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Rivard: Party crashers

Jul 27, 2021
written by: Paul Rivard
written by: Paul Rivard

July 25th was the kickoff to Félix Auger-Aliassime’s very first Olympic tournament, but the moment he’d dreamed about and looked forward to quickly went sour.

He was initially pitted against veteran and two-time Olympic champion Andy Murray, who was forced to withdraw from the singles event—a departure that left the door wide open for replacement Max Purcell of Australia. And just like that, in under two hours, the World No.15 was driven out by the No.190.

After preparing for a rousing battle with so much on the line, that type of last-minute switch has a negative and destabilizing effect. And despite all his professionalism, Félix unconsciously presumed Purcell was just a formality.

Félix Auger-Aliassime tosses the ball to serve.
Photo : Kopatsch/Sato/Sidorjak

“It’s not easy for anybody, adjusting at the last second,” said Félix’s coach Frank Dancevic. “You think you’re going to play one guy and somebody else comes—a different game style than Andy. So, it was just a little bit of a mental adjustment.”

In the end, 23 unforced errors, a faulty first serve and 9 double faults sent the Canadian packing (6-4, 7-6 (2)).

“It for sure hurts,” said Félix after the match to Montreal newspaper La Presse. “Coming here, I had the possibility of having a better tournament. Leaving so early is a bit unexpected, and I’m very disappointed. I have to accept it, and I’ll try to bounce back in the mixed doubles.”

“We play a lot of matches during the course of the year” added Auger-Aliassime. “All the players go through good and bad moments. But the very best seem to find a way to get out of their bad days, most of the time.”

Losing to a rival 175 spots lower in the rankings certainly has an impact. It happens, but you don’t want it to happen to you.

Oddly enough, Denis Shapovalov suffered the same fate when he was overpowered by a total unknown on the clay courts in Gstaad three days earlier.

What happened?

After his semifinal berth at Wimbledon, the World No.10 skipped Tokyo and headed to the Swiss Open as the top seed. In his opening round, he went head-to-head against World No.249 Vit Kopriva of Czech Republic.

As things got rolling, Kopriva was broken twice and got down 6-2. Pure routine for Shapovalov. But Kopriva found a way to turn things around and broke Shapo twice in the two following sets for the win (2-6, 6-3, 6-2).

Getting torpedoed by a player who sits 239 positions lower is as unusual as it is baffling. Félix could almost take comfort.

I’ve said it time and time again: there are lots of talented players in Top 100, Top 200 and even the Top 300. There’s really no reason for anyone to fall off their proverbial chair. Some days, the stars align for one athlete and crash the opponent’s party.

After bulldozing Shapovalov, Vit Kopriva wasn’t done. The next day, he annihilated No.96 Michael Ymer in just 52 minutes (6-1, 6-0). Remember Ymer? He overwhelmed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round of Wimbledon and then tousled with the other Canadian, Félix Auger-Aliassime. In the semis, Casper Ruud brought the Swede back down to earth (6-3, 6-0).

There have always been players who seem to come out of nowhere, like rabbits popping out of a magician’s hat, and Denis Shapovalov is actually one of them. In August 2017, the then World No.143 set Montréal on fire when he outhit an ace 142 spots ahead of him who just happened to be the World No.1: Rafael Nadal.

It’s just the circle of tennis life, right?

As for Félix, he wasn’t alone: World No. 1 and heavy favourite, Ashleigh Barty crashed out against the combative No 48 Sara Sorribes Tormo. In further rounds, No. 2 Naomi Osaka lost quickly to Marketa Vondrousova, No.42, just like No 3. Arina Sabalenka, against Donna Vekic, No. 50 and Karolina Pliskova, No 7. To Camila Giorgi, No. 61. 

In the men’s draw, No. 6 Andrey Rublev was sent home by Kei Nishikori, No. 69 while No 12. Hubert Hurkacz lost to Liam Brody, No 169. 

Enough examples… I rest my case.

The ultimate party crashers

By now, you’re probably familiar with my habit of finding examples to back up my assertions, so how about a quick rundown of some of the biggest surprises in tennis in the past 35 years? I suggest we start with our Canadian players.

  • Daniel vs. Stefan

Up first is the highly respected young retiree Daniel Nestor. In 1982, the 19-year-old, then No.238, set off a tsunami of jaw dropping when he caused World No.1 Stefan Edberg to collapse in their singles match (yes, SINGLES) at the Davis Cup event in Vancouver by a score of 4-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

  • Helen vs. Helena

On August 25, 1985, Hurricane Helen Kelesi was 15 years old. In Monticello, she rose out of the qualifiers and fought her way into the semis, where she faced No.7 Helena Sukova. At the outcome of the grueling clash, the Canadian star vanquished the Czech champ in two sets (7-6, 7-6) to reach her very first career final.

  • Vasek vs. Tomas

Who could forget the quarterfinal showdown at the 2013 National Bank Open in Montréal when No.71 Vasek Pospisil dismantled No.6 Tomas Berdych (7-5, 2-6, 7-6) and brought the house down to set up an all-Canadian semi against Milos Raonic?

  • Bianca vs. so many

The first week of 2019 was positively prodigious for then No.152 Bianca Andreescu. Dubbed the giant killer, she wiped out Julia Goerges (14), Su-Wei Hsieh (28), Venus Williams (39), Caroline Wozniacki (3) and Timea Babos (59), in that order, to hoist her very first WTA championship trophy. You may also recall that she ended the year in possession of the World No.5 ranking and her first Grand Slam title.

Photo : Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open
  • Sergiy vs. Roger

In 2013, Roger Federer waltzed into Wimbledon as the reigning champion with six titles from the ten previous editions of the prestigious tournament. But in the second round, he just couldn’t crack Sergiy Stakhovsky’s code, and the No.116 triumphed in four tight sets (6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6). Before stumbling, Federer had a 65-3 record at Wimbledon for the decade.

  • George vs. Pete

In 2002, Pete Sampras was on the cusp of surrendering the title of emperor of grass to Roger Federer, who had taken him by surprise in the round of 16 a year earlier. Even so, no one was crazy enough to bet even a dollar that No.145 George Bastl could unsettle the American. In the end, Pistol Pete ran out of ammo and Bastl, who’d entered the main draw as a lucky loser, triumphed in five (6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4).

  • Robin vs. Rafa

You may remember this fourth-round match at Roland-Garros in 2009, when No.25 Robin Soderling of Sweden prevailed over none other than the King of Clay (who, by the way, had won the four previous French Slams and would go on to win the next five!). Soderling brought Rafa’s 31-match winning streak to a halt and battled all the way to the final. Only Roger Federer—who secured his first and only Coupe des Mousquetaires—could stop him.

  • Roberta vs. Serena

And what about Roberta Vinci’s oh-so charming winner’s speech after she shook the foundations of women’s tennis and upset Serena Williams in the semis of the 2015 US Open? The No.45 disposed of the superstar (2-6, 6-4, 6-4) and then apologized to the crowd for ending Queen’s Serena reign. The American ace had just spent 186 weeks at the top of the rankings and already had the championship crowns from the four previous Slams in her trophy case. With the victory, Vinci foiled Williams’ plan to lock down a calendar Grand Slam.

  • Kathy vs. Martina

Martina Navratilova has the most wins and the most titles in tennis. And that’s exactly why Kathy Horvath took everyone by complete surprise in the fourth round of Roland-Garros in 1983, when she sunk the legend in three sets (6-4, 0-6, 6-3). To give you an idea of how momentous the achievement was, Navratilova was coming off a 39-match winning streak and, after the shocking defeat, would string together 54 more wins to end the year with a mindboggling 86-1 record! Martina suffered just ONE LOSS all year, and now you know who was responsible for it.

Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime headed to Laver Cup

Canada will be out in full force at the Laver Cup event this fall in Boston. Captain John McEnroe selected both No.15 Félix Auger-Aliassime and No.10 Denis Shapovalov for Team World, along with Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

From the moment it was launched four years ago, Laver Cup took its place as the most spectacular and original of the world’s tennis tournaments. Created by Roger Federer and his longtime business partner Tony Godsyk, Laver Cup is flawlessly organized and always has been.

With its spectators in darkness and distinctive black court, the event turns the spotlight (literally) on the players dressed in blue (Team Europe) and red (Team World). The sliding scale scoring system awards steadily increasing points over the three days, so no team can win before the last day. A camera is installed on the net (something other tournaments, including Wimbledon, have begun to imitate) to catch all the action.

Some of the elements that make Laver Cup particularly fun—like the players’ bench from which teammates shout tips and zingers—are now part of events like the ATP Cup.

Denis Shapovalov jokes around with the Team Canada group at the ATP Cup during a match
Photo : Tennis Photo Network/ATP Tour

While Shapovalov will be competing in his second Laver Cup (he played in 2017, his breakout year), Félix will be at his first.

“I feel so privileged to be representing Team World at Laver Cup this year,” said Auger-Aliassime. “To be able to play in front of a full house at TD Garden will be just incredible. I’m also so excited to have a legend like John McEnroe in my corner. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot!”

As for Team World captain John McEnroe, he had this to say on the Laver Cup website: “This year’s Laver Cup is so important to me personally and to us as a team,” he said. “We came so close to winning in Geneva, it hurt. It’s a loss that we’ll remember for a long time. We know it’s not going to be easy to beat Team Europe, but I like our chances. All three players—Denis, Félix and Diego—compete hard, have beaten the best and are at the top of the game. Their records and rankings are proof of that. I have no doubt we’ll rise to the occasion. Bjorn and his team better be ready!”

Playing for Europe will be Dominic Thiem of Austria, who confirmed last November, and recent Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, who signed up a few weeks ago.

The fourth edition of Laver Cup, which is back after a pandemic break, will be held from September 24 to 26 at TD Garden in Boston.

Team Europe is the reigning Laver Cup champion, with wins in 2017 in Prague, 2018 in Chicago and 2019 in Geneva. Can’t wait for this fall? Follow this link!

Get in touch with me!

Email: privard@tenniscanada.com

Twitter: @paul6rivard

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