The demise of the one-handed backhand has been predicted for many years, and yet as the bottom half of the draw in Florida competed for a place in the last 32, eight of the men wielded their racket with one hand.
And while there have been some famous veteran adherents to the shot—Major champions Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka among them, each competing for their second third-round meeting in a fortnight—the good news for fans of the single-handed backhand was that it shone brightly among two of the brightest and best young stars.
Both 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas and 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov—right-handed and left-handed respectively—were seeded. Both grew up idolising Federer, both had developed big-time single-handers and the net game to go with it.
First up on first Saturday was No20 seed, Canadian Shapovalov, and as luck would have it, he faced an old-school style of one-hander in the shape of Briton Daniel Evans.
They had met two years ago, with Evans winning his Davis Cup rubber over the then 17-year-old, but Shapovalov had since rocketed up the ranks, knocked off two Masters semis, and promised a lot more to come with his exuberant, athletic and crowd-pleasing tennis.
On paper, Evans was way out of the Canadian’s league, ranked 97, and just 6-3 on the main tour this season. That hid another story, however. A year ago, Evans was yet to complete a ban, was outside the top 1,000, and with an uncertain future on the tour. But clearly, absence made the heart grow fonder: Evans returned with an enhanced work ethic and desire. He knocked off Challengers, via qualifying, to work back to fitness and edged up the ranks.
This season, he mixed main-tour qualifying with Challengers, beat John Isner on his way to his second career final in Delray Beach, falling short of his debut title in a final-set tie-breaker. He had, in short, 30+ matches under his belt, and took full advantage of his lucky loser spot in Miami to beat Malek Jaziri in the first round. But Shapovalov was a different prospect.
Evans looked in trouble in the second game, with two doubles faults and two break points, but survived his opening service. Shapovalov, meanwhile, cruised through his first two serves without dropping a point.
But already, this was a lively, fast-moving game, with both players able and willing to come forward, both able to exploit the angled sliced backhand to great effect to move their opponent around, and produce a wide-swinging kick serve.
There was a real contrast of single-handed backhands, too: Shapovalov a huge, exaggerated swing, Evans a more elegant, contained sweep of a shot.
The Canadian, though, can throw a bigger, full-body swing at the forehand, and in the fifth game, he over-hit a couple of them to bring up break point. He saved it with a perfect touch volley, but could not pull off the same trick as Evans returned serve to the Shapovalov feet: The Briton had the first break.
And by the time Evans served for the match, the Canadian was becoming frustrated by the variety, the spin and the high-bouncing serve to his forehand. His errors mounted, and though he had 13 winners, he had 15 unforced errors, the last on set point, 6-4 to Evans. The Briton? A smart, controlled four and four: He had applied intelligent and well-executed pressure, a mix of touch and penetration, and a reminder of just what a talent Evans is.
The second set saw a regrouped Shapovalov willing to extend rallies, bide his time to come to the net, and finally earn a break point. A long baseline exchange put increasing pressure on Evans, as the Canadian backhand forced him wide, and finally he got the required error, a break, 2-0.
Shapovalov had to stay alert and accurate, because Evans’ defensive ability with such fine slice at his disposal was testing the Canadian. But it did not inhibit his forward movement, and Shapovalov came in to make his 12th volley winner to hold off a deuce threat in the third game.
Evans was not intimidated: he raced in to pick up a short ball and made a smash winner. A near repeat took it to deuce again, and a backhand exchange down the line had the crowd on its feet.
But now Evans needed the physio: He had overextended his ankle chasing forward for a drop shot, and would need almost seven minutes of work on his Achilles before returning, 0-3 down.
A quick hold, and the Briton applied pressure with some great defensive returns that produced two overhead errors from Shapovalov. But credit to the teenager: He came into the net on every subsequent point, four of them, for the hold, 4-1. He broke, courtesy of a couple of blistering returns down the line, and was now firing on all cylinders: a backhand winner here, a swinging serve there, a cross-court backhand winner to finish, and a love hold sealed the set, 6-1.
Shapovalov’s 12 winners, six errors, and 10/11 at the net told the story of the set: Greater control over his power, but the same bold, attacking tactics.
Evans was not deterred, opened with an easy hold, and stood toe-to-toe against a Shapovalov who was really firing down his backhand. The Briton saved a break point in the third game with a cross-court pass, but one more stunning backhand return of serve gave the Canadian another chance, and he took it, 2-1, almost 20 minutes into the set.
Shapovalov showed all his speed and athleticism, and two volley winners, to resist break points for 4-2, and Evans was unable again to find a way through the Canadian serve. The teenager served out the win, 6-3, after almost two hours.
Meanwhile, on Stadium Court, the 33-year-old No30 seed, Wawrinka, was deep into his first ever contest against Filip Krajinovic, and broke to love for the first set, 7-5, after leading it 4-1.
But Krajinovic got an early break in the second and held for 3-1. The Serbian, ranked outside the top 100 after playing just seven tournaments last year due to injury, was ranked 26 a year ago, and that quality was coming to the fore. He broke Wawrinka again, and then levelled the match, 6-2.
But the third set became unpredictable as, first, Krajinovic needed treatment for blisters on his heel, and then Wawrinka—still working his own way back to his former top-three level after double knee surgery—called the trainer mid-game for an ankle problem.
However, both continued, and Wawrinka broke in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead. It did not last, an immediate break back, and then a tough road towards a tie-break after Krajinovic twice failed to take advantage of break points.
Come the final game, and the Swiss pile-driver backhand broke holes in the Serbian serve to take a 5-2 lead, but patience and accuracy from Krajinovic began to draw errors from Wawrinka, one after the other. Indeed the Swiss did not win another point, as a final forehand went wide, and the Serb scored his big victory, 7-6(5).
He will next play the winner between No4 seed Federer and Radu Albot, who won his first title just weeks back in Delray Beach.
No31 Steve Johnson lost to Joao Sousa, 7-6(6), 6-4, while Jordan Thompson put out No10 seed Karen Khachanov, 6-2, 6-3. And single-hander Leonardo Mayer beat No26 seed Guido Pella, 6-2, 6-4.
No18 seed David Goffin beat Pablo Andujar, 6-4, 6-1 to set a meeting with No14 seed Marco Cecchinato, who got a walk-over to the third round.
Roger Federer beat Radu Albot 4-6, 7-5, 6-3. Grigor Dimitrov beat Feliciano Lopez 6-1, 6-3. Kevin Anderson beat Juame Munar 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Mackenzie McDonald 7-6(4) 6-1.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge