Monte Carlo Masters: Youth and one-handed backhands have their day as Tsitsipas downs Shapovalov

Denis Shapovalov loses to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

It could become one of the rivalries of the next decade, that between two of the most exciting players striding into the tennis spotlight: Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The former celebrated his 19th birthday just as he embarked on his first appearance at the glamorous Monte-Carlo Masters, and the latter, also a debutant in the Principality, will not turn 20 until August. However, both have already been catching the eye of many tennis fans.

Both men are former junior No1s, both won Junior titles at Wimbledon in 2016—Canadian Shapovalov in singles and Tsitsipas in doubles—against Shapovalov, as it happens.

Both are expressive players with power and finesse in their games, and both possess that most lovely of shots, the one-handed backhand—a quality long regarded as a dying art but taken up with flair by the left-handed Shapovalov and the right-handed Tsitsipas.

In the rankings, Shapovalov got off to the faster start, helped by wild cards into his home Masters. A semi run in Montreal last year brought some big-name wins over Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro to launch him inside the top 100. He then rode that confidence to an impressive fourth round, via qualifying, at the US Open.

Back on North America’s hard courts this spring, he edged to 45 with a fourth-round showing in Miami, but how would he adapt to his first big tournament on clay?

Tstisipas, perhaps less physically mature than Shapovalov thus far, did however begin 2018 inside the top 100, and some good wins in Dubai and Doha meant he arrived in Monte-Carlo ranked 70.

Along the way, he played Shapovalov for the first time at the Australian Open, where the Canadian got the win in straight sets. In their second match, Tsitsipas arguably had the edge courtesy of more experience on clay—and he had come through qualifying on this very court.

So after a packed Court Rainier III had watched two-time Monte-Carlo champion and local resident, Novak Djokovic, cruise past fellow-Serb Dusan Lajovic, there was plenty of enthusiasm for the fresh-faced match-up between the two teens.

They both began well, not a point dropped on serve in three games, but then Shapovalov began to look less comfortable, rushed his shots, made errors. Tsitsipas, in contrast, plied the corners, bided his time, and ventured to the net, where his flexible single-hander landed some nice volleys. He broke, and then held, 4-1.

Shapovalov fought off break points in the sixth game, but could not convert a break-back chance in the seventh. He fired off two stunning backhand winners to earn another chance, but an ace from the Greek made it deuce, and Tsitsipas took the set, 6-3.

Shapovalov had notched up 15 unforced errors to just eight winners, and in the second set, Tsitsipas broke in the opening game courtesy of a double fault by Shapovalov, as the Canadian’s serve continued to underperform. Tsitsipas held to love, 2-0, but then the Canadian upped his intensity, and found some winners. He broke back and held with another winner, 3-2.

However, his serve again let him down, and double faults in the seventh game led to another break, and a focused Tsitsipas served out the match, 6-4.

The young Greek’s next challenge will be a very different one, played against an expert clay-court opponent, No6 seed David Goffin, who reached the semis here last year.

And talking of rivalries, the burgeoning one between Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov, who are separated by only a few months and ranking spots, took on a new look in the Principality.

Until last year, they had met only once on the tour, but then strung together five meetings, including the last of 2017. It turned into one of the best contests of the year, the title match at the World Tour Finals, and a victory for Dimitrov.

But then their next meeting, in Rotterdam this year, would also be memorable: Playing for a place in the final, Dimitrov accidentally struck a ball into Goffin’s eye, and the Belgian went on to play just one tear-inducing match, in Miami, until this week.

In Monte-Carlo, they have been drawn in the same quarter, though Goffin will have to come through Tsitsipas and either Benoit Paire or Feliciano Lopez in a tough section. Before that, however, they played together for the first time on the same side of the net, and made a top-quality start to reach the second round in straight sets.

No hard feelings, then, between two of the most popular men on the tour—and their tennis was a delight.

The singles draw, however, has scattered a clutch of new stars among former champions and veteran favourites, such that many opening match-ups pitched young guns directly against over-30s.

The only man younger than Shapovalov in the draw was fellow Canadian wild-card, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who lost out to 30-year-old Mischa Zverev.

The 30-year-old Djokovic will next play one of the most improved young players of the year, Borna Coric, who ended a three-match losing streak at Monte-Carlo with a straight-forward win over 36-year-old Julien Benneteau. It is the veteran Frenchman’s last year on the tour, and he was delayed little more than an hour by Coric.

Andrey Rublev, age just 20 and ranked 33, had a tougher encounter against 31-year-old Robin Haase, but he denied the Dutchman his 200th match win after two and a half hours, 7-6(7), 2-6, 7-5. Rublev next faces No5 seed, Dominic Thiem.

In one old-school match-up between fellow 34-year-olds, Gilles Muller put out lucky loser Florian Mayer in a swift hour and 20 minutes, and next faces Alexander Zverev—not only 14 years his junior but ranked 24 places higher.

Still to come are 31-year-old French duo, Jeremy Chardy and Richard Gasquet, and 34-year-old Fernando Verdasco versus 32-year-old Pablo Cuevas—and, of course, there will be the 10-time champion Nadal who turns 32 in June: He opens against Aljaz Bedene.

Today, however, Monte-Carlo had its card marked by the young men who hope to become future champions—and it won’t be too long.

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