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Felix, Shapo, narrative arcs, and tournament takeaways

By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

Two Canadians. Two Australian Open quarterfinal matches. Two five-setters. Same result: The Canadians lose to better players on the court.

This was the tale of how Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime fared at the 2022 Australian Open against Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev, respectively. This is also the story of the aftermath of two losses that were as disparate as the two poles separated by the world between them.

Let’s talk about Shapovalov first. Trailing Nadal tamely by two sets to love, he came up with the fearless showing that had enabled him to upset the Spaniard at the 2017 Rogers Cup in Montreal, in what was their first meeting. Shapovalov’s emergence in the match pushed an already debilitated Nadal, who had been dealing with a heatstroke, further against the wall. However, when it came to pushing on with his comeback, Shapovalov came up short against Nadal’s signature resistance.

After the match had ended, discussions emerged and diverged for both opponents. The talking point around Nadal was his perseverance and the storied statistical count that had increased as a result of his win. Meanwhile, given how Shapo had ranted about the favouritism he felt was being shown to Nadal, the upshot for Denis was that he looked like an incessantly whining kindergartner who focused on outward circumstances and not on himself. Shapovalov’s cacophonous venting of the perceived prejudices against him thus drowned out the robustness of his game.

This wasn’t the case for Auger-Aliassime, who, as he noted in his post-match press conference, exited this major with his “head held high,” along with a promise that he would “go into the rest of the season knowing I can play well against the best players in the world.”

Given that he’d been leading a major champion, also the 2021 Australian Open runner-up, two sets to love, and even had a match point in the fourth set to call time on the Russian’s swing Down Under, Auger-Aliassime could have nit-picked these turning points in a harsh self-critique. By not drowning himself in a guilt trip, Auger-Aliassime rerouted the conversation toward himself rather than the comeback of Medvedev, the pre-match favourite.

To cut a long story short, both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime set a different narrative course for themselves. Yet, each of their narratives reflected a core essence that makes the sport what it is.  

In tennis, there’s never a time when it gets quiet. There’s disquiet, yes, but quietness is a luxury that tennis doesn’t want.

The nuance: The explosive narrative forged by Shapovalov doesn’t add to the sport’s customary unquiet ambience. Instead, it has stoked a sense of disquiet that doesn’t dissipate as quickly. It settles into the atmosphere like an ominous overcloud. The Shapo narrative also cut into the positive rendering left behind by Auger-Aliassime, pulling tennis down significantly while giving the idea that it’s all about discord and controversies rather than focusing on the biggest and the naturally-occurring narrative of them all: After matches like Shapovalov’s and Auger-Aliassime’s, the entity that gains the most is the sport itself, through its players.

Likewise, if one were to talk of categorisation, it would be wrong to look back at Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime solely through the lens of these two results and think they gained all the experience they need to win their next tight major-tournament matches. It’s not necessarily going to be that immediate, even though the two certainly moved the needle in the right direction.

Against Nadal, Denis Shapovalov proved he had it in him to stay in for the long haul and play a best-of-five slugfest against one of the best of the game, thus setting a precedent for the path in front of him. Against Medvedev, Felix Auger-Aliassime reinforced the potency of his candidacy as a major title threat in the game’s not-too-distant future.

These developments are the products of those two four-hour-plus matches, beyond the results. How a southpaw and his right-handed Canadian compatriot build on these experiences while determining the best narrative suiting their purposes is a reality that will unfold over the course of their careers. It’s too early to impose an overly specific narrative on the entirety of their professional lives, only on a tournament which offered a mixture of hope and pain.

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