The Big Three Monopoly, or three-card monte of men’s tennis, is going the way of Donkey Kong.
A game of changing thrones and existential extinction as Next Gen proclaims Gen Now, however bent out of shape this year’s U.S. Open has devolved.
Denis Shapovalov can take that to the bank. Along with the $425,000 (U.S.) that the 21-year-old from Richmond Hill will pocket for making his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal. But, alas, no semis circle for the flashy blond who absorbed a heartbreaking five-set loss on Tuesday night — actually, Wednesday morning — at Flushing Meadows.
One double fault too far, a gift to Pablo Carreno Busta in game six of the fifth frame, and there was no road back to what would have been a third tiebreak.
So, not the first Canadian singles male to reach the final four in Queens, or bid for the chance to duplicate compatriot Bianca Andreescu’s championship triumph a year ago when the teenager scooped all the marbles off Serena Williams.
Still, getting kinda swell at this. There will be quarters and semis and finals in the not-distance future for Shapovalov, for Andreescu, for Félix Auger-Aliassime. You can take that to the bank too.
“There’s definitely a lot of positives,” Shapovalov told reporters afterwards. But, with a sad smile, added: “It don’t see it now.”
He’ll see it later.
“It was tough, you know, going into the fifth set, it’s the final one. You try to push. But I was pretty tired.
“Very tough moment, a tough match. I had a good chance to win it. I was almost in every match. Very frustrating right now.”
Even in defeat, the southpaw did it with Shapovian brio — high risk, high reward — across four hours and nine minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium, submitting 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 0-6, 6-3 to the 20th seed. And the Spaniard only got slingshot into the quarters because world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was hoisted by his own temperamental petard. Otherwise this would likely have been a Shapovalov-Djokovic engagement.
You know, following his round-of-16 victory over higher seeded Belgian David Goffin on the weekend, Shapovalov, as brash with the lip as he is with the racket, had observed about the domination of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the holy trinity of male tennis: “It has been getting pretty boring with these three guys winning every tournament.”
They’ve claimed the last 13 majors, dating back to the 2016 U.S. Open. But none of them are within hailing distance of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre. Nadal is cleaving to Europe, leery of travelling to COVID-19 engulfed America, Federer is recovering from knee surgery and Djokovic, world No. 1, got the disqualification heave-ho on Sunday after (inadvertently) hitting a line judge with a ball struck in anger.
So, come this Sunday, there will be an inaugural investiture of a new U.S. Open champion, from among the four men still standing, all of them younger than 30, all of them born in the ’90s. The last Grand Slam titlist shy of 30 was Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2016.
It might not exactly be a changing of the guard — the old guard isn’t doddering into the sunset yet, Nadal and Djokovic definitely contesting the rescheduled French Open that launches in a fortnight — but it is at least a glittery moment for the next generation of hotshots with the stage all to themselves.
New York City is a stage Shapovalov loves and the Big Apple loves him right back, toast of the town three years ago at a fresh-faced 18, jack-strutting as a qualifier through to the round of 16, where he was dispatched by … Carreno Busta, losing three tiebreaks. In fact, the protagonists arrived at these quarters with the Spaniard boasting a 3-1 edge in head-to-head play. Shapovalov, seeded No. 12 in NYC and world ranked No. 17, had never even taken a set off his nemesis. Now he’s got two, but it still wasn’t good enough.
At creepily nearly empty Arthur Ashe, both players looked tense and twitchy to start, breaking each other in the tee-up two games. Carreno Busta saved another break opening in the sixth game, after struggling back to deuce. But Shapovalov remained cool and calm, as he racked up half a dozen aces and 14 winners, fist-pumping toward his mom and co-coach Tessa in the stands, then exploding with a roar when he broke Carreno Busta at 5-3 and confidently closing the chapter on the first set 6-3.
Carreno Busta, however, is a crafty veteran — at 29, oldest among the quarterfinal octet, Shapovalov the youngest — which neutralized the Canadian’s explosive athleticism, as the Spaniard raced out to a 2-0 lead in the second frame. Shapovalov remained energetically noisy nevertheless — the guy seems to spend half his matches suspended in mid-air — to immediately break back, a gain erased when Carreno Busta just as immediately repeated the break pattern, three for eight on break chances at that point. And, oops, they did it again, Shapovalov 4-for-5 on his break opportunities, with magnificent work at the net. Four breaks in five games tit-for-tat.
Then, with his first-serve percentage dipping steeply, Shapovalov began yelling at himself through a series of freebie points for Carreno Busta, staving off a pair of break points in game eight — and a pair of double faults — but surviving to hold at 4-4. A mighty battle for Shapovalov serving to stay in the match, the 10th game four times going to deuce, sprinkled with more double faults. Ditto for 6-6, racking up 24 unforced errors in the taut set, after well more than an hour, as it went to a tiebreak. Shapovalov fought off two set points before Carreno Busta claimed it 7-6(5).
Double-fault willies seized Shapovalov yet again when Carreno Busta took 3-2 and 4-2 leads in the third frame, the Spaniard staying composed while his opponent palpably grew frustrated with himself, the legs doubtlessly feeling heavy from much more time spent on the court getting this far. Fewer trademark audacious shots from Shapovalov as he tried to bear down while keeping his energy up while the worm continued to turn, shaking his head and hollering (cussing) in Russian. (He’s Tel Aviv-born to Russian parents.) Nothing was coming easy.
Presto-bingo turnaround, though, when Shapovalov broke Carreno Busta in the eighth game, 4-4, holding to love to consolidate, and putting pressure on the Spaniard to stay in the set on his serve. Which he did. Shapovalov matched him for intensity, acing himself out of break trouble at 6-5, which he’d led 40-15. Carreno Busta leveled easily and then gutted out the second tiebreak 7-6(4) for a 2-1 grasp on the match.
It was a minute past midnight when the fourth set began.
Quick start for Shapovalov with an early break, after which his mom scampered down from the stands to supply her son with a new pair of sneakers. Shapovalov didn’t bother with them and rang off four aces in a row, holding his serve to love at 2-0, indefatigable breaking Carreno Busto at 3-0 and 5-0, running away with the set 6-bagel as the Spaniard, sensing the inevitable, clearly was preserving his energy for the deciding fifth set.
More of a gasp than a second wind for Carreno Busto, who dropped only five points in the final frame, relievedly gathering up the break that Shapovalov stunningly provided him, the Canadian misfiring on a clutch of routine returns.
Seventy-six winners and a career-high 26 aces for Shapovalov, but also 76 unforced errors.
Racket-tap salute at the net at the end of the marathon and it was over, Carreno Busto on to face Germany’s Alexander Zverev in Friday’s semifinal.