When Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov face off against each other at the U.S. Open next week, they’ll have to set aside their friendship as they put the future of Canadian tennis on full display.
As rising stars on the ATP Tour, they’ll probably have to get used to doing that.
“It’s unfortunate they have to play each other in the first round, but quite frankly this is going to be the first of many times they’ll lock horns,” said Michael Downey, the president and CEO of Tennis Canada, on Saturday.
“They both want to win and they’re professionals and they know the winner gets to play Wednesday in the second round. That’s worth a lot of points, a lot of prize money and a lot of pride. So I think they will be able to turn (their friendship) off, but they’ll continue to show respect for each other.
“They’ll enter as friends and they’ll exit as friends.”
The teenagers — 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime of Montreal and 19-year-old Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont. — clash early Monday night on the grand stand at Billie Jean King Tennis Center in a hyped match between NextGen stars.
Shapovalov, ranked No. 28 on the ATP Tour, earned direct entry into his second U.S. Open, while No. 116 Auger-Aliassime had to go through three qualifying matches this week to book his spot against his pal.
Auger-Aliassime set a record while doing that, becoming the first man born in the 21st century to qualify for the main draw at a major.
“We shouldn’t take that lightly because there’s many players who wanted to qualify who didn’t get through,” Downey said. ”So the fact he did it at such a young age is amazing.”
No. 25 Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., No. 88 Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver and No. 120 Peter Polansky, also from Thornhill, round out the Canadian contingent on the men’s main draw while Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., qualified on the women’s side.
Shapovalov, who arrived in New York a week before the tournament started, said he’d been hanging out with Auger-Aliassime around the courts and was delighted to see his friend playing so well.
“It’s great to see Felix coming up,” Shapovalov said in a phone interview earlier this week. “And with Milos back (from injury) and Vasek doing well it’s a great time for Canadian tennis.
“I feel like there’s a growing belief in Canada that you can make it as a tennis player.”
Shapovalov has been doing his part to prove just that, skyrocketing up the rankings last summer after a semifinal exit at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and a Round of 16 appearance at his first U.S. Open.
He lost in the third round of this year’s Rogers Cup in Toronto while Auger-Aliassime was ousted in the second round after a tough and lengthy tiebreaker on his 18th birthday.
But both players have had success at the U.S. Open.
They teamed up to win the boys’ doubles title there in 2015 — before Shapovalov let his blonde locks grow — and Auger-Aliassime won the junior singles championship a year later. Shapovalov then stunned the tennis world with his 2017 main draw run that included a victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Polansky, who’s been on the ATP Tour since 2007, said the success from both teens has led to a rising interest in the sport among Canadian fans.
“I think they put Canada on the map in tennis,” the 30-year-old said earlier this week. “We had Raonic of course but I feel like now the excitement is even more so and I think it’s great for the sport. A lot more kids are going to want to grow up playing tennis from a young age because of them.”
Downey expects Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime to measure up well against each other.
And Monday’s match should serve as a preview of things to come.
“Their intensity is the same, they both have big serves and they’re both really athletic so they can roam the court,” Downey said. “At the end of the day I think we’re in for a great 10, 12 years or so of watching these two kids.”
By The Canadian Press