The Major Takeaway: Shapovalov slips past Sinner in opening-night bout

The Major Takeaway: Shapovalov slips past Sinner in opening-night bout

“Win or lose,” Shapovalov said, “this is one of the matches I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

Many times the most-anticipated match on any given day at a Grand Slam isn’t the one that ends up lingering in our minds the longest. But the opposite turned out to be true of Denis Shapovalov’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win over Jannik Sinner on Monday in Melbourne. According to the winner, it was a night he wouldn’t forget any time soon.

“Win or lose,” Shapovalov said, “this is one of the matches I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

After a day of routine, form-holding results at the Australian Open, the deck was properly cleared for these two Next Gen talents—Shapovalov is 21, Sinner is 19—to face off for the first time. By the start of the second set, they had the stage to themselves at Melbourne Park, and they proceeded to stay on it for three hours and 55 minutes, and keep the crowd in Margaret Court Arena entertained well past midnight. While the stands weren’t allowed to be full, this was the largest audience that had gathered to see a match at a major in more than 12 months. Shapovalov and Sinner helped us remember what we had been missing from late-night tennis.

It wasn’t just the age of the Canadian and the Italian that made this an intriguing match-up. It was also the clear contrasts in their games and demeanors. Shapovalov is left-handed, uses a one-handed backhand, and likes to punctuate big points with a shout—sometimes in celebration, other times in rage. Sinner is right-handed, uses a two-handed backhand, and keeps his emotions mostly to himself. Put these two players and personalities across the net from each other, and you had a contest filled with compellingly tactical push-and-pull rallies, and momentum that swung from one player to the other every few games.

Sinner controlled the points with his steadier ground strokes until midway through the second set, when Shapovalov broke. From there, the Canadian ran away with the second and third sets, and went up a break early in the fourth. Sinner, who had won a tournament final the previous day, looked gassed and on his last legs. Instead of wilting, though, the teenager rallied. He broke with a big forehand at 2-3, and broke again at 4-5 with another series of big forehands to push the match to a fifth set.

Now it was Shapovalov’s turn to defy momentum, and his own mood. After spending the better part of a changeover complaining to the chair umpire about not being allowed to go to the bathroom, Shapovalov hung tough enough to win the most important game of the match. With Sinner serving at love-all in the fifth, the Canadian stubbornly fought off several game points with brilliant forehand winners, and after five deuces, cashed in with what would would turn out to be the decisive break. 

Getty Images: Shapovalov complains to the chair umpire over not being able to take a bathroom break.

“There were some difficult points, especially the first game in the fifth set,” said Sinner, who recognized the importance of that moment. “He returned some good points. Then he served quite well.”

Shapovalov, who finished with 12 aces and used his wide hook in the ad court to maximum effect all night, served just well enough to make that early break hold up. The moment of truth for both players came, as expected, at 5-4. 

At first, each let his nerves get the better of him. On his first match point, Shapovalov made a reckless dash to the net, and badly missed a volley. A minute later, with a chance at a break point, Sinner played his return too safely, in the middle of the court, and allowed Shapovalov to take control of the rally. Finally, on his second match point, Shapovalov lined up a forehand, pulled the trigger, and put it right on the sideline for his 62nd winner, and the victory.

“Today was I think incredible tennis from both of us,” Shapovalov said. "I’m a really big fan of his game and how he is.”

The 21-year-old said he wasn’t accustomed to being the veteran on court, but that it might have helped him down the stretch. When it comes to serving out a match in a fifth set, you have to take your lumps and learn from your mistakes. 

“Of course it was different to be kind of the older guy,” he said. “I think I used that to my advantage. I was in a similar position a couple of years ago when I played Jo-Wilfried Tsonga serving for the match in the fifth set. So I’m really happy I was able to use that experience and kind of make a change for this match.”

Getty Images

As for Sinner, he was left to stagger off the court and make the long walk to the locker room alone. He said that playing a final the previous day hadn’t hurt him physically, and that he felt good about what he learned while practicing with Rafael Nadal during his quarantine before the tournament, and what he learned about the level of his game today. While he’s still ranked No. 36, he isn’t all that far from the Top 10. 

“There’s not much difference between him and me,” Sinner said of the 11th-seeded Shapovalov. “He played better during certain points. He deserved the win today.”

Shapovalov, who plays Bernard Tomic next, said he wouldn’t have been crushed if he had lost to Sinner.

“Honestly, even if I lost today, it was just so much fun to be on the court,” he said. “I felt like both of us were playing at such a great level, and it was fun to be a part of.”

Fun to play, and, for all of us who missed what late-night with an audience feels like, fun to watch. This sport may have a future, after all.