They break each other, then hold, the score is 3-2 for the Canadian, who is 21 and looks like he just entered his teens. He has got right into his acrobatic style, rushing the net and leaping at every attempt to pass him. His left-handed serve is dangerous on the ad side against righties, it pulls them into the alley, then he rushes in to volley their returns and put them away. He doubles, too, much too often.
The game plan works; the Canadian breaks in the seventh game, holds his own serve, breaks again. He wins the set at 6-3, looks unbeatable.
In the second set, the Spaniard, who is a lean, muscular 29, imposes his own game as often as the Canadian plays his, and they stay neck and neck, point for point, game for game, trading breaks, going to deuce, getting break points and converting them or facing break points and saving them. For it turns out the Spaniard’s service is no less potent and is the epitome of the game he wants to play, deep shots that keep his man on the baseline, hitting them until he finds the angle he needs to put the ball where it cannot be reached. And he capitalizes on an emerging double-fault problem on the other side; in one sequence the Canadian hits three in a row, four in the game. Meanwhile the Spaniard stays calm, brushes away mistakes. When he gets into this groove he looks unbeatable.
If they both look unbeatable, the one on sheer energy the other on the three P’s that must occur to everyone who knows the alphabet and is watching — power, persistence, placement — then what is going to happen? One man putting the balls away every which way, the other aiming for the lines and hitting winners to the corners, what are they going to do? Play all night?
They cannot play all night because of the tiebreak rule. The second set tiebreak occurs about 11 p.m. — this is taking place at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, and they must both be jet-lagged out of their minds, but they do not know it because they are professionals — and, to no one’s surprise, it goes the distance, as the Spaniard gets to 6-4, cannot minibreak on the Canadian’s second service, but hits his first one at 6-5, aiming where he has been most successful, over the alley about three-quarters up the left service box line, and the return is in the net.
But that is only one set each, and you need three to win these matches.
The Canadian is Denis Shapovalov, born in Tel Aviv 21 years ago to Russian émigrés who moved to Canada before his first birthday. He is what in baseball would be called a phenom, one of the youngest of a group that has been putting Canada on the map for the past several years, including Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil and Eugenie Bouchard and last year’s winner on the women’s draw, Bianca Andreescu, who is not defending her title. Which proves zilch, except maybe that if you or your parents emigrate to Canada from what used to be called the bloc, you thank your new country by being good at tennis. This does not apply to Miss Bouchard, but then she has not been playing good tennis lately, due to her mind not being on it.
Seeded 12, Shapovalov is having a great run at the U.S. Open. True, anyone who reaches the quarters, which is the round we are talking about, has by definition had a pretty good run, with a guarantee of plenty of money to compensate for the hard work and effort, which begins pre-teen in most cases and never relents except for a few weeks in December.
Shapovalov beat an American hope, Taylor Fritz, in a sensational third round five-setter when he was on the verge of defeat, one set to two and behind 2-5 in the fourth. In the fourth round he lost the first set to a superbly talented Belgian, David Goffin, and dictated the rest of the way. This has got to be his toughest test, as per what you would expect. But he has a secret weapon in plain site, his coach Tessa Shapovalova, who is a former Russian tennis star and his mother. As best anyone knows, no one else has his mother in the seats at Ashe Stadium. There are, however, several small children whose mothers — I think I counted 10, but if you want to be sure you can write to me at the magazine and I will look it up — are on the courts, or have been. (Three are left by my count as of this writing.) But in this other way, boy on the court mother in the stands, this is unique.
Denis’s opponent is a man with an entirely different tennis style, and his mother is not here. Pablo Carreño Busta is from Gijon, in Asturias, and dwells in Barcelona, which is in Catalonia. At 29, he is of the younger members of the generation that has been in the shadow of Rafa Nadal, who is the champion here, but he is absent and will be replaced by someone else at the end of the week. That is the rule, the law of the sport. If you do not defend your title by winning again, you no longer are the titleholder but you are a former titleholder, which is a point of honor and of prestige. There will be a new champion this year, and for once in more years than anyone remembers he will be someone who is neither titleholder nor former titleholder.
With both Rafa Nadal and Bianca Andreescu out by choice, both the women and the men’s draws are pretty much up for grabs. However, former titleholders Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are looking very strong, losing a set here or there but still much better than their challengers. Many other ladies are looking better than the ladies they have beaten, however, and it is too soon to tell what will happen. It always is, until it does.
After about two more hours the Canadian and the Spaniard get to the third-set tiebreak, as was, in retrospect, inevitable. Carreño Busta wins again, with a big serve to get to 6-4. It comes right after a typical, and typically brilliant, volley winner by Shapovalov at the net. Carreño then hits a strong serve and sends the return cross court to the alley, so Shapovalov cannot reach it. When it works, play your game. In a match as close as this, they are both sticking to their games, because every other point works.
After nearly three and a half hours, Denis Shapovalov is racing ahead in the fourth set, breaking all of Pablo Carreño Busta’s service games, headed apparently for a bagel, and the spectators are thinking he is going to repeat the third-round comeback against Taylor Fritz. The spectators are nowhere to be seen. It is quiet and eerie, and no one even dares consider whether the mighty Novak Djokovic, out of the tournament by an own-goal, as we noted yesterday, would be holding on as well as either one of these amazing athletes.
But there are breaks and breaks, and following his bagel, Denis Shapovalov begins losing his. The tide shifts again. It appeared Carreño was cramping, completely out of gas, his eyes struggling to stay open. It is after all dawn in Asturias now. He finds strength even as he grows less strong. He sees his opponent unable to run after every ball, and he begins saving break points again and converting his own. Suddenly, it is 5-2, though maybe no one but the umpire — and the mom, who approaches the court with a fresh pair of shoes — realizes this, such is the intensity on the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium. She is, of course, still expecting that, being there, all will be well. The younger man holds for 3-5. The older one sticks to plan, keeps his shots deep, aims for the lines. Remarkably, he whams a typical Shapovalov volley smash right back at him for a point. He has him now, but they both have this great match, and they always will.