NEW YORK—For more than two hours, these Canadian mates who’d known each other since they were seven years old, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, had gone toe-to-toe. But now, suddenly, all too suddenly, it had ended, Auger-Aliassime retiring at one set apiece and down 4-1 in the third.
The heat had overcome him. There’d been a trainer visit two games into that third set, followed by the 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime walking slower and slower with each passing point.
As the two shook hands, Shapovalov embraced his teary-eyed friend who he also considers a brother. Don’t worry, Denis, there’ll be other chances, plenty more ahead for you on these big stages, eventually, unquestionably, the chance for the two of us to play the finals here too. As the demoralized Auger-Aliassime headed to his bench, Shapovalov came over too, sitting alongside him.
“It's not easy when you know the person,” said Shapovalov. “It's actually a pretty tough match for both of us.”
Alas, despite that fraternalism, for Auger-Aliassime there would always be the painful memory that his US Open debut had ended so ignobly. Compounding the sadness of the finish was that it had started so differently. Auger-Aliassime began strongly, taking a 5-2 lead in the first set, only to see Shapovalov win five straight games. The second set had gone in the opposite direction. Serving for it at 5-4, Shapovalov opened the game with two unforced errors off his cult-like backhand and ended up losing his serve. Then, at 5-6, Shapovalov lost a four-deuce game that was punctuated by three errant backhands.
Given Shapovalov’s love of the fast pace of New York, it only made sense that there was even a generational plot line. Only a year ago, Shapovalov had been the ingénue, an 18-year-old qualifier who set New York on fire with an enchanting run to the round of 16. Twelve months later, he was the 28th seed, well aware that the onus was on him to discharge his compatriot with alacrity.
“I kind of like being the veteran out there,” said Shapovalov. “It gave me that kind of sense of confidence that he's new to this, he's never played a three-out-of-five. I knew even if he takes the early lead, in the long run I’d have a little bit more experience under long matches. It's kind of a cool sensation.”
Added spice to Shapovalov’s 16-month edge in age came in the form of their contrasting styles. Auger-Aliassime’s strokes are quite harnessed; his style clearly the result of a profound emphasis on repetition, drills and sustained discipline. Those fundamentals and versatility have already taken him from a ranking of No. 226 a year ago to a current spot at 117. Watch Auger-Aliassime play for only five minutes and you will see that there’s no question he will go much further
According to Shapovalov, “He's got everything. I wouldn't tell him to fix one thing about his game. I just think he needs a little bit more time, he's going to have a breakthrough very soon. He's such a talented player. He goes for his shots, which I really like. He doesn't hold back. He's got a huge serve. When it's on, it's unreadable and untouchable.”
Shapovalov is a quintessential lefthander, engaged less by structure and more by the possibility that every shot he hits could well end up on a highlight reel. Certainly he has been well-instructed; but clearly Shapovalov sees the court his own way, displaying a personal sensibility and flair that is not so much taught as learned or, better yet, craved. Bold cuts, mostly crosscourt off the backhand and to both corners from the forehand, define his tennis gestalt.
Like all lefthanders, the wide ad-court serve is Shapovalov’s crutch, a beloved pet he will trot out even if aware that opponents know it’s coming. And so what if at times Shapovalov appears stubbornly addicted to the topspin backhand rather than temporizing with an occasional slice? A 19-year-old southpaw who’s risen this far is an adolescent with the keys to a Porsche. Expect a ticket or two, possibly even a fender-bender. Such was the case more than 50 years ago for another promising young left-handed shot-maker who at first struck many as out of control. In time, though, Rod Laver’s shots found the mark.
Of course, these two Canadians both have a long way to go to be discussed in the same breath as Laver. Shapovalov, so ascendant a year ago, has encountered a few hiccups in 2018, failing to get past the second round of a single major. And only Auger-Aliassime knows if what happened tonight is an aberration or a symptom of the need for further conditioning or even something more profound (doubtful, but you never know).
But in another sense, what these two showed one another at the end of this match was mature beyond their years, a moment lifted straight from the pages of Laver and his fellow Aussies, of that mostly pre-Open time when such rough-and-tumble warriors as Laver and Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, could hold two opposing ideas in their head at once: I will honor you and the spirit of competition so much that I will do everything possible to beat your brains in. But once it’s over, we are the very best of friends, bound up by competition in affinity and even love. Of such notions are champions made.