Scalded in the flame, trying to get past as ferocious a tennis competitor and so passionate a Davis Cup devotee as Rafael Nadal.
Merely the world No. 1. Playing in his Madrid backyard, in front of a besotted sold-out audience.
The gallant young men from Canada — 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov and 19-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime — were game for the monumental challenge of taking on Spain. But they were simply not in the same stratospheric league as Nadal — hardly anyone is — and cohort Roberto Bautista Agut, who returned to the court just three days after the death of his father.
Auger-Aliassime fell first to Bautista Agut in straight sets. Then Shapovalov dragged Nadal into a second set tiebreaker. But the Mallorcan had enough of that as the Canadians were dusted off 2-0, meaning no doubles match to decide the outcome and no last day heroics for Vasek Pospisil.
From Nadal’s celly dance — after he peeled himself off the floor, teammates piled on top of his supine body — it was almost as if this was his first time and not the Spaniard’s fourth Davis Cup title, in Spain’s 10th final and sixth triumph.
Canada had reached the Davis Cup final for the first time, in the 108th edition, after a century of trying. At the very least, the Canucks showed they belonged with the big boys and should be viewed as top-drawer contenders for years to come as this country’s tennis stalwarts ripen into their 20s.
Nadal has lost only one match in 15 years of Davis Cup competition, now boasting a preposterous 29-1 record in singles play. Vamos indeed. Here is a legendary tennis master who holds his Davis Cups as dear as his 19 Grand Slam titles.
There was nothing for the Canadians to hang their heads about, though: 156 teams from across the globe had vied for inclusion in regional qualifying events, 18 made the cut for Madrid, Canada and Spain were the last two teams standing. In their astonishing weeklong whirlwind, the Canucks knocked off Italy, the United States, Australia and Russia.
They weren’t daunted, confronting the Spaniards. They certainly showed no fear.
“I feel like we’ve really come really far as a team, as a nation,” Shapovalov told reporters afterward. “Definitely we’re super proud. Obviously it sucks, sucks losing in the finals. But I’m super proud of everyone, everyone sitting here, super proud of the people in the background. We’ve put in 120 per cent every single day. It’s amazing how far we’ve been able to come.”
When, frankly, very little was expected of them, even in a world-needs-more-Canada year when youthful tennis studs — and one awesome studette — made tsunami splashes internationally.
Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, had risen to World No. 15 on the strength of a late season surge and seemed a more confident, more sinewy version of himself in Madrid. “I felt like I was the better player in most of the games. We had a lot of games.”
He and Vancouverite Pospisil, the Davis Cup veteran, had played all the matches until team captain Frank Dancevic swapped out the 29-year-old for Auger-Aliassime on Sunday. He would have played doubles with Shapovalov in the rubber, had it got that far.
“I found out last night (that I wasn’t playing). Of course it’s tough. Everybody wants to play. It was double tough, obviously, that we lost today.
“At the end of the day, it’s a team effort, it’s a team decision. You just have to be ready to do your part.”
Well, it wasn’t a team decision, it was Dancevic’s unilateral decision and probably the right call. Though Auger-Aliassime had been recovering from the ankle injury, the teen is still 21st in the world compared to Pospisil at 150th, even if that outlier status is somewhat misleading — Pospisil missed six months this season after undergoing back surgery in January.
“It was my decision to make a substitution,” Dancevic manned up about the gamble that didn’t pay off. “But I’d rather not go into details with it. It was my call in the end. I’ll just leave it at that.”
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Auger-Aliassime was playing in just his second Davis Cup tie but Canada wouldn’t have been in the Finals without him. It was his decisive fifth rubber against Norbert Gombos of Slovakia that qualified Canada back in February.
Returning to the court for the first time in six weeks, the Montreal native played with conviction in the opening set against Bautista Agut, ranked No. 9 in the world. Not much evidence of nerves on the big stage.
He opened with a huge forehand winner down the line, then swept into the net to pick off a sweet volley. At 40-0, he double-faulted — it would later become a recurring theme — and shanked a forehand long but slammed an ace down the T to put Canada up 1-0. However, as the set progressed, he got drawn into too many long rallies with his 31-year-old opponent, spraying too many errors, 45 for the match.
And maybe it was fated for a man playing with a heavy heart. After match point, Bautista Abut pointed a finger skyward.
Said Nadal of his teammate: “I won eight matches but I tell you with my hand on my heart, here the key person was Roberto. What he did was almost not human. For me, he is an example for the rest of my life.”
Still, it was fitting that Nadal, Spain’s talisman and starriest ornament in the box, sealed the deal. At 33 years of age, playing for the fourth consecutive day, Nadal displayed zilch fatigue or sag. He’d been broken just twice arriving at the final.
Shapovalov made his memorable breakthrough by defeating Nadal at the 2017 Rogers Cup in Montreal but is now 1-2 head to head. And Nadal was on a roll, having won all seven of his matches prior to Sunday, including four singles victories in which he didn’t drop a set.
Shapovalov valiantly traded blows with Nadal from the baseline in the opening frame. He was broken in the sixth game as his first serve percentage began to drop, Nadal roaring his hoopla noises at the top of his lungs. Nadal then consolidated at 5-2. Shapovalov followed with a quick love to hold, his best game to that point, sealed with a 211-km/h ace at 30-0. Nadal took the set 6-3 with a huge unreturned serve.
Yet Shapovalov dug in and began to open up some points of light on Nadal’s game, pumped by a lovely drop shot from far behind the baseline that startled the Spaniard in the first game, then drew Nadal to his first deuce, although the immediate response was a brilliant serve and volley, then another deuce, Nadal slamming the door on any thought of a break with an ace and an unreturned serve wide.
They slugged it out toe to toe for the rest of the set. Shapovalov just wouldn’t go away. Knotted at 6-6 and on to the tiebreak, where Shapovalov scuppered two championship points before, on the third try, Shapovalov shanked a return into the net. All over at 7-6 (7).
Nadal lifted the bottom of his shirt to his mouth, exposing washboard abs, then collapsed to the ground. While Shapovalov packed up his racquets.
Hasta la proxima. Till next time.