Isner vs. Auger-Aliassime Preview: Fast Serves and Fast Success


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — When John Isner was 18 years old, he was still getting familiar with his new home away from home. That home wasn’t the whirlwind of the ATP Tour like most successful tennis stars at 18 — instead, it was a college town about an hour-and-a-half outside of Atlanta, GA, called Athens. Home to the University of Georgia, it is where Isner would spend the next four years of his life learning, growing, and discovering that his love for playing tennis could one day be how he would make his living.

Contrast that with Felix Auger-Aliassime, who on Friday will play in the semifinals of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú. Raised in a quaint suburb outside of Quebec City, Auger-Aliassime has known that tennis is his calling for a long time now — though it is decidedly clearer after his historic run in Miami that it will be a calling for a lifetime, not just one of many young players whose dreams never materialized.

Isner, when he was 32, won the biggest title of his career by claiming the Miami Open in 2018. Auger-Aliassime, at 18 now, is the youngest semifinalist in the tournament’s history. Both followed very different paths to this moment, but they will meet on Friday afternoon with a spot in the final on the line.

No. 7 seed Isner, with a career-high ranking of No. 8 in the world, had the best run of his life undoubtedly in the past 16 months. He lifted the Butch Buchholz trophy in March, returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2012, and reached his first career Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon in July — oh, not to mention he got married at the end of 2017 and welcomed a daughter in September 2018.

He has publicly doubted his ability to defend his title in Miami, however, because he has only won one Masters 1000 trophy in his lengthy career and surely he isn’t going to win another so soon at the same place he picked up his first.

Well, the 6’11” American has yet to drop a set in the fortnight, winning seven of eight sets thus far in tiebreaks. He has remained as resilient and focused as ever, all without the added pressure of needing that first big win. With that off his shoulders, who knows what he could accomplish.

The Canadian youngster across from him will also be playing with zero expectations. How can it get any better than a Miami Open semifinal at 18?

Well, a Miami Open final — or even a title.

“I think it just shows that I'm doing good things,” Auger-Aliassime said of his fast success. “I'm on the right track… I think I'm seeing the long term, and right now I'm just enjoying, you know, enjoying every day, enjoying every match, because you never know what's gonna happen next. I'm really enjoying myself.”

As fun and exciting as Friday’s match will be for the qualifier, meaning he has been on court for three more matches than his opponent has, he knows that standing in front of Isner and his fearsome serve will take something next level.

“Obviously I think maybe I'll have to maybe adjust my return position,” Auger-Aliassime explained, as Isner’s serves regularly come in at speeds approaching 140 miles per hour.

Their different paths have brought them here, to the semifinals of the 2019 Miami Open. One will be serving fast while the other is rising fast. Isner’s power will go up against Auger-Aliassime’s youth. The winner — those who are there to see it happen.

Get your tickets here.

Federer vs. Shapovalov Preview: A Teenager Takes on His Idol


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — At 19, a rising player from Switzerland by the name of Roger Federer took to the biggest stage in tennis — Centre Court at Wimbledon — and pull the world on notice by defeating the man he had idolized, Pete Sampras, in 2001.

That match was a prelude to a career that has eclipsed record after record, rewriting the history books of the sport. After 20 major titles, 310 weeks at World No. 1, and a record haul of prize money as the first to cross the $100,000,000 mark, Federer unimaginable success had to start somewhere. Many mention that match against Sampras as his revelation to the sport he has indelibly changed forever.

On a slightly smaller stage — by stature, that is, as Stadium Court at the Miami Open presented by Itaú is massive in size — another 19-year-old, this time from Canada, will take on his idol.

This time, Federer finds himself the idolized, looked to with awe by his semifinal opponent, Denis Shapovalov. The young Canadian has crafted his game after Federer, most noticeably — that lethal one-handed backhand that can unleash hellish power when called upon.

“I practiced with Denis way back when,” Federer recalled about first meeting Shapovalov back in 2016. “I think he warmed me up for a match in Toronto, I believe, and he came out. He might have been 16, 17, and… he was just hitting big. I was, like, ‘Wow, it's unbelievable. How old is he? How good is he gonna get?’”

Big hitting will be key for both players as youth and vigor go up against experience and resolve. In what will be the first matchup between the two, a glimpse will be provided into how much Federer has shaped the game in his years on tour. Another player who modeled himself after the maestro, Stefanos Tsitsipas, memorably got the better of Federer in their first meeting in Melbourne earlier this year. Federer, however, avenged that loss in the final in Dubai, showing he knows how to make the adjustments to beat his own game.

Shapovalov has been looking forward to this meeting his entire life, and having realized his dream of becoming a professional tennis player, savors the opportunity to play across from his hero.

“It's going to be a dream come true,” Shapovalov said, “to play him in such a big event over here, and the stakes are so high, semifinal match of a Masters 1000 against your idol. It's just a dream come true.”

While inspired by Federer and hoping to find as much success as him, Shapovalov is not Roger Federer. For now, at least, there is only one Roger Federer, and he takes to Stadium Court tonight as the favorite to make his fifth Miami Open final.

But then again, one has to ask — wasn’t Pete the favorite in 2001?

It was after that match that the 19-year-old kid from Switzerland became Roger Federer. Maybe tonight, a 19-year-old kid from Canada becomes Denis Shapovalov.

Pliskova Shines in Win Over Vondrousova to Reach Miami Open Semifinals


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova is on her way to the semifinals of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú after defeating 19-year-old compatriot Marketa Vondrousova,  6-3, 6-4. She will now play in her second Miami Open semifinal following an appearance in 2017.

Accounting for two of the three Czech quarterfinalists this year — the other being Petra Kvitova — the match paired two players who were born a little more than 60 miles from each other in a country of just over 10,000,000 people. The landscape of their clash is far different from the one they grew up in — the cool yet humid evening in South Florida providing the backdrop for their matchup 5000 miles from home.

Pliskova, a former World No. 1 and the 2016 US Open finalist, slowly and meticulously worked on her game before bursting onto the scene at age 24 with that US Open run, during which she defeated top-ranked Serena Williams. Vondrousova is finding success even earlier than her opponent, and had a chance to reach her maiden Premier Mandatory semifinal with a win.

Pliskova, however, overwhelmed Vondrousova from the start. Her power from the baseline was too much for the smaller of the two Czechs, with Vondrousova’s effort appearing futile at times in the first set. Vondrousova’s first serve also let her down immensely as she only landed them 46 percent of the time.

The second, however, got off to a much different start. Vondrousova appeared laser-focused and had shaken off the frustration of the first set. She broke Pliskova to open up a 3-0 lead in the set. As has been the case throughout this entire thrilling 2019 tournament, though, Pliskova was not going to allow Vondrousova to force a decider. She regained her composure and imposed her will over her less-experienced countrywoman, winning six of the next seven games to take the set and match — including holding from 15-40 down while serving for the match.

Pliskova will now take on No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the semifinals, both of them seeking their first appearance in the Miami Open women’s singles final. Halep has the added incentive of playing for the World No. 1 ranking, which she will regain if she beats Pliskova to reach the championship match. Pliskova can also rise in the rankings, leaping up to the No. 2 spot if she manages to capture the title.

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.

Barty Bashes Her Way Past Kontaveit and Into Miami Open Final


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — Ashleigh Barty is all of 5 feet and 5 inches tall. In an era of height and power in the women’s game like never before, she stands out by not standing tall — physically, that is. Emotionally, when the moment calls for it, she stands above them all.

“I’m so proud of myself and my team for trusting the process and enjoying the journey,” a beaming Barty said after her semifinal victory over No. 22 Anett Kontaveit, 6-3, 6-3. “I think we have had some amazing opportunities on the court to do some pretty special things.”

At 22, Barty is going through to the final of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú. To get there, she has had to endure a lot over her relatively long career for someone her age. There has been bitter disappointment in big matches, whispers of discontent among Australian fans who long for greatness out of the young star, and fatigue with the sport she loves — so much so that she stepped away from it for two years.

Since she’s been back, Barty has been on a crusade — a symphonic rise that crescendoed for the first time Thursday night as she out-smashed her heavy-hitting opponent to advance to the biggest final of her career, her first at the Premier Mandatory level.

“It took a little bit of time to get used to [the conditions],” Barty explained, referring to the weather, “and accepting the fact that I couldn’t quite play the way that I wanted to.”

Rain plagued the day at Hard Rock Stadium, but with Barty’s decisive win, it is hard to imagine she would want to play any other way that how she did. While Kontaveit took the early lead — breaking Barty in the opening game — the first rain delay stopped her momentum at 2-0. In the first return to play, Barty broke back and leveled at 2-all.

After more suspensions of play, the match resumed in full around 6:30PM ET. From that moment on, it was all Barty all day. Not only did she rely on her usual game of outworking her opponent from line to line, she also overpowered the ferocious Estonian opposite her — pounding out 13 winners to Kontaveit’s 11.

“I was able to come out of the rain delays and kind of get on the front foot pretty early,” Barty told the press. “I did the best with what I had and was able to get out of some tight service games at crucial times and get a bit of a roll on.”

That roll was undoubtedly aided by Kontaveit, who was let down by her own game, coming undone and hacking up 33 unforced errors in both frames. It was an insurmountable total for the 23-year-old, and Barty graciously accepted each one by refusing to go for broke unless she knew she could land it.

She landed a lot of them, enough to break Kontaveit five times and seal the victory just shy of the 80 minute mark. In the final, she will face either No. 2 seed Simona Halep or No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova.

“A tough one both ways,” Barty admitted, but she put the emphasis on what she could control on her side of the net. “I think either way I need to go out there and try and play my brand of tennis, which is probably the most important thing for either matchup.”

With the stopping and starting due to rain, the late match in the quarters, and extra time on court due to playing doubles as well, Barty was asked how her body was holding up.

“Good as gold,” the ever-chipper Aussie quipped.

Rest up, Ash. You’ll be going for gold on Saturday in the Women’s Singles Final of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú.

Get your tickets here.

Federer Practically Flawless in Win Over Anderson, Shapovalov Next in Semifinals


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — 26 minutes and 51 seconds.

That is how long is took for No. 4 seed Roger Federer to bagel No. 6 seed Kevin Anderson in the first set of their quarterfinal matchup Thursday night, a near-flawless set that saw him win 100 percent of his first serve points en route to a 6-0, 6-4 win.

The former World No. 1 has seen his share of records — 20 Grand Slams, 100 ATP titles, 310 weeks at the top of the rankings, just to name a few. His skill level is unprecedented and unparalleled in the men’s game, and he made use of every tool in his arsenal in that opening frame.

An easy win, right? Not in Federer’s head — he knows Kevin Anderson is not the kind of player to just roll over.

“The matches I have played against him I know can be extremely close always,” Federer said of Anderson, “just because of the sheer possibilities he had on the serve”

One such match was at Wimbledon in 2018, when Federer held a sizeable lead over the South African big man at two sets to love. The first and second went the way of the Swiss maestro 6-2 and 7-6(3), respectively, and he looked to be cruising to yet another Wimbledon semifinal.

Anderson won the match 2-6, 6(3)-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.

Suffice it to say the 2017 US Open and 2018 Wimbledon finalist had built beachfront property in Federer’s head by way of that stunning comeback. When Anderson wanted an inch this time, Federer barely budged — fearful of becoming his prey once again.

The opening game of the second set last almost 14 minutes. That is more than half of the first set, as Federer and Anderson battled at deuce, trading game points and break points as the former pushed the latter on his serve yet again. A fourth straight break was the result of Federer’s continued pressure. 14 minutes of hard work had paid off as he wiped out most of the hope that existed for Anderson to turn the match around.

Anderson did manage to get one break back to get back on serve at 3-all. But Federer was relentless, getting his fifth and final break off an errant forehand from Anderson to set up a chance to serve for the match — which he would do, moving on to his seventh Miami Open semifinal.

On Friday night, he will play the young Canadian, No. 20 seed Denis Shapovalov, in that seventh semifinal. The two have never met, but Shapovalov has idolized the superstar since he began playing the sport, and has gotten the chance to practice with him on occasion. Federer didn’t hold back in his admiration for the young gunner.

“I’m very excited to be playing against Denis,” Federer said. “I think he’s a great guy, and he’s one of the great shot-makers. I still remember watching his game in Montreal [in 2017] against Rafa when he crushed forehand down-the-line winner after forehand down-the-line winner. It was unbelievable… so it’s going to be tough tomorrow.”

Shapovalov will without question aim to hit those same winners against his idol, but until Federer decides the game isn’t for him anymore, he will be the favorite to win.

Sometimes in only 26 minutes and 51 seconds. That’s about as flawless it gets.

Barty vs. Kontaveit Preview: Finesse Against Power


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — No. 12 seed Ashleigh Barty and No. 21 seed Anett Kontaveit will be the first out on court Thursday to decide who will play in the final of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú. The match is scheduled to begin at 1:00PM ET.

A contrast of styles will be on display in the early afternoon on Stadium Court. It will be a big game versus a crafty game. Flat and hard across from slice and dice. Hit hard for every point compared to work hard for every point. Power against finesse.

Anett Kontaveit has worked hard to achieve the distinction of being a Miami Open finalist. Quietly and in the shadow of a sea of rising and falling talent in the women’s game who have been brasher and flashier, the Estonian has risen into the top 15 of the world rankings. In 2018, she had herself a year to remember, reaching the fourth round of two Grand Slams, the semis in Rome, and the final at the Wuhan Open.

She has been a tough out this entire tournament, going the distance in three of her four matches in Miami. Her one reprieve — a fourth round match against Bianca Andreescu that ended two games into the second set when an exhausted and fatigued Andreescu retired with a shoulder injury. The reigning champ in Indian Wells was the third straight big-hitter Kontaveit had faced, after overcoming Amanda Anisimova and Ajla Tomljanovic in tight matches. Maybe her strike-first style of play only matches up against similar styles — then came Hsieh Su-wei.

