It wasn’t a one-man show but Félix Auger-Aliassime certainly deserves the lion’s share of credit for Canada facing Australia for the championship in Sunday’s Davis Cup by Rakuten final.
He was key in Canada winning through the Finals group stage in September in Valencia – scoring two wins in singles (Carlos Alcaraz and Miomir Kecmanovic) as well as a pair of hair-raising doubles victories with Vasek Pospisil.
In this week’s Finals in Malaga he has twice won his No. 1 singles match, defeating Germany’s Oscar Otte on Thursday and then Saturday beating Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti – and then going out and clinching the tie 2-1 with Pospisil in a 7-6(2), 7-5 doubles victory over Italians Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini. And that was as a last-minute replacement for Denis Shapovalov who had played three hours and 14 minutes in an opening singles 7-6(4), 6-7(6), 6-4 loss to Lorenzo Sonego.
At 22 and with his current world ranking of No. 6, Auger-Aliassime has grown by leaps and bounds in maturity and confidence in 2022, a year in which he won his first ATP Tour title (Rotterdam) and then added three more – in Florence, Antwerp and Basel.
In his singles wins over Otte and Musetti – 6-3, 6-4 on Saturday – he competed with a self-assurance well beyond his years. He has now played 28 matches (22-6) since the US Open and has to be feeling some end-of-season fatigue. But he hasn’t shown it.
Against Musetti, he served sublimely – winning 91 per cent (30/33) of first-serve points – and didn’t face a break point. In the doubles, he hit a spectacular return to break Berrettini and get back on serve in the sixth game of the opening set. There also were numerous examples of his masterful play from the baseline and at the net, but maybe what stands out most was what happened when he served for the match in the final game of the doubles. Finding himself at 15-40, two break points for the Italians to force a tiebreak, he cancelled them in the best way possible – an ace followed by another ace. Two points later and an errant Berrettini service return (see picture at top) sailed past him and Canada was into its second Davis Cup final (also 2019 in Madrid) in four years.
Auger-Aliassime needed just an hour and 24 minutes to defeat the No. 23-ranked Musetti and later said, “luckily my singles went perfectly for me – not getting broken, a straight-forward match, just like we like them as players. That went well and I felt good in the doubles. It’s always good to play with Vasek and the team on the bench was great. I just feel that in Davis Cup there’s no time to get tired. You have to look at the effort Denis gave today, going three hours but never showing any signs of fatigue or giving up. So that’s the kind of spirit you want. I think the whole team is locked into the main goal.”
Shapovalov was not as consistent as he would have liked in his singles but fought hard. After losing the first set in a tiebreak, he rallied from 5-2 down in the second-set tiebreak to force a final set. In the third set, he had a medical time-out trailing 2-1 to have his right lower back massaged but seemed to then play in minimal discomfort. He had three break points at 3-all in the third set but Sonego held firm. In the end, Shapovalov had a terrible game serving at 4-5 – double-faulting on three of the final four points, including on Sonego’s first match point.
He will have regrets about only converting on one of his 13 break-point chances while Sonego was 2/5, and later said, “it was a tough one for me to lose, for the team. I left everything out there today. Sonego was just too good. I had a lot of opportunities but he was playing big – coming up with some big forehands, some big serves in important times. So, credit to him. He’s won titles, he’s beaten top players – it showed why.”
Before the deciding doubles match, both teams altered their previously-announced pairings. Filippo Volandri explained why Berrettini replaced Simone Bolelli, who had paired with Fognini for an impressive win over Jack Sock and Tommy Paul of the USA on Thursday.
“Simone couldn’t play because of an injury,” the Italian team captain said. “So yesterday we kept him on the box (i.e. on the bench) and asked Matteo to try to be ready for today in case we had to play the doubles. He decided to try to be there and he practiced twice yesterday and he practiced for long this morning and he was ready.” A foot injury had been bothering Berrettini, who was the weak link in the Italian duo. He was playing for the first time since the ATP 250 event in Naples in mid-October.
As for the Canadian change from Shapovalov to Auger-Aliassime, captain Frank Dancevic said, “Vasek plays amazing with both Denis and Félix, so it’s not really a big surprise that either guy plays with him. Denis just played a really long match today. Félix was more fresh and was feeling great on court. So that was sort of the thought going into the decision. Denis really left his heart out there today – played a three-hour and 15-minute match. It was tough having him come back for doubles today when Félix was fresh. We have that option on our team, which is amazing.”
Pospisil, a diehard Davis Cup competitor playing in his 27th tie since 2008, now has a 14-10 record in doubles. While he wasn’t as fast out of the gate as Auger-Aliassime, and lost his serve twice during the match, he was stellar – raising his level to match his partner as the match went
“When we went down a break early, there was no time to get negative when you’re playing Davis Cup, and when it’s a deciding match,” Pospisil said. “In both sets we broke back very quickly after we were broken. I thought we played at a really high level throughout the whole match. We were very synchronized.”
Auger-Aliassime added, “we faced situations like this in Valencia – and again I think it’s the attitude. We got broken. We could have gotten frustrated with the way we missed some shots. We bounced back really well with the right attitude. That’s what got us through in both sets.”
In Sunday’s final at the Palacio de Desportes José Maria Martin Carpena in Malaga, Canada will face Australia, a country that has the second most Davis Cup titles in history – 28 behind the United States’ 32. The countries met in Madrid in 2019 with Canada winning 2-1. Prior to that, their last meeting was 55 years earlier at the Mount Royal Tennis Club in Montreal in 1964 when the visitors were led by eventual multiple Grand Slam singles titles champions Roy Emerson and John Newcombe.
At 1 p.m. in Malaga (7 a.m. ET in Canada) Canada will take on an Aussie squad captained by Lleyton Hewitt and featuring No. 24-ranked Alex de Minaur, No. 84 Jordan Thompson and No. 95 Thanasi Kokkinakis in singles.
Auger-Aliassine will likely play de Minaur and he is 1-0 head-to-head with the 23-year-old from Sydney – a 6-3, 6-2 victory in Cincinnati in August. But they are well-acquainted dating back to their days in the juniors
Shapovalov, who indicated post-matches on Saturday that he will be fit and able to play – has not faced either Kokkinakis or Thompson, both of whom have played one singles match so far for Australia.
The Australian’s only tie involving doubles in Malaga was against Croatia on Friday and Hewitt selected No. 33-ranked Max Purcell and No. 466 Thompson. But just about any player could be chosen including No. 15 Kokkinakis and No. 26 Matt Ebden.
Canada now gets its second chance since its joined the Davis Cup competition in 1913 to hoist the silver salad bowl first donated in 1900 for matches between the United States and the British Isles by a young Harvard student named Dwight Davis.
Again, a lot of Canadian hopes will rest on Auger-Aliassime. “It’s been a special journey, a special year,” he said reflecting on his team’s 2022 campaign. “I felt like once we got on the board in Valencia in the group stage, there was a special energy about the team. I think this is the most complete team we’ve had in the history of Canadian tennis and I feel that we deserve to be in this position now. I’ve said it many times throughout the years that this is one of the goals for all of the guys, to go far and win it all. And I’m really proud of everybody’s effort. It has been a great journey. Tomorrow (Sunday) is the last day of Davis Cup this year – so we’re ready to give it all.”
NOTE: Canada vs Australia will be carried on Sportsnet ONE beginning at 7 a.m. ET on Sunday.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak