Before that, either Dan Evans or Kyle Edmund, both top 50 players, had to win one of the remaining singles rubbers against two Canadians ranked considerably lower: Vasek Pospisil, 133, or 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov, ranked 234 and with just four ATP main-tour matches to his name.
Up first was Evans, at a career-high ranking after a final run in Sydney and making the fourth round of the Australian Open. At just 5ft 9in, Evans’ fellow 26-year-old towered over him at 6ft 4in, but the Briton and his crafty, all-court game had the capability to unpick Pospisil’s big serve, volley and forehand tennis—and that was without taking into account two long matches and a leg injury for the Canadian.
Pospisil had, though, bounced back in his confidence and form from a desperate slump. In 2013, the Canadian had made the semis of his home Masters in Montreal, pressed Roger Federer to 7-5 in the deciding set in the semis in Basel, rose to No25 in the rankings at the start of 2014, and went on to win the Wimbledon doubles title with Jack Sock.
Even a year ago, Pospisil was ranked 39, but then would lose 13 first-round matches and end the year not even making it through qualifying in four tournaments. He lost in the first round of qualies at the Australian Open last week, too, so Davis Cup competition was pouring balm onto his wounded tennis, and that would show again in the three and half hour fourth rubber.
Evans hustled from the off, and fired a stunner of a backhand down the line to get a quick break. He held for 3-1, and then had two more points for a double break. Pospisil, with taping to his left knee, was missing his key weapon, his big first serve, but he survived a long hold, and all at once, that serve kicked in—he would make 14 out of the next 15 points on serve—and he broke back to edge a 4-3 lead.
Evans’ serve was also performing well, and so they headed to a tie-break, where Pospisil’s attacking tennis saw him change ends at 4-2. Evans won just one more point, and the Canadian, playing some volleys worthy of a doubles champion, sealed the set, 7-6(3).
The second set brought three straight breaks of serve, but with the advantage going to Pospisil, 3-2. Evans twice got the first two points against the Canadian’s serve, but Pospisil hit big, and by the time he served for the second set, he had 12 aces to his name.
He missed his opening three first serves, and faced two break-back points, but a clutch of huge serves saved the set, 6-4, when Evans chipped a backhand into the net.
Pospisil made a tense start to the third set, and for the fourth time, he went 0-30 down, but Evans could not capitalise on several second serves as the Canadian boldly came to the net. Not only that, Evans lost concentration, Pospisil went on the offensive, and broke to love.
The Canadian’s serve was still off the boil, with few first serves finding the mark, and then a double fault offered up a break point in the fourth game, annulled by a 15th ace. A 16th saved another break point, and he held for 3-1.
In the sixth game, though, Pospisil double faulted twice, and handed the break back. His serve continued to slide, with barely half hitting the mark, and as a result, his volleys deteriorated too. Evans broke for 5-3, and the British run continued to five straight games for the set, 6-3.
It was starting to look bad for the Canadians: If this went to a fifth, the fitness of Pospisil, especially in his third consecutive day of competition, would be sorely tested.
The Canadian did not recover his serve until 0-2 down in the fourth, then suddenly produced three straight aces—his first since going 3-1 up in the third set. Since then, Evans had strung together seven straight games: Now the flood was stemmed, the Canadian broke to level, and held to regain the lead, 4-3.
A double fault from Evans then gifted break point, but Pospisil could not convert it, even by hurling himself on the ground. The Briton had to save another, but he dug in, 4-4, and went after Pospisil’s serve for a break point of his own. The Canadian played perhaps the point of the match, finishing with a touch angled volley, and pressed Evans hard at 6-5 up, too, but the Briton resisted the pressure: It would be another tie-break.
This time, they changed ends with Evans up 4-2, but two great returns and a forehand winner onto the line, and Canada took back the lead. Serving at 6-5, Pospisil produced one last big serve to draw a final error from Evans and win the rubber, 7-6(5).
So the tall Canadian who had struggled to win matches for almost a year had won both his singles rubbers, played three consecutive days, and spent eight and a half hours on court. All that, and he had only decided to play Evans at the very last moment:
“Last night I had particularly good treatment. It was a very last-minute decision and it proved to be a good one. I was very tired but wasn’t having any pain.”
However, could the youthful exuberance and inexperience of Shapovalov steal this tie in the decider against the older and wiser—though still just 22—Edmund?
Fortunately for GB, Edmund was fully focused after playing a loose and error-strewn opener against Pospisil on Friday. The young Canadian is an exciting and unconventional player—single-handed off the left wing, attacking the net, leaping around the court like, well, a teenager—and it takes a cool and confident game to calm things down.
Edmund did just that, breaking for 5-3, and acing for the set, 6-3. And by the time the clock had reached an hour, Edmund was about to conclude the second set, as well, breaking Shapovalov, 6-4.
So the Briton was well on the way to victory, especially after taking a swift break for 2-1 in the third. But in a shocking turn of events, the teenager thumped a frustrated ball into the crowd, only to catch the umpire in the eye in the process. And there is only one conclusion to any strike of a person on or around a tennis court—accidental or not—and that is an immediate default.
So rather sooner than expected, GB had confirmed a quarter-final tie against France, but it was left to Shapovalov’s compatriots to sum up the unexpected conclusion to this tie.
First the Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau: “There is always a lesson to be learned from the good moments and the worst moments. If [Denis] wants to compete at this level, he has to keep it together. Emotional control is the biggest factor in this game.”
And then the valiant Pospisil tweeted: “No one is nicer or carries themselves better for a 17 y/o than Shapovalov. Everyone can see that today was an accident. Can happen to anyone.”
It is unlikely ever to happen again.
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