The fiendish No. 27 seed worked Kontaveit all around the court, exposing her explosive shot-making prowess and continually getting the better of the 23-year-old. But Kontaveit dug herself out of each and every hole she was put in, coming back from 1-5 down in the third set to advance.

Enter Barty, a crafty yet more conventional player than Hsieh. Her slice game is perhaps unrivaled in the women’s game, and compared by the most recent to fall to it — Petra Kvitova — to some of the best in the men’s game.

Barty breezed through her first two rounds in Miami, beating Dayana Yastremska and compatriot Sam Stosur in straight sets each, losing only eight games compared to the 24 she won. Things got a little tougher against No. 7 seed Kiki Bertens in the fourth round, but Barty engineered a comeback to win in three sets.

Then came the most difficult challenge yet — a third meeting with Kvitova this year alone. The No. 3 seed had beaten her twice in January, both matches taking place in Barty’s home country of Australia. But despite being down 1-5 in the first set tiebreak, and despite getting walloped in the second set 6-3, Barty continued to frustrate and take the racket out of the hands of the powerful Czech, scoring her first win against the two-time WImbledon Champ.

Kontaveit and Barty, each assured a new career-high ranking come Monday, will be fighting for even more — a Miami Open final and an affirmation of either power trumping finesse, or finesse undoing power.

Their semifinal matchup is the second head-to-head match between the two, having encountered each other in the third round of qualifying for the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, which Kontaveit won in three sets. Suffice it to say that match will have little relevance going into Thursday, as a lot has undoubtedly changed in the last five years for both players.

A lot will continue to change for these young tennis stars, both on the cusp of the biggest stage they have ever commanded. What a match it should be.

Felix Auger-Aliassime: From Qualifier to Miami Open Semifinalist


By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — Continuing his miraculous run, qualifier Felix Auger-Aliassime has secured a spot in the semifinals of the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itau. The 18-year-old defeated No. 11 seed Borna Coric late Wednesday night to advance, upsetting the Croatian to win, 7-6(3), 6-2.

A product of Tennis Canada’s National Tennis Centre, Auger-Aliassime joins the ranks of young Canadian players who are flocking to the top of the game — Bianca Andreescu and Denis Shapovalov among them. Auger-Aliassime scored his first major upset at Indian Wells two weeks ago, shocking 2019 Australian Open semifinalist and fellow NextGen star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. Who knew that was setting the stage for an even bigger run for the Quebec native?

“It puts a lot of belief in tennis in Canada,” Auger-Aliassime told the press afterwards. “I think all the Canadian players from the young kids to Denis and Bianca and I, there is a lot of belief right now, so it's great to see.”

The Montreal-born, Quebec City-raised player relied heavily on belief as the match was a thrilling draw throughout the entire first set, with exhilarating baseline rallies exchanged between the two young righties — often dictated by the younger Auger-Aliassime. A trade of breaks kept the two on serve until the first set tiebreak, when the technically-sound game of Borna Coric unraveled. He double faulted to give the mini break to Auger-Aliassime, who did not look back and was now half of the way to his first Masters 1000 semifinal.

“I think I'm really serving well,” said Auger-Aliassime when asked about his performances recently in tiebreaks, “so I think it's putting pressure on them. Seeing he double-faulted once in a tiebreak and missed a couple of groundstrokes that maybe he wouldn't normally.”

The second set, Coric’s problems only magnified. Auger-Aliassime’s power gave the 22-year-old fits and he racked up 38 unforced errors to only 16 winners, incredibly uncharacteristic of Coric and making it impossible for him to win. Auger-Aliassime was even surprised out how he opened up the match.

“I expected more, a set like in the first. But the second really surprised me. I felt like I had margin over him, had a bit of an edge. I just felt really comfortable out there from the first balls.”

Being comfortable will be a blessing when he plays in his semifinal on Friday, because his opponent is looking might comfortable as well. Auger-Aliassime will take on No. 7 seed and defending champion John Isner, who has managed to recreate his run to the title in 2018 thus far and hasn’t dropped a set yet in 2019.

On playing Isner, Auger-Aliassime said, “Obviously I think maybe I'll have to adjust my return position,” in reference to Isner’s big serve. “From there, you know, just focus on myself, what I have to do first, and then figure out a way to break him.”

If Auger-Aliassime can find a way to consistently pressure and break Isner’s often-impregnable serve to reach the Miami Open final, the tennis world should be on alert for this kid from Quebec who wasn’t even born at the turn of the century — if it isn’t on alert already.