Australian Open 2021: Shapovalov edges Sinner in thriller – the first of a great new rivalry

Two record-making Williams advance to Round 2; Djokovic, Halep, Osaka cruise

Denis Shapovalov
Denis Shapovalov (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

After a rollicking preparatory week of six tournaments at Melbourne Park, the main event got under way: the 109th playing of one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world.

Many things have been different about this year’s Australian Open, caused by the ongoing ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. So as well as a packed week between two weeks of quarantine and the first day of Grand Slam action, it has all begun three weeks late. And while socially-distanced fans have made a welcome return, there remained an eerily quiet atmosphere for many of the day-time matches: In Australia, holidays are over, schools are back.

But some things never change. When the draws are made, all eyes scan down the lists for notable Round 1 match-ups. And in the men’s draw, there were several that jumped off the page.

A former Major champion, Marin Cilic, is now ranked 43, and drew No18 seed Grigor Dimitrov. But the Croat was a shadow of his US Open-winning self—and he was also a runner-up at this tournament in 2018. He sprayed errors, and Dimitrov took advantage, a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(5).

Another stand-out was 42-ranked Kei Nishikori against No16 Pablo Carreno Busta. The Japanese star, and former world No4, was on a protected ranking as he began to work back from elbow surgery. He had played only six matches last year, and lost both his ATP Cup matches last week. Remarkably, they had played just once before, at this same event two years ago, when Nishikori won in five sets after five hours. This time, the Spaniard looked the superior player, firing 39 winners past Nishikori to win, 7-5, 7-6(4), 6-2.

In the women’s draw, the most notable non-seed was the 81-ranked Venus Williams, now age 40 and playing in a record 88th Major. Owner of seven Major titles, she has twice reached the final in Australia, and she took her first step this year with a win over Kirsten Flipkens, 7-5, 6-2. But while she next plays qualifier Sara Errani, this is a tough quarter featuring Bianca Andreescu, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza and Naomi Osaka.

Meanwhile, her sister Serena, a seven-time champion and targeting a record-equalling 24th Major title, was playing in her 100th match at the Australian Open, and sporting a stunning, vibrant coloured cat-suit, she sailed past Laura Siegemund in under an hour, 6-1, 6-1.

But one of the most highly anticipated matches of the day was between two stars tipped for future Major success, the No11 seed Denis Shapovalov, age 21, and the 19-year-old Italian, Jannik Sinner, up to a career-high ranking this week after winning his second career title at last week’s Great Ocean Road Open.

Yet the brilliant teenager had played four matches in three days, including a three-hour thriller against Karen Khachanov, and looked dead on his feet come Sunday. So those efforts must surely have weighed heavy as he prepared for this difficult opening match.

However, he showed no signs of fatigue against the flamboyant style of Shapovalov. The teenager has an admirably calm personality, and seemed unfazed by the left-handed leaping shot-making of his 21-year-old opponent. A swift break took him to a 3-0 lead before the Canadian adjusted to the cool evening conditions.

Sinner fended off a deuce challenge with some precision, pacey strikes to the corners, 4-1, and then worked another break chance, but some timely aces saved the day for Shapovalov. Even with the rallies growing in length and variety, Sinner seemed to anticipate most of what the Canadian threw at him, picking a drop-shot almost before the ball had left Shapovalov’s racket. He served out the set in under 40 minutes, 6-3.

The Canadian had to work hard to hold the first game of the second set, three break points, five deuces, almost a quarter of an hour, and he roared at his box after holding. He may have stacked up the errors, 21 to six from Sinner, but he was also well ahead on winners, 15 to six.

Yet there was no sign of a break chance against the crisp, clean hitting of the young Italian as they headed to one hour of play. Shapovalov had to save another break point for 2-1, and a 25th error let a 0-30 advantage slip on Sinner’s serve. The Italian made a stunning pass then a backhand winner to take four straight points to hold. But a rare error from Sinner brought up a first break point, the Canadian converted at his second attempt, and served it out, 6-3, with his eighth net winner of the set.

But if there was any sense of Sinner slowing, it was soon dispelled in another battle to hold in the second game of the third. The tables were turned in the fifth game, though, and the Canadian broke courtesy of a Sinner double fault. A hold, and Shapovalov led 4-2, broke again, and served out the set, 6-2.

At last, Sinner began to flag—he had notched up 15 errors for just three winners in that third set, and he quickly conceded a break in the fourth set. Shapovalov seemed to have the match on his racket, but a couple of zipping winners from Sinner, and a Shapovalov double fault, the Canadian faced 0-40, and was broken 3-3.

The Italian had found a second wind, and powered to a break for the set, 6-4: It would take a fifth decider, but not before Shapovalov took some treatment to his left shoulder.

A long opening game was eventually nabbed with a break to the Canadian. However, a couple of under-arm serves suggested some concern about his shoulder. He held on, but both men were looking sore and tired as Shapovalov stepped up to serve for the set, 5-4.

A brutal long rally brought up match point, but Sinner, bent double, found a superb return to save it. Shapovalov could not find a first serve, and then double faulted, his ninth, for break point. But a timely first serve brought up another match point, and a winner down the line, his 62nd of the match, sealed it, 6-4 after almost four hours.

This is surely the first of a great new rivalry that will endure for more than a decade: And that is a great prospect for fans in years to come.

Big winners

· Top seed and eight-time champion Novak Djokovic started his defence by dropping just six games against Jeremy Chardy, 6-3, 6-1, 6-2.

· Dominic Thiem, No3 seed, US Open champion and runner-up to Djokovic in last year’s Australian Open, beat Mikhail Kukushkin, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-3.

· Former champion and No17 seed Stan Wawrinka beat Pedro Sousa 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

· No14 seed Milos Raonic beat Federico Coria, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

· Champion in 2019 and No3 seed Naomi Osaka beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-1, 6-2.

· French Open champion and No15 seed Iga Swiatek raced into Round 2, 6-1, 6-3, over Arantxa Rus.

· The 2019 US Open champion and No8 seed, Bianca Andreescu, playing her first match for 15 months, beat Mihaela Buzarnescu, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

· World No2 Simona Halep took less than an hour to beat wildcard Lizette Cabrera, 6-2, 6-1.

· Runner-up to Osaka in 2019, No9 seed Petra Kvitova, beat Greet Minnen, 6-3 6-4.

Losing seeds

· Angelique Kerber (23) to Berbarda Pera, 6-0, 6-4

· Alison Riske (24) to Anastasia Potapova, 6-2, 6-1

· Qiang Wang (30) to Sara Errani, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4

· Benoit Paire (25) to Egor Gerasimov, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6(5), 7-5

· Gael Monfils (10) to Emil Ruusuvuori, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3

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