Canada joins the Davis Cup winners’ circle

By Vanessa Taylor and Russell Boxshall

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Canada rose from the ashes of its qualifying loss to claim its first Davis Cup.

Finally, after entering the event 109 times, Canada became the 16th nation to win the Cup in the event’s 112 years – starting in 1900, the event lost 10 years to world wars and one to the Covid pandemic. 

The country’s progression to the final was not without controversy. Russia and Belarus were excluded from the competition due to the war on Ukraine so had to be replaced. As the highest ranked nation to lose in qualifying, Canada was granted a wildcard to the final series in preference to Chile, which was the highest ranked winner in the same World Group 1 play-offs.

Nonetheless, once they accessed the finals, Canada achieved 2-1 scorelines in the quarter-finals against Germany and in the semis versus Italy. In both ties they came back after losing the first rubber.

On the day of the final, the Canadians played out of their skins. Denis Shapovalov was determined to make up for his earlier singles losses in the final series – in three sets to Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany and to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy.

Denis Shapovalov playing Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis. Photo: saolab

As Canada’s opponent in the final, Australia was making its first final appearance since 2003 when they defeated Spain on grass in Melbourne. Australia is second only to the US with 28 victories and this tie became its 20th as runner up.

Australia’s path to the final was via wins over the Nederlands and Croatia.

Under the current format of the Davis Cup By Rakuten, as it is now known, the week long final series was held in the one location – Málaga, Spain. So both final teams were denied a home crowd. For many Canadians, their distance from the event was compounded when broadcaster Sportsnet lost its satellite signal just before the last match point.

The 9,500 fans who attended included Novak Djokovic with his son Stefan and brother, former player Marko.

British player Katie Boulter was an honorary Aussie for the day, sitting watching the matches with the small Australian fan contingent. She wore a T-shirt bearing the Australian Coat of Arms featuring a kangaroo and emu and supported Thanasi Kokkinakis and her boyfriend Alex De Minaur through their matches.

Kokkinakis had not been in great form going into the final, having lost in his semi-final singles rubber 4 and 3 to Croatia’s Borna Ćorić.

Thanasi Kokkinakis against Denis Shapovalov.
Photo: Vicente Vidal Fernandez

Right from the beginning of their match, Shapovalov’s volatile single-handed backhand was at the brilliant end of its spectrum. He was up 4-0 in 16 minutes before Kokkinakis got a game with an ace.

The Australian held his serve again for 2-5 but Shapovalov won the next game and the set in 32 minutes. Kokkinakis couldn’t shake off his nerves and was unable to play anywhere near his best.

He lifted in the second set to win two service games and break a suddenly shaky Shapovalov to get back to 3-5. Then he played his best game of the match, holding to love to make the Canadian serve it out with his second match point.

Afterwards Kokkinakis ruminated on his play. “Unfortunately, I was pretty much useless in this final…,” he said. “The guys believed in me maybe more than I believed in myself at times today.”

He wondered if Jordan Thompson should have played in his place, given that Thompson had won his singles rubber in the quarter-finals.

Instead Thompson was kept for the doubles rubber with Max Purcell, replacing an injured Matthew Ebden who had partnered with Purcell to win the Wimbledon doubles. As it transpired, the doubles rubber against Vasek Pospisil and Felix Augur-Aliassime wasn’t required.

The second singles rubber was reserved for the number 1 player from each country’s team. Ranked 6th in the world, Augur-Aliassime faced Australia’s De Minaur, ranked 24.

Australia’s top male player, Wimbledon finalist and Australian Open doubles champion Nick Kyrgios, has declined to play Davis Cup for the last three years, despite the urging of his teammates and Captain Lleyton Hewitt.

Alex De Minaur playing Felix Auger Aliassime. Photo: SOPA Images Limited

De Minaur has the same passion for the Cup that Hewitt had as a player and has now as Captain. Hewitt played in winning teams twice, in 1999 and 2003.

After making his debut in 2018, De Minaur headed to the tattooist with Jordan Thompson tagging along to get “109” permanently inked on his chest, over his heart. The tattoo signifies that he was the 109th player called up to represent Australia.

Prior to the final, his Davis Cup win/loss was 11-4, including 10-1 on hardcourt. On this Málaga hardcourt, he moved past Botic Van de Zanschulp in three sets, then played remarkably in the semis to wallop Marin Čilić 2 and 2.

Augur-Aliassime came into the Davis Cup finals having just won three ATP titles in three weeks – Florence, Antwerp and Basel. Then he beat Oscar Otte in the quarter-final against Germany and in the semis Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti, before partnering with Vasek Pospisil to beat Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini in the doubles. 

Unsurprisingly, Augur-Aliassime elected to serve, having not dropped a service game throughout the finals week. His work to improve the consistency of his ball toss has paid off in reducing double faults. Also obvious were other recent improvements – quicker movement to the forehand to produce more winners and fewer errors on his backhand.

Felix Auger Aliassime serving to Alex De Minaur. Photo: Frank Molter

De Minaur was unable to convert a break point in the third game and with the set still on serve at 4-3, Augur-Aliassime was able to break him and then serve it out. Brilliant passing with his forehand counteracted De Minaur’s speed around the court.

Early in the second set, the Australian again had break points on his opponent’s serve but lost both opportunities. Augur-Aliassime seized his break point next game to go up 2-1.

A brilliant lob over Augur-Aliassime’s head at 2-3 gave De Minaur another three break points. Again, he was unable to convert them and lost the game. At 4-5, he got 30-0 with brilliant attacking play as Augur-Aliassime was attempting to serve for the match. The “Aussie, Aussie” chant rang out as the few Australians present made themselves heard. But all the following points went to the Canadian for 6-4. Game, set, rubber, tie, Davis Cup.

The national anthem plays for the winners Canada. Photo: Felice Calabroa

Australian tennis has done well this year, reaching the final of the Davis Cup without its number 1 player, as well as making the final of the Billie Jean King Cup despite the retirement of WTA number 1 Ash Barty earlier in the year.

For the Canadians, their 2015 win in the Junior Davis Cup, featuring Shapovalov and Augur-Aliassime, eventually translated into the current victory.

Veteran player Vasek Pospisil has represented Canada 27 times and explained, “We’ve been dreaming about this for several years.

“These guys are not kids any more. They’ve been crushing it. You can’t win this event without tremendous team chemistry.”

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