Monte-Carlo Masters: Shapovalov falls but Fognini scores marathon win over Rublev
Also wins for Daniil Medvedev, David Goffin, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Roberto Bautista Agut
Denis Shapovalov turned 20 on opening Monday at the sun-drenched Monte-Carlo Country Club and, it so happened, entered the first clay Masters of the year ranked at a career-high 20, with a seeding of 15.
A year ago, he was ranked 45 in Monaco, and although he lost in the first round, he would reach his second Masters semi-final in Madrid. He arrived this year on the back of another Masters semi finish in Miami to make him the youngest players in the top 20.
The young Canadian saved a match point against his opening opponent, Jan-Lennard Struff, in their only previous meeting in Tokyo last year. But Struff had made the third round of Monte-Carlo in each of the last two years, and arrived fresh from beating world No3 Alexander Zverev in Indian Wells last month.
Certainly the elegant clay court overlooking the Mediterranean did not play into the hands of the explosive and expressive game of Shapovalov, but he got the better of the more experienced German in the first set, edging a close contest after an exchange of breaks to take the opener, 7-5.
Neither man was serving particularly well, and they shared a break in the second set, too, but this time, the more consistent German got the additional break to draw level, 6-3. Shapovalov would have to rein in his game, bide his time, be more patient if he was to open space for his winning shots. But instead, he was broken in the second game of the third set, a double fault again the culprit, 0-2.
Now, the birthday boy looked anything but celebratory, his head down, his shoulders drooped. A 36th unforced error, and he conceded the next game, too. He was struggling to dig in, keep the points flowing, too often going for a big shot too soon.
Yet the Monte-Carlo crowd responded when he did pull off a backhand winner, and he roared himself on with his first game of the set, 3-1. However, Struff broke again, and served out the win with ease, 6-1, in a business-like performance in under two hours.
Struff will next meet another single-handed player, this time a rightie, in the shape of last year’s semi-finalist, the unseeded Grigor Dimitrov. Two years ago, Struff claimed his only victory against Dimitrov with a three-set win at this very tournament.
So Shapovalov was the first seed to fall, but he would not be the only one. World No17 Nikoloz Basilashvili lost to the in-form Marton Fucsovics, also in three sets, his second loss to the 37-ranked Hungarian in as many months. Fucsovics will next meet either Adrian Mannarino or Cameron Norrie.
And Shapovalov was certainly not the only young player hoping to boost their rankings this week. The 56-man draw boasts 15 players age 23 and under—as it happens, the same number as those aged over 30.
And one of them, qualifier Andrey Rublev, looked certain to beat one of the over-30s in the first round. It has been a tough year for the tall 21-year-old Russian, who missed a long section of 2018 with a lower back stress fracture. From a rank of 31, he was now at 90, but his all-court power and speed were soon in evidence again the unpredictable No13 seed Fabio Fognini.
The Italian was making his 11th straight appearance in Monte-Carlo, where he reached the semi-finals in 2013. He also had a 3-1 lead over the Russian, but Rublev picked up that one win on the red clay of Umag, and he won the first set against a lack-lustre Fognini here, too.
After a series of breaks, with Fognini bemoaning the noise of spectators enjoying their late lunch, Rublev took advantage of the Italian’s loss of focus to hold for 4-3. Fognini had made 18 errors for Rublev’s five, and a 19th brought up set point. Rublev converted with some big-strike baseline tennis, 6-4.
A still-distracted Fognini could not find consistency, and Rublev broke in the fourth game of the second set, 3-1. And the Russian began to show off a few more shots, chasing down drops, ghosting in for a volley finish, and closing out a hold with another net attack and impressive backhand volley, 4-1.
A brief visit from the physio suggested all was not right with Fognini—he now had 30 unforced errors for just 12 winners. But facing a second break at 2-4 down, Fognini fended off break points in an 11-minute battle. Could he use the momentum to probe the emotional Russian’s stickability?
Sure enough, Fognini capitalised on a loss of concentration from Rublev to break, saved break point in the next game, and levelled 4-4. What is more, he went on to grab a timely break from 5-5, and aced twice to go 40-0, three set points. An eighth double fault on the second of them rang alarm bells, but Fognini went on the attack to take the set with a smash winner, 7-5.
Fognini now had the strut of confidence, and was running Rublev the width of the court. He broke for a 2-1 lead in the third set, and held on to his lead for victory, 6-4.
So the ‘home’ favourite—and the Italian border is just a few kilometres down the coast—closed out the win after two and a half hours, and did so with one point fewer than Rublev, 105 to 106, and with 55 errors. Will he get away with such a loose start in his next match? Time will tell when he faces either another over-30 in Gilles Simon or another #NextGen hopeful in Alexi Popyrin.
One younger seeded player to cruise through was No10 Daniil Medvedev, at a personal career-high at the age of 23. He beat Joao Sousa, 6-1, 6-1, in just 55 minutes.
The 6ft 6ins Russian has won his first four titles in the last 16 months, all on hard courts. Indeed this was only his third main-tour win on clay for 11 losses. However, he is a man on the rise, in ranking and confidence, and will fancy his chances against No45-ranked Radu Albot, despite the Moldovan having won his first title last month in Delray Beach. After all, this was the Russian’s 18th match-win of the year, a tally matched only by Roger Federer so far in 2019.
A player who looked set for a residency among the top 10 at a similarly young age was David Goffin, who won his first two titles in 2014. He did rise to No7 in 2017, but his progress was knocked back by an unlucky series of injuries. After wrist surgery in 2013, he picked up an ankle injury at Roland Garros when slipping on the court covers, and last year, suffered a nasty blow in the eye during Rotterdam. To add to his woes, he got an elbow injury late last year.
But when he is fit, Goffin’s speed, footwork and tactical smartness make him one of the tour’s most formidable clay players. In 2017, he beat Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic on his way to the Monte-Carlo semis, where he was beaten by 11-time champion Rafael Nadal.
Here, he marked his 10th win at the renowned Club with a convincing 6-1, 6-4 win over qualifier Guido Andreozzi, sealing the deal with a pitch-perfect backhand, his 19th winner of the match. He next plays Dusan Lajovic, who beat Malek Jaziri, and the Serbian will pose a rather more rigorous test of Goffin’s form.
Elsewhere, 30-something Roberto Bautista Agut set a showdown with his formidable compatriot, Nadal, after battling back against John Millman, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1. And at the other end of the draw, yet another of the ‘veterans’, Philipp Kohlschreiber, advanced by beating Taro Daniel, 6-1, 6-3. And that set a replay of his recent contest against the top seed, Novak Djokovic, who he beat, 6-4, 6-4, in Indian Wells.
• Kyle Edmund lost to Diego Schwartzman, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, after leading 6-4, 3-0.