One year ago, the elegant tournament in Stockholm won the ATP250 Tournament of the Year Award. And the title was won by the then 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The brilliant Greek with the explosive single-handed game had already made his mark through the season with finals in Barcelona and at the Montreal Masters, but this was his first main-tour title. He went on, this season, to reach the Australian Open semis, his second Masters final, and a ranking of No5.
And this year, it was the turn of the leftie single-hander, another 20-year-old with an uninhibited, attacking game: Denis Shapovalov.
The young Canadian reached his third Masters semi-final in Miami—and only Nadal has reached more Masters semis as a teenager. That took him to No20 before his 20th birthday—yet as is so often the case for a player of profligate skills and ambition, the rise would not follow a smooth upward trajectory: Seven first-round losses, six more second-round losses through the rest of the year.
And by the time he opened in Stockholm, he had reached a total of seven semi-finals and won none of them, but as he faced the No60-ranked Filip Krajinovic, he had already passed one milestone: He was into his first final.
“I’ve played a lot of semis, it feels like, so it’s really exciting to be into my first final. I’ve had some bad luck, some tough matches in the semis. But on the other side, making the semi-finals is a good sign, so I knew sooner or later the win was going to come, so I’ve stayed pretty patient.”
And the young Canadian stole an early and aggressive march in the final with a break in the third game, and he aced to consolidate it, 3-1.
Krajinovic began to serve more confidently, but there was no breaking through some outstanding service games from Shapovalov: nine aces, 15/17 of first serves won, not a break point faced. He served out the set, 6-4, in just 37 minutes.
Shapovalov had beaten Yuichi Sugita in the semis in 77 minutes, and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in the quarters, 6-0, 6-3, in a scant 48 minutes. It had, in fact, been a similar story the whole week, with not a set dropped.
And it looked as though that would not change in the second set, as an 11th ace sealed Shapovalov’s opening game. However, Krajinovic’s all-court skills began to flourish as he took the initiative with some net charges and nice volley finishes.
It earned him a first break chance in the fourth game, but he could not convert. And suddenly, the explosive backhand of the Canadian shot a cross-court winner for his own break chances—two of them.
The forehand let him down, and again Krajinovic stormed the net, but it would take the Serb eight minutes and another fine drop volley to hold.
However, come Shapovalov’s next chance, at 4-4, he upped the pace, hit the lines, and got the break. He would serve for his first title—and he did it with style. He was Stockholm champion, 6-4, with just two first serves dropped, and exactly a year after Tsitsipas won his first title on the very same court.
This most grounded and charming of young players always promised to become a champion. More than two years ago, it showed in his eye-catching break-out run through the US Open Series—a semi finish at his home Masters in Montreal via Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, followed by six match-wins through qualifying to the fourth round of the US Open.
The route to this first title has perhaps been circuitous, but never dull, and if the evidence of last year’s Stockholm winner is anything to go by, this could prove to be the stepping-stone to much more. Shapovalov certainly hopes so:
“I hope it’s a good sign—it’s definitely a big step for me, as someone who struggled to get past the semi-finals. So to lift my first title here in Stockholm is incredible for me. Hopefully, I can take it far—because all of the names up there [on the winners’ board] are unbelievable players, so hopefully I can back that up as well.”
At the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, the home-town player Andrey Rublev, won his second career title against Adrian Mannarino, 6-4, 6-0. on his 22nd birthday. He will rise to a career-high No22 this week.
In Antwerp, Andy Murray beat Stan Wawrinka, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, for his first title in two and a half years, nine months after hip surgery threatened to end his career.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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