Shapovalov leads Canadian contingent in Australian Open men’s singles

Sometimes a tough loss on the tennis court can feel like a victory in many ways. For Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, pushing Novak Djokovic to the brink of defeat at the ATP Cup felt like a significant hurdle cleared.

It’s one reason why the 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., is feeling confident ahead of the Australian Open.

“Honestly that was a huge match for me,” Shapovalov said Friday. “I think mentally-wise because it’s the first time I really felt like I was able to push him and really find a way that I can beat him.”

Tied at a set apiece last week, Shapovalov came up with a break in the third set to prevent Djokovic from closing out the match. The second-ranked veteran from Serbia won the deciding tiebreaker 7-4 and his team went on to beat Spain in the final.

“Even though I didn’t get the win, I was able to push him all the way and I felt like I was controlling the game,” said Shapovalov, who fell to 0-5 lifetime against Djokovic. “I had a lot of chances to kind of go for it and win the match. So for me again, it’s reassurance that my game is there and then obviously I have to keep working to maintain my game and keep going forward.

“But obviously I’m really happy with where I am at the start of the season.”

Shapovalov, who’s seeded 13th at Melbourne Park, is joined in the singles draw by No. 20 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal, No. 32 seed Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., and Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil.

Leylah Annie Fernandez, a 17-year-old from Laval, Que., needs to beat American Danielle Lao in the final round of qualifying to reach her first Grand Slam women’s singles main draw.

Reigning US Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., is skipping the tournament due to a knee injury.

Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime are among a group of under-23 stars who are in the top 25 on the ATP Tour. The list includes Karen Khachanov, Andrey Rublev and Alex De Minaur along with top-10 players Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alex Zverev and Matteo Berrettini.

The next generation has certainly arrived. But whether someone can crack the dominance of the Big Three — top-ranked Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer — remains to be seen.

The three veterans have owned the Grand Slams in recent years with Stan Wawrinka (2016 US Open) the last non-Big Three player to win a major. Of the 40 Slams played in the last decade, the Big Three has claimed all but seven titles.

Could this be the season when things finally change?

“I think in past years there was still quite a big difference obviously with their experience and their level, they were just a big step above the rest of the guys,” Shapovalov told The Canadian Press. “But honestly I think this year is going to be different. I think as you’ve seen, me and Daniil, we were able to really push Novak (last) week, and (David) Goffin took out Rafa at the ATP Cup.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of upsets this year and I really don’t feel like the difference is that big.”

Smoke and haze from nearby wildfires plagued the start of qualifying matches in Melbourne earlier this week, but air quality appears to have improved over the last couple days.

“I’ve been coming to Australia for several years now,” Shapovalov said from Auckland. “It’s such an amazing place and to see it all in flames like this, it’s really heartbreaking. But in terms of (playing in) Melbourne, it’s actually pretty concerning.”

Shapovalov will open Monday against 66th-ranked Marton Fucsovics of Hungary. The players have practised together on several occasions in the past but this will be their first meeting.

“He’s tricky, he’s tough and super solid,” Shapovalov said. “It’s a really tough first match coming into the Slam, but I think I’ve been playing some really high-quality tennis the last couple weeks.

“I’m really happy with where I stand and I’m really excited heading into it.”

If seedings hold, a potential meeting with Federer could happen in the fourth round. Shapovalov lost his only previous meeting with the Swiss star last year in Miami.

“My main priority is just to get ready for the tournament and try to go as deep as possible,” Shapovalov said. “Hopefully start taking out some of these big guys because I feel like my game is there and it’s good enough to do so right now.”

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