Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime: Traveling the bumpy road to top of ATP
“Woah, Canada” and “She the North” have been two of the surprise themes of the 2019 tennis season. Last month at the US Open, 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu became the first player from that country to win a Grand Slam title, while her fellow upstarts on the men’s side, Felix Auger-Aliassime, 19, and Denis Shapovalov, 20, have established themselves as potential major champions of the future.
But even as Andreescu has shot straight to the top of the WTA rankings in the course of one season, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime have traveled harder and bumpier roads. Both hit another bump in their second-round matches at the Shanghai Rolex Masters on Wednesday: Auger-Aliassime lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas for the first time, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3); Shapovalov lost to Novak Djokovic for the third straight time, 6-3, 6-3.
There’s no shame in losing to either of those opponents, obviously. Tsitsipas is in the Top 10, and was bound to find a way beat Auger-Aliassime someday; and Djokovic is Djokovic. But that’s what makes rising up the pro-tour ranks so tough. Auger-Aliassime is currently No. 19, and Shapovalov has been as high as No. 20, yet each of them was playing a higher-ranked and more-accomplished opponent in the second round. In some ways, the two Canadians could walk away satisfied, or at least relieved, that they had made it through one round. There are no easy outs at a Masters 1000 event.
For Shapovalov, it was his lack of consistency and inability to make inroads with his return that doomed him. When Djokovic needed a point, he could direct his serve into Shapovalov’s one-handed backhand, or dig in from the baseline and force him to make—or miss—one more ball. For Auger-Aliassime, the problem came at the same moment in each set: After reaching 3-3 in both tiebreakers, he couldn’t win another point. Auger-Aliassime does everything well, but can he lift his game when necessary? It’s far too early to say he’ll never find another gear or develop an unplayable weapon, but it is an issue that Alexander Zverev has struggled with against highly-ranked opponents.
The bigger issue for both of these guys, and for the Next Gen in general, seems to be the length of the season. Even the best young players today tend to go through periods of blazing, seemingly breakout success, only to follow it with a month or two of burnout. Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime are no different; it must feel as if they’ve played three or four seasons’ worth of tennis since January.
Auger-Aliassime had a brilliant first half of the year, reaching the final in Rio on clay, the semis in Miami on hard courts, and the final of Stuttgart on grass. Since Cincinnati, though, when he said he felt “emotionally drained” after playing in his hometown of Montreal the previous week, Auger-Aliassime’s momentum has stalled. He lost in the first round in Cincinnati, Chengdu, and at the US Open, and went out in two quick sets to Zverev last week in Beijing.
Shapovalov’s season has been largely been the reverse of his countryman’s. From April to August, he went 4-11, and lost to Ricardas Berankis in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon. But after starting to work with Mikhail Youzhny over the summer, Shapovalov’s results have improved. He made the semis in Winston-Salem and Chengdu, and lost an entertaining five-setter to Gael Monfils at the US Open.
Tsitsipas, Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Karen Khachanov, Alex de Minaur: They’ve all traveled through similar peaks and valleys in recent years. Just when you think one of them is destined to be the next No. 1, or the next Slam winner, or a future Top 5 player, they go through a dip. Winning breeds confidence, but it also breeds exhaustion.
To date, none of the ATP’s Next Gen have taken, or been able to take, their scheduling cues from the Big 3, who can afford to focus on the Grand Slams and Masters events. Nadal, for example, has played just 13 tournaments in 2019 and generated 9,225 ranking points, while Tsitsipas has played 23 tournaments and generated 3,370 points. Right now, Medvedev is latest hope for the future; his run of final-round appearances this summer took him all the way to No. 4 in the world. We’ll see if the Russian can stay in that rarefied air long enough to join the tour’s permanent elite.
To Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, the 2019 season, with its constant transitions from surface to surface and continent to continent, may already feel as if it’s gone on forever. But there’s still another month left, and another trip from Asia to Europe. Tennis seasons have always been long, of course, but the path to the top of the men’s game seems steeper than ever. The two Canadians are climbing it the only way they can—one week at a time.