SHAPOVALOV DOWNS GOOD FRIEND TIAFOE, INTO MIAMI OPEN SEMIS
By Tucker Verdi
Miami Gardens, FL — Across the net from Denis Shapovalov Thursday night wasn’t a foe he longed to humiliate or an idol he dreamed one day of beating. Instead, he dueled for two hours and 15 minutes against a player he knows very well — a good friend, Frances Tiafoe.
Separated by 15 months in age, the elder Tiafoe and the younger Shapovalov have grown up on tour together. From their days as junior players to their debuts on the world stage at the professional level, the two have formed a kinship over the tennis blood that runs through their veins. And as two of the young stars emerging from English-speaking parts of the Western Hemisphere, there was an instant bond.
“Honestly, in juniors… I saw him around, but we didn’t hang around too much,” the Canadian said of his relationship with the young American. “Then once we started playing pros, we played Laver Cup together — all this, and we just started getting closer and closer.”
Their close friendship does have to be set aside, however, when they find themselves on the same court pitted against each other. Suspending their well-wishes for one another temporarily, the two young stars battle it out — all-the-while concealing the guilt that takes up residence in the victor’s head, for as one succeeds so must one falter.
On Thursday night, in a quarterfinal match relegated to the intimate yet raucous atmosphere of Grandstand due to a prolonged rain delay, Shapovalov succeeded as Tiafoe faltered. The No. 20 seed defeated the No. 28 seed in comeback fashion, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
“Part of me does also feel kind of bad, you know, just in the sense that he couldn’t go on in the tournament,” Shapovalov expressed after the win. “I know he deserves it as much as I do… it’s tough in the sense that I wish the best for him.”
The opening set was played to a draw on serve, with each dismissing of the only break point he faced. The high-octane set drew “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” from the locked-in crowd, with their furious baseline rallies set to the tune of squeaking sneakers against the court only interrupted by incredible volley exchanges at the net requiring the deftest of touches.
The first set would be decided by a tiebreak, and two forehand misses by Shapovalov would prove to be the two-point difference Tiafoe would need to claim the first set and be halfway to his first Masters 1000 semifinal.
But Shapovalov found comfort in the match from that moment on. Besides holding at love to open the second, Tiafoe struggled on serve for most of the set — being broken twice and pushed to the brink a third time. It was at that third break opportunity for Shapovalov that the Canadian fought his way back from 0-40 down to get four separate set points. Tiafoe saved them all, summoning the strength to hit his shots deep and force Shapovalov’s returns long.
In the ensuing service game for Shapovalov, an opportunity to serve for the set was missed as Tiafoe broke him back. The 19-year-old did not allow the missed chance to unnerve him, as he got a second attempt to serve it out and did so, forcing the match to a decider.
In the deciding set, Shapovalov began to unwind and play loose and free tennis as Tiafoe began to unravel. At 1-all Shapovalov broke for the first and he would not look back, breaking again en route to taking the set 6-2 and therefore the match. The win added to a new confidence Shapovalov has been able to have in his game.
“When I made the semifinals in Montreal,” he said, referencing his Rogers Cup run in 2017, “it was kind of a one-off for me. I had those two, three weeks of insanity, you know, just playing ridiculous. And then all of a sudden I was kind of struggling again.”
“So when I did make the semifinals of Madrid [in 2018], it was reassurance for me that my level is there, that I’m capable of doing it. And today, again, now I know in the back of my mind that my game is there to make semifinals of these big events. It definitely gives me the confidence to keep going forward.”
“Going forward” for the Toronto native, who will crack the top 20 in the rankings for the first time in his career, will be playing on Friday in his third Masters 1000 semifinal. There, he will face his and so many others’ tennis idol — No. 4 seed Roger Federer.
“It’s definitely a matchup I have been looking forward to, I think, my whole life,” Shapovalov said, sharing a laugh at his obvious state of excitement. “Obviously Roger is really tough opponent, so it’s going to be a difficult match. I’m just happy to kind of have a chance to play him.”
Not kind of. On Friday night, Denis Shapovalov is going to be playing Roger Federer for the first time in his career. If his whole life has been waiting for that moment, tennis fans everywhere are in for a treat.
Get your tickets here.