Go Canada: Young guns, elder statesman fly the flag

  • Dan Imhoff

One particular double-bagel walloping is permanently ingrained in Felix Auger-Aliassime’s memory.

Traumatic at the time, it came at the hands of a fellow promising Canadian junior, Denis Shapovalov, a match of which the victor recalls scant details.

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Now two of the brightest prospects on the men’s tour, both are entrenched in the top 20 and ready to square off in a third-round showdown at Australian Open 2021.

Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime started Wednesday as two of five Canadians in singles action, while the now “elder” statesman of the quintet, Milos Raonic, also booked his last 32 berth.

While bundled out in their respective second-round showdowns, the sight of the red and white’s sole Grand Slam singles champion, Bianca Andreescu, and fellow comeback queen Rebecca Marino competing and healthy again was added cause for optimism within Canadian ranks.

Shapovalov’s and Auger-Aliassime’s is a friendship and on-court rivalry, which harks back to that first clash as talented juniors.

On Wednesday, the duo had the better of a pair of home hopes, Bernard Tomic and James Duckworth, respectively, on Court 3 to book their fourth showdown at professional level.

“When we share experiences like Davis Cup or ATP Cup last year, we always want the best for the team,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“Of course, now playing against each other, we've played also before in Grand Slams, it's a big opportunity for both of us.

“I think I first met him when I was eight. They took the best players under 12, and we had some, they call them national camps.

“I think that's the first time I met him in Toronto. He was already playing with an adult racquet, one-handed backhand at nine years old. I remember it was pretty impressive the first time I saw him. I'm still impressed by what he does.”

"He was already playing with an adult racquet, one-handed backhand at nine years old. I remember it was pretty impressive the first time I saw him."
Felix Auger-Aliassime on Denis Shapovalov

The admiration between the pair was mutual, but come Friday, any off-court allegiances will be put to one side.

Shapovalov, at least, would hope that childhood drubbing he dished out would be front and centre of his 20-year-old opponent’s mind.

“For sure excited to play Felix, but for me it's just like any other match,” the 21-year-old said.

“We played I think under 12s or something, nationals. I don't remember that match. He said I beat him love and love.

“I honestly don't remember that match. Honestly, we've played so many times, it kind of like starts to blur together.”

It has been a long road back for Auger-Aliassime’s fellow 20-year-old, Andreescu.

After 15 months sidelined due to a torn meniscus in her left knee, the 2019 US Open champion came up short against crafty 35-year-old, Hsieh Su-Wei, 6-3 6-2 on Wednesday.

Earlier, 30-year-old Marino’s run came to an end against Czech Marketa Vondrousova.

The former world No.38 had not contested a major in eight years and not won a match on that stage in a decade, following a hiatus from tour due to battles with depression.

Despite their defeats, they were performances from which plenty of positives would be drawn.

“I know my preparation was the best that I think I've ever had,” Andreescu said. “So I feel confident with that. I think now it's just getting back into play, and it's good to know that I still have that fighting spirit in me.

“I feel really good. After my first round, I thought I would feel more exhausted, but I felt amazing ... I have zero worries about my health.”

The Canadian most familiar with deep runs at the majors, Raonic remains the flag-bearer for his compatriots.

While he took a set to get going, the No.10 seed romped home against Frenchman Corentin Moutet on Wednesday.

Like Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, the 30-year-old is proud of having at least one – in his case both – migrant parent, and spoke during last week’s ATP Cup of giving back when playing with the maple leaf on his shirt.

“Throughout the year we play with the Canadian flag, it says 'CAN' by our names,” Raonic said. “This time they don't say our names when they say the score, they announce the country that we're grateful to represent, that's given us great opportunities.

“That means a lot to me, to the team, to my family, to all the people around me.”