Something about Sweden seems to appeal to Denis Shapovalov – and that’s very good news for Canadian tennis fans.
The champion of the Stockholm Open the last time it was played, in 2019 (it was cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic), the third-seeded Shapovalov is now one win away from defending his title after beating fellow No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 7-5 on Friday in an all-Canadian semifinal.
The 22-year-old Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., will face world No. 52 Tommy Paul of the United States in the final of the ATP Tour 250 indoor hard-court event on Saturday.
“I served and played really well today,” Shapovalov said. “Going up against Felix is very tough because we know each other so well. We have to be on top of our games when we play each other. I was really happy with the start and the fight throughout the match.”
Shapovalov, ranked 18th in the world, followed his first and only career title to date two years ago in Stockholm with a sensational run at the Davis Cup Finals, helping Canada finish runner-up to Spain in Madrid.
When the Davis Cup starts later this month (Canada plays Sweden on Nov. 25 and Kazakhstan on Nov. 28, with both ties from Madrid on Sportsnet), Shapovalov could be part of a strong 1-2 punch with Auger-Aliassime, who didn’t play until the Davis Cup championship tie in 2019 because of an ankle injury.
But it’s the here and now that matters most to Shapovalov after an impressive win against his longtime friend and junior rival from Montreal, who won their other two matches this year. The lifetime series is now tied at 3-3.
“Last time we played on clay (a 6-2, 6-3 loss in Barcelona) and I felt like I was a little bit lost out there,” Shapovalov said. “I wasn’t able to come out and play a full game. I knew the start was going to be very important for this match and I wanted to start out very fiery and that’s exactly what I did. Against a guy like Felix, you need to be hot, you need to play well.”
The 24-year-old Paul will be aiming for his first career title after knocking off fellow American Frances Tiafoe 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the first Stockholm semifinal. Paul and Shapovalov will be squaring off for the first time on Saturday, though they’re very familiar with each other from their junior days.
“I’m a big fan of his game,” Shapovalov said. “I always thought he played really, really well and it was only a matter of time until he’s shooting up and having a result like this week. He’s got a great game so it’s going to be tricky.”
Since making his first career Grand Slam appearance at Wimbledon this summer, Shapovalov has struggled with his consistency, losing eight of 13 matches before his Stockholm surge.
“I guess I just haven’t learned how to maintain the level I have (this week) at all weeks yet,” he said. “It’s something I’m working on and something hopefully one day I’ll learn. I’m 22 years old. When you have a tournament like (Wimbledon), obviously it’s tricky afterwards. Different goals, different kind of mindset. Just took me a little bit to adjust.”
After surviving a first-set loss against France’s Arthur Rinderknech in the Stockholm quarterfinals, Shapovalov was sharp to start against Auger-Aliassime.
An energized Shapovalov, regularly pumping his fist and letting out roars, broke Auger-Aliassime in the first game and then recorded another break to go up 5-2 with a beautiful backhand return.
However, Auger-Aliassime battled back with a break of his own and came within one point of a second break to tie it at 5-5 before Shapovalov stepped up after screaming in frustration. Two straight aces and a smash that caught the line gave Shapovalov the first set.
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The second set brought more drama. Tied 5-5 after the players exchanged breaks, Shapovalov won a 22-shot point to go up 0-30 on Auger-Aliassime’s serve with a smash after some outstanding defence by his opponent – earning both players a rousing ovation.
Shapovalov then won the next two points and served out for the match, capping it with an ace.
“All credit to Denis,” Auger-Aliassime said, “but it’s a big failure for my part.”
Failure might be a bit of a strong word, considering the 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime will make his debut in the world top 10 when the next rankings are released Monday. Auger-Aliassime, who will jump to 10th from 11th, becomes the third Canadian to reach the top 10 – following Milos Raonic and Shapovalov.
“The ranking is good, I’ve reached that objective,” Auger-Aliassime said. “On the other hand, I couldn’t win a title this year. I had a chance this week and I didn’t do it. I have to live with the consequences.”
Now, Shapovalov will try to do the same thing he did in the 2019 final, when he beat Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic for an elusive Canadian crown.
It marked a Canadian player’s only win in an ATP tournament final in the past 21 attempts. Canadians have lost in their past 10 finals since Shapovalov’s Stockholm triumph – with Auger-Aliassime still looking for his first title after eight runner-up finishes.