their junior days, this was their fourth meeting in the upper levels of the game.
The first came two years ago in the first round of the Australian Open. Shapovalov won in straight sets. They played again in Monte Carlo in 2018 (on clay). Tsitsipas won that one.
And last year in Miami, they played an epic in the fourth round, won by Shapovalov in a third-set tiebreak.
On Friday, Shapovalov was just the steadier performer – the one who clearly had made the better adjustment to the conditions.
The Canadian, who had done some off-season training at the IMG Academy in Florida, has already been in Australia for 10 days.
Tsitsipas, although he said it wasn’t the reason he lost, spoke of an “irritation” in his shoulder and wrist. It was an issue he attributed to taking a three-week break after the season and starting up again – and also the change in conditions from Dubai to Brisbane.
In short, he didn’t seem ready for such a big task right out of the gate.
“His serve was better than mine and a few points in the tiebreak … I didn’t work out what I had to do and I didn’t have a clear picture of how I have to play, which I usually have also much more adrenaline and a rush when I’m in the tiebreak. I like playing tiebreaks,” Tsitsipas said. “Today, he was just, you know, better decision-making and he did things better than me.”
Shapovalov up for this one
Unlike Auger-Aliassime, who decided to have personal coach Fred Fontang courtside, Shapovalov went with captain Fuorivia alone. Coach Mikhail Youzhny sat behind them with the rest of the Canadian team.
It made sense, in this case. Fuorivia, who was Shapovalov’s coach as a junior and returned last spring after Shapovalov and Steckley parted ways, probably knows him better than anyone except for his mother Tessa.
At times, the tennis was impressively high level for the opening day of their seasons. It generally is with these two, who both have all-court mentalities and, of course, those sweet one-handed backhands.
“It’s definitely a huge win for me. Obviously, he had an unbelievable end to the season and he’s definitely one of the top players in the world right now. He’s got a great game,” Shapovalov said. “So to beat a guy like this first match of the year, it’s really special for me.”
The other Tsitsipas brother
As at Davis Cup, the rule in the ATP Cup is that the doubles are played even if the outcome is already decided.
(Of course, it was the rule at Davis Cup as well. But with the lack of healthy bodies on a four-man squad, the Canadians decided to forfeit their doubles against the U.S. in the round-robin).
But it took awhile.
The maximum time, if one of the No. 1 singles players is playing the doubles, is 45 minutes after the singles. It took every bit of that time. And in the end, it was Tsitsipas – younger brother Petros – who took the court instead of big brother Stefanos.
Petros, 19, is the No. 5-ranked player in Greece. His ATP Tour ranking is tied with Piotr Matuszewski of Poland at No. 1,415 in the world. He has three ATP ranking points (his brother has 5,300).
In doubles, the younger Tsitsipas did briefly break into the top 1,000 in 2019, peaking at No. 973 in October.
So all this is above his level. Still, peers Auger-Aliassime (also 19) and Shapovalov (20) thought he was the trickier player on the court.
“I mean, for me like for his ranking he had a good serve, to be honest. It was not so hard, but precise. Better (touch) than his partner, that’s maybe the similarities,” Auger-Aliassime said after being asked to compare the games of the Greek brothers.
“I was impressed. I think he was definitely the better doubles player on the court and he was doing a good job covering the net, he was a bit more tricky to play against,” Shapovalov said.
Next up: Australia
Canada’s next challenge comes Sunday – again at 10 a.m., which is 7 p.m. Saturday night on the east coast in Canada, and 4 p.m. on the west coast.
And this time, they might not be the heavy favorites.
Canada will play Australia, which essentially is the home team in this country vs. country competition.
Australia has the dangerous Nick Kyrgios at No. 2 singles, with the higher-ranked Alex de Minaur at No. 1.
Kyrgios was both humbled and inspired Friday night, as he aced to raise funds for the victims of the bush fires that have been particularly devastating on his hometown of Canberra.
Kyrgios vs. Auger-Aliassime would be a rematch of their dramatic, somewhat contentious, marathon at the Queen’s Club tournament last summer.