Shapovalov Overcomes Shaky Start To Win St. Petersburg Opener

Denis Shapovalov (photo: St. Petersburg Open)

ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Since reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon, World No. 13 Denis Shapovalov has struggled with his tennis game. As he arrived in Russia’s second-largest city for this week’s St. Petersburg Open, Shapovalov had lost six of his past nine matches. It included a streak of three straight opening-match losses that he finally ended at the US Open.

A semifinalist last year in St. Petersburg and a quarterfinalist in 2018, Shapovalov has enjoyed past success when he’s come to Russia’s imperial capital. This time, the 22-year-old Canadian hoped to put together a solid run and to build some end-of-the-season momentum to take into 2022.

While it would take Shapovalov a while to get on track, the No. 2 seed prevailed in his first match of the week in Sibur Arena Wednesday afternoon. He beat No. 92 Pablo Andújar of Spain, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round as he chases after his second career ATP Tour title and first since he won the Stockholm Open in 2019.

Although Shapovalov came on strong by the end of the one-hour and 49-minute match, the beginning of his second-round match was one he would just as soon forget. That’s because he fell behind a double break in the first set as the unforced errors piled on. Shapovalov failed to convert four break-point chances against Andújar, any of which would have gotten him back into the set. Instead, the Spaniard’s steady demeanor and ability to both win points consistently on his first serve (83 percent) and to convert his break-point opportunities (two of five) enabled him to win the 37-minute first set 6-2.

Soon, the frustration for the second-seeded Canadian mounted as he faced an early break point before holding his serve in the third game. Then, after a shaky beginning, Shapovalov turned things around in his favor. He attained a glimmer of hope as he broke Andújar for the first time to take control of the set and consolidated the break at love for a 4-1 advantage. He strung together 12 straight points to climb back into the match, gaining back his confidence once his one-armed backhand began to score points instead of hitting the net. A love hold for 5-2 included a nifty serve-and-volley attack that caught Andújar by surprise. Then, a couple of big-serve aces enabled Shapovalov to win the second set 6-3 and send the match on to a decider. It was a nice turnaround for the Canadian lefty, who hit four aces during the 43-minute middle set and won 89 percent of his first-serve points.

Next, Shapovalov came alive in the third set, breaking Andújar on his second opportunity while holding his own serve for a 2-0 lead. He gained another break point during the Spaniard’s second service game. Now, with his confidence restored and Andujar’s crumbling, Shapovalov broke again to take a commanding 3-0 lead that he would not relinquish. He consolidated the break after winning a 14-shot rally, then broke Andújar for a third consecutive service game to gain a triple-break 5-0 lead. It was fitting that Shapovalov would close out his 27th victory of the season on his racquet. He finished with a flourish as his 11th ace helped close out the victory. Shapovalov outpointed Andújar 80-63 and won 83 percent (34 of 41) of his first-serve points. Plus, in the third set, he garnered 72 percent (13 of 18) of his return points.

“Definitely very tough to play Pablo first round of a tournament,” Shapovalov said during his on-court TV interview, in which he also answered questions speaking fluent Russian. “He’s a great player and it was a tough start to the match. I didn’t feel so great, but I just told myself to keep going.

“Obviously, there was a lot of tennis to play. So, I wanted to really turn it around in the second set and I did a really good job.”

Once Shapovalov realized he didn’t need to go for a winner with each forehand return he hit and could win points by changing the pace on his returns, everything seemed to fall in place for him. By the third set, it was all one-way traffic in Shapovalov’s favor. The Canadian’s attitude changed nicely after a difficult start to the match and he wound up with a satisfying victory to advance against No. 53 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, who upset No. 7 seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, ranked 34th, 6-4, 6-3, in 74 minutes. Struff hit seven aces and took advantage of three breaks of Bublik’s serve. He outpointed his opponent 69-58.

Rublev begins title defense with solid win

Defending champion Andrey Rublev, who made his St. Petersburg Open debut six years ago at age 17, faced No. 46 Ilya Ivashka of Belarus for the second time in three years at Sibur Arena. Like in 2019, Rublev defeated Ivashka, again. This time, the World No. 6 won 6-4, 6-4 to move into Friday’s quarterfinal round.

The 24-year-old Moscow native, who is the winner of one title this year at Rotterdam and reached the finals in three others, broke Ivashka in the seventh game of the opening set to go ahead. Rublev saved all five break points he faced in the 46-minute opening set, winning it 6-4. Then, he broke the Belarusian in the third game of the second set and consolidated the break to solidify his lead at 3-1. Soon, Rublev wrapped up the 89-minute victory with his 10th ace and hit a forehand winner on his first match-point opportunity. He saved all seven break points he faced during the second-round match, while the two breaks of Ivashka’s serve proved to be the difference maker for him.

Through a Russian interpreter during an on-court interview, Rublev said, “It’s really tough to play against a good, old friend of mine, especially since he’s enjoying his season and his best ranking. He had his chances in the first set. At the end of the second set, I managed to turn the tide and won the match. I’m happy with the way I served and the way I played.”

Next, Rublev will face the winner of Thursday’s second-round meeting between No. 8 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States, who is ranked 38th, and 69th-ranked qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands.

Around the St. Petersburg Open

• After reaching the final at Moscow last week, unseeded Marin Cilic of Croatia started well in St. Petersburg – a tournament he won in 2011. The 35th-ranked Cilic fired 10 aces and dropped just four points on his first serve en route to a 6-2, 6-3 victory over No. 43 Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain. He saved both break points he faced and outpointed Ramos 65-46. Next, Cilic moves into Thursday’s second round against No. 6 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, who was dominant on his serve – losing just seven points – in beating No. 50 Adrian Mannarino of France, 6-3, 6-3. The 30th-ranked Khachanov hit five aces, won 84 percent (36 of 43) of his service points and faced no break points during his 85-minute victory.

• Four doubles matches wrapped up first round play and set up the quarterfinal pairings. No. 3 seeds Matwe Middelkoop of the Netherlands and Marcelo Arevalo-Gonzalez of Slovenia were upset by Marcelo Demoliner of Brazil and Marcus Daniell of New Zealand, 3-6, 7-5, 10-7. Next, they will play the American pair of Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul, who defeated Gonzalo Escobar of Ecuador and Ariel Bihar of Uruguay, 6-4, 7-5.

Also, Australians John-Patrick Smith and Luke Saville advanced with a 6-4, 7-5 win over British pair Ken Skupski and Dominic Inglot, and next will play top seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil. Finally, Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Andres Molteni of Argentina beat Tomislav Brkic of Bosnia and Nikola Cacic of Serbia, 6-4, 2-6, 10-7 to advance against No. 4 seeds Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan and Hugo Nys of Monaco. The final quarterfinal pairing will match the Russian super team of Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev against Rohan Bopanna of India and Denis Shapovalov of Canada.

Wednesday’s St. Petersburg Open results

Thursday’s St. Petersburg Open order of play

By the numbers

No. 1 doubles seeds Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares, who were sharp in winning their first-round match against wild cards Jonathan Erlich of Israel and Andrei Vasilevski of Belarus on Tuesday, began the week in eighth place in the FedEx ATP Doubles Race To Turin, 280 points ahead of nine-place Simone Bolelli of Italy and Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina. Murray and Soares, who reunited this season after a season-and-a-half apart, have thrice competed in the year-end championship, in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“Quotable …”

“After 10 years of coming back to St. Petersburg, I have great memories. I had a great last week in Moscow and it’s a pleasure to be playing here in St. Petersburg.”

Marin Cilic of Croatia, who won the 2011 St. Petersburg Open singles crown, during an on-court TV interview following his over Albert Ramos-Vinolas.