Oh, Canada! After four fabulous weeks that were, these kids are all right

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Michael Dickens

Michael Dickens

They’re just three Canadian teens with the now-familiar names: Bianca Andreescu, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov. After an incredible string of success in March, in which each made plenty of headlines both back home throughout the provinces of Canada as well as across the globe, I’m happy to report: These kids are all right.

It’s a great time to be a Canadian tennis fan, isn’t it?

For starters, Andreescu, 18, who began the year ranked 152nd in the world and entered March at No. 71 after reaching the final in Auckland and semifinals in Acapulco, shot up to No. 23 by winning her first WTA Premier Mandatory title at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.

Meanwhile, Auger-Aliassime, also 18, won eight straight matches in Miami – including two just to qualify for the main draw – and improved his win-loss record to 19-9 in all competitions. He reached the semifinals in Miami after beating Nikolai Basilashvili and Borna Coric, in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, both in straight sets, respectively. Auger-Aliassime has enjoyed a stellar few weeks on the U.S. hard courts that began with a run to the third round at Indian Wells after beating fellow Next Gen ATP star Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets.

Finally, Shapovalov, 19, who had his coming out on the pro tour two summers ago when he beat then-World No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the Rogers Cup, broke into the Top 20 by reaching the round of 16 at Indian Wells. Then, he followed it with a memorable performance in Miami, where he strung together four impressive wins before falling to his idol, Roger Federer, 6-2, 6-4, in the semifinal round.

Together, Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov played a total of 30 matches during March in Indian Wells and Miami. Their combined win-loss record of 25-5 was nothing short of fabulous. Characteristic of their wins, each was able to control the outcome of their matches by over-powering their opposition. When they lost, they went down with a fight.

Each of these prodigies wowed the tennis world – and the tennis media that cover them – by striking the right balance with their youthful exuberance and enthusiasm coupled with their obvious talent between the lines. Suddenly, thoughts of Grand Slam success started to murmur through stadium crowds and in broadcast booths – and on social media – during both Indian Wells and Miami.

“There has been all kinds of talk about the talent of this trio of young Canadians but one basic fact remains,” wrote Tom Tebbutt in an article for TennisCanada.com. “They hit harder and bigger than their opponents.”

The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells provided such a memorable stage for Andreescu, born in Mississauga, Ontario, to experience overnight stardom. She won by showing a gritty variety in her game, thanks to her arsenal of backhand slices and well-disguised drop shots. Plus, she displayed a strength of hitting from the baseline that goes beyond her years.

Along the way to winning the first leg of the “Sunshine Double,” Andreescu beat four Top-20 players – Wang Qiang, Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and in a dramatic final, Angelique Kerber, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. With hopes of another deep run in Miami, she began with wins over Irina-Camelia Begu and Sofia Kenin, then garnered a big victory in her re-match against Kerber, prevailing 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Finally, into the round of 16, Andreescu’s painful right shoulder could withstand no more and the pain forced her to retire early on against Anett Kontaveit. Her spirit might have been broken, but she didn’t break our collective hearts.

Auger-Aliassime, who began the year ranked 109th, generated the same kind of excitement as Andreescu. As if expected, he became the youngest to reach the Miami Open semifinals in the tournament’s 35-year history. Then, in the biggest match of his young career, age finally caught up with the promising Auger-Aliassime as the upstart qualifier was unable to close out either set of his 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) semifinal loss against John Isner, one of the game’s best servers. “For sure, nerves,” said Auger-Aliassime, a native of Montréal, who has improved his ranking to No. 33. “It was like I caught a virus or something.” After he lost, disappointed but not dejected, Auger-Aliassime gathered himself alone on the practice courts to work on his serve that had failed him against Isner.

As for Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ontario, he celebrated a recent victory