A mere three years ago, in his US Open debut, Denis Shapovalov reached the round of 16 as a fearless teenager. Today, the 21-year-old Canadian lefthander advanced to that stage for the second time. On this occasion, the 12th-seeded Shapovalov competed like a veteran to overcome a frightening situation, in three hours and 26 minutes scraping out a win over the American, 19th-seeded Taylor Fritz, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The vultures loomed over Shapovalov when Fritz served for the match in the fourth set at 5-3. In a manner evocative of Pete Sampras, the 22-year-old Fritz has one of the best serves in the game, his 6’ 4” body graced with a liquid-smooth motion that in this match saw him win 80 percent of his first serve points and hit 18 aces, including one timed at 147 mph. But in that crucial 5-3 game in the fourth, with his first serve misfiring and the footwork less sharp than earlier, Fritz was unable to take charge of the rallies.

“I worked for the match and I absolutely choked it,” said Fritz. He also noted that by this late stage, his back began to hurt, a slight tweak that arguably hindered Fritz’s movement.

Shapovalov, disposed to the big rip, opted instead in that pivotal game to employ tennis tactic 101: make the other guy play, most notably at 30-40 when he hung in through a 17-ball rally to get back on serve.

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Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz

Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz

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This was a match with two parallel plots. It began as exemplary gunslinger tennis, most notably in the first two sets, when serves lit up the skies and the vast majority of the rallies were highly staccato-like. This too summoned up the spirit of Sampras, each man capturing a single service break with the urgency of a sheriff drawing his pistol quickly at high noon.

Then came a pair of wild streaks.  Down 1-3 in the third, Fritz won ten of the next 14 games to put himself four service points away from reaching the round of 16 for the first time at a major. While Fritz’s serve was the major weapon, it was smoothly reinforced by forceful groundstrokes off both flanks, improved movement and, most strikingly, tranquility that belied the significance of the moment. This was Friday afternoon at the US Open, that sublime period when day becomes night, the event heads towards the long Labor Day weekend and commence its pivot towards the high stakes opportunities that define week two. Fritz’s body language revealed little awareness of any such consequence. As another more vivid moment would reveal, you’d think he, not Shapovalov, was the one with more big match experience.

Shapovalov was frustrated. He’d won their only two prior matches, but once that 3-0 third set lead vanished, was scarcely able to compose himself or hang with Fritz.  Five double-faults in that third set didn’t help, including one at 3-4, ad out.  Fritz served at 5-3, won the point – and Shapovalov became Denis the Menace when he hammered his racquet to the ground and broke it. Another Shapovalov double-fault at 0-1, 30-40 in the fourth seemed to seal his fate. With the efficiency of an accountant completing a tax return, Fritz continued to hold, but stumbled when the chance came to close it out.

Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz

Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz

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“It was definitely an up-and-down match,” said Shapovalov. “I feel like throughout the match there was a lot of momentum switches. I was down first, then up in the second and third, then he came back, then I broke back. It was a little bit of a seesaw there.”

The shootout resumed in the fourth set tiebreaker, each holding serve for the first eleven points. Down set point at 5-6 in the ad court, Fritz flung a great serve down the T, eliciting a weak return.  As he primed to pounce on it and whack an inside-out forehand, Shapovalov made a guess, dashed to his left and was in a perfect place to line a down-the-line forehand winner and level the match. “I just got a little bit lucky,” said Shapovalov, “I guessed the right direction on set point. I was able to hit a good forehand.”

A stunned Fritz immediately dropped serve to start the fifth and from then on, there was no stopping the Canadian, as he composed a streak of his own, winning 10 of the last 13 games. “He was bombing his serve from his least favorite spots,” said Fritz.  Said Shapovalov, “In the fifth set, I felt I had the experience the last two years losing in five sets. Felt like my opponents really raised their game, stepped up their level and intensity in that fifth set. I tried to do the same today. I felt like getting that early break, getting that good start, was critical.  I’m really happy I was able to get the win.”

Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz

Denis Shapovalov survives five-set scare against Taylor Fritz