National Bank Open Takeaways: Carreno Busta takes advantage of wide-open field

Sportsnet takes you on a journey through the best moments from the 2022 NBO, including Serena Williams retirement announcement, Canadian's Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger-Aliassime making their return home and Simona Halep winning her third title.

The most prestigious tennis tournament our country has to offer is now in the books.

The National Bank Open has finally wrapped from Toronto and Montreal, and for the first time since 2019, live tennis was enjoyed across the grounds of both cities.

Simona Halep added a third Canadian crown to her set, Quebec had a first-time champion in Pablo Carreno Busta, and Toronto fans also bid farewell to one of the greatest athletes across all sport in Serena Williams.

Here are six things we learned from the 2022 NBO:

With no Rafa or Novak, men’s field wide open

We knew in the weeks leading up to Montreal, it was unlikely that Novak Djokovic would be able to compete, given his vaccination status. Rafael Nadal also withdrew from the event days ahead of the action to rest his abdominal injury, missing his most successful hard-court tournament (he’s won Canada five times).

The two legends of the sport have combined to win the first three majors of 2022, and Nadal has been particularly dominant this season, going 35-3 with four ATP titles. With their absence, it opened a whirlwind of upsets that would see top players sent packing early.

Last year’s champion and world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev was knocked out in his second match by Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios.

Carlos Alcaraz, feeling some pressure and weight upon his shoulders as the second seed, succumbed to American Tommy Paul in his opening round match. It was a rare letdown performance from the Spaniard who has four ATP singles titles this year.

Britain’s Jack Draper stunned world no. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and advanced to the quarterfinals. Fellow Brit Dan Evans took his surprise run one step further, reaching his first career Masters 1000 semi-final with upset wins during the week over Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz.

Perhaps this tournament was proof that Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer (when healthy and playing) are the exception to the rule.

The three extraordinary champions have done so much winning, it’s created an abnormal expectation to anticipate week-to-week dominance from the highest ranked players.

In the coming years, when the Big 3 do inevitably retire, it’s most likely the ATP is ruled by parity and multiple champions.

Felix stopped short, Shapo’s slump continues

Many Canadians were dreaming of the hometown hero narrative.

Montreal native Felix Auger-Aliassime returned to play his home event to a raucous ovation and crowd, and for two consecutive matches, looked in remarkably strong form.

He fought past challenging lefty competitor Yoshihito Nishioka in a high-octane opening round clash, which produced mesmerizing points such as this one:

The following round, he’d avenge a loss the previous week to Cameron Norrie, defeating the world no. 11 by a confident 6-3, 6-4 score line.

Unfortunately, what followed was Auger-Aliassime’s most disappointing showing of 2022.

The recently turned 22-year-old could find any rhythm or feel on his ball in a lackluster 6-1, 6-2 loss in the quarterfinals to talented French Open finalist Casper Ruud.

Auger-Aliassime’s ceiling remains exceptionally high and often through the young man’s growing pains, he has come back stronger. He will have significant ranking points to defend come the US Open, where he reached the semifinals last summer.

As for his good friend and compatriot Denis Shapovalov, we are well beyond growing pains.

Shapovalov is in a full-fledged slump and has mightily struggled dating all the way back to the clay court season in May.

While he was no doubt competitive in his first-round match, Shapovalov could not overcome Australia’s Alex de Minaur, who notched a 7-5, 7-6 victory over two days, after a Monday night rainout.

Shapovalov has now lost nine of his last 10 matches, which includes seven opening-round exits. It is puzzling that someone as talented as Shapovalov could struggle this much, and since his surprising dismissal of coach Jamie Delgado, he has lacked consistency in his match approach and tactics.

If the losses persist through the summer, new changes could be on the horizon.

Meantime, Vasek Pospisil also competed as a wild card, and was stopped by American Tommy Paul 6-4, 6-4. He now heads to his home tournament in Vancouver.

Quebec’s Alexis Galarneau made his main draw singles debut in an ATP Masters 1000 event, falling in a competitive match to Grigor Dimitrov. Galarneau has moved inside the top 250 of the rankings with a recent finals run at the Winnipeg Challenger.

The 23-year-old finished his collegiate career at NC State last year and is now moving full time to the pro circuit. The Laval native has a strong forehand wing, moves athletically, and competes admirably.

Fingers crossed he is one of a number of emerging Canadian faces to follow in the coming seasons.

Underrated Pablo notches biggest title of his career

It was one of the more unlikely champions in tournament history.

Veteran Pablo Carreno Busta, who arrived at the event unseeded and ranked 23rd, reeled together six magical wins including a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz to hoist his first career Masters 1000 from the Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal.

The 31-year-old Spaniard was locked in with his best tennis from day one.

Carreno Busta opened with a surprise 6-3, 6-2 upset over 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, and only gained momentum from there.

He produced ruthless performances against Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, and Jack Draper to move to the final four, using his efficient and steady baseline game, high percentage serving, and elite counterpunching.

His secret tool was often his defensive two-handed backhand as opponents could not break down that wing.

He and Hurkacz also played, without doubt, the point of the tournament:

Carreno Busta has now tallied seven career ATP singles titles to go along with two US Open semifinal appearances, a bronze medal in Tokyo, and a pair of quarterfinal runs in French Open.

He’ll rise seven spots to #16 in the world, still shy of his career-best ranking of 10.

Simona brings her best in Canada yet again

She is one of the most beloved women’s tennis players in the city of Toronto and feels right at home on grounds of the National Bank Open presented by Rogers.

Simona Halep capped a phenomenal week of tennis, winning her third career National Bank Open singles crown, and first in Toronto (her two previous titles came in 2016 and 2018 from Montreal).

Halep overcame first-time finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 in a dramatic final, outlasting the hard-hitting Brazilian in 2 hours, 16 minutes.

It was a strong exhibit of efficient, counter-punching tennis, as she sustained the body blows delivered by Haddad Maia’s mammoth lefty serve-forehand combination.

It is Halep’s ninth career WTA1000 crown and 25th singles title overall.

Halep is a two-time slam champion, former world no. 1, brilliant athlete, and future tennis Hall of Famer.

However, even for the experienced Romanian, there were low points.

Last season, she tore a calf muscle just weeks prior to the French Open. As her form wavered, she dipped outside the top 10 for the first time in seven years and fell to 20th at the end of 2021.

The struggles with her form and body put doubts in her mind about the ability to stay competitive and atop the sport.

A partnership with esteemed coach Patrick Mouratoglou earlier this year helped change that mindset.

“He brought the fire back,” said Halep.

“The vibe from the (Mouratoglou) academy gave me the energy, to see all those kids fighting every day to touch the dream that they have, I felt that I can still do it.”

Mouratoglou famously was Serena Williams’ coach for 10 seasons and was alongside for ten of her grand slam singles titles, an Olympic gold medal, and a return to world no. 1.

With Halep’s reignited passion, she now rises to 6th in the WTA rankings and will be an undisputed major contender at the U.S. Open from Flushing Meadows in two weeks' time.

Farewell, Serena

She is one of the greatest athletes of all time, and Toronto fans had the privilege to say goodbye one final time.

Global sporting icon Serena Williams dropped a bombshell during this week’s event, releasing an article in Vogue magazine revealing that she would retire at the conclusion of the US Open.

It made for a bittersweet moment in her upcoming match from the National Bank Open, as she led off the Wednesday night session.

While she would fall in that second-round encounter 6-2, 6-4 to Belinda Bencic, it was a poignant and emotional farewell as thousands of fans let her know what type of impact she has had on and off the court.

Williams is now preparing for the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where she’ll face last year’s US Open winner Emma Raducanu in a blockbuster first-round encounter.

Bianca is close, Leylah gets key match play

Canadians Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Annie Fernandez were both recipients of electric and engaging atmospheres in Toronto, taking Sobey's Stadium this week at the event.

For Andreescu, the Mississauga native drew on incredible 2019 memories of her historic title and dug deep for two impressive wins. She battled nausea and dizziness in her opener, winning a grueling 7-6, 6-4 encounter over top 15 presence Daria Kasatkina. The first set alone lasted 85 minutes.

Her second match posed similar challenges, as France’s Alizé Cornet used her defensive skills and variety to disrupt Bianca’s rhythm. Andreescu would eventually prevail 6-4, 4-6 6-3.

The run was stopped in the quarterfinals by talented 19-year-old Zheng Qinwen, however, it was continued progress from the talented Canadian.

Andreescu has pulled out of Cincinnati and will instead use the next week for a training block ahead of the US Open.

Fernandez won her opening round, enduring a stern test from Australia’s Storm Sanders 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 before falling to eventual finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia in straight sets.

It was critical match play for the Montreal native, who hadn’t played since suffering a fractured foot in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. Fernandez is a relentlessly driven competitor, as evidenced by her intensive practice sessions throughout the week on the grounds.

She’ll open in Cincinnati as the No. 13 seed.

Rebecca Marino, Carol Zhao, and Katherine Sebov also competed in the main draw of the field, falling in their respective opening round matches.

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