With injury and fatigue knocking out all but two men in each team, it meant that Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil, and Russians Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev had stepped up to the line for every rubber.
The Canadians conceded a walkover in their already-won tie against the USA in the round-robin phase, but topped their group after sterling singles victories over the higher-ranked Italy.
And while the explosive single-handed 20-year-old Shapovalov has climbed to No15 after an impressive end to his 2019 season, compatriot Pospisil was ranked just 153 after back surgery.
These had been hard times for the bigger, older Pospisil, for he reached a singles rank of 25 while still age 23—way back in 2014. But make no mistake: his big-serve-and-forehand combo was a big asset on the fast courts at the Caja Magica—and with a Wimbledon doubles title on his resume, he was also a valuable asset in doubles.
Not that Shapovalov lacked doubles skills: He had played almost a full season of doubles in 2019, learning his trade alongside the expert doubles veteran Rohan Bopanna.
As for the Russian duo, they had proven their worth already in the NextGen category, and now ranked 17 and 23 respectively, Khachanov and Rublev also brought zest, power and youthful passion to their country’s cause.
Rublev in particular had risen to this occasion like a penned lion, perhaps desperate to make up for long months missed with back and wrist injuries. He won his home title in Moscow on his 22nd birthday last month. Now he and Khachanov had earned one of the ‘best losers’ spots, and then beaten Serbia in a final-set tie-break doubles contest of outstanding quality and drama.
What is more, he and Khachanov had regularly joined forces in doubles to great effect, reaching the Paris Masters final just a couple of weeks ago.
How fitting, then, that these four warriors should take their semi-final to a deciding doubles clincher after Rublev kept a clean slate with victory over Pospisil, and Shapovalov edged Khachanov in the second rubber.
At stake for Canada was a first Davis Cup final despite having played in the tournament for more than 100 years. Russia was after its first final since 2007, though in other players’ hands, they were champions in 2002 and 2006.
It was the Canadians who grabbed the early momentum, playing fast and energetic tennis to break Rublev and hold both their own service games, 3-0. They offered, of course, that valuable doubles combination of leftie with rightie, and both were strong on serve and overhead, too.
But it was the variety in power, angle and touch that kept them in the lead, and all the more so from Pospisil when Shapovalov missed a few first deliveries as he served for the set. They held off break point to take the lead, 6-4.
The second set went the Russians’ way, with Rublev reinforcing his case as the MVP of the entire tournament. Pospisil was broken, but the Canadians broke back to love for 3-4. However, it was the Pospisil’s serve again that proved to be vulnerable, and the Russians broke, serving out the set, 6-3.
It always seemed destined to go to the full three sets, and so it proved. The third was a tense and hugely testing contest, with Shapovalov and Rublev proving near impenetrable and making fine winners from the ground and at the net.
Khachanov was more reluctant to go for broke at the net, Pospisil’s first serve was too inconsistent to pull off his own volleys with ease. And it was the latter who time and again was up against it on serve, facing break point in the third and seventh games. Meanwhile, Shapovalov got them to 5-4 having won 23 points in a row on his serve.
Perhaps inevitably, with neither quarter given, it went to a tie-break. And there, Shapovalov lost the first point on his serve in 24, and Canada stared at 0-3. But point by point, it levelled again, 4-4, and with the Pospisil serve coming good and Rublev going for too much, the Canadians brought up two match points after two compelling hours. On the second a Russian return-of-serve flew long, and the maple leaves soared in celebration.
It marked a momentous day for Canadian tennis, this first Davis Cup final, even if the crowds to support their heroes were thousands of miles back home. Those who did make the matches have made their presence felt, but this is Spain’s home ground—and if Rafael Nadal’s nation beats Great Britain in the other semi-final, the noise will be deafening.
But the result of that tie was a long way off yet, with Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans facing a mountain—in players and in fan support. But the lucky 900 British fans who picked up the free tickets hastily offered up by the LTA would certainly do their best.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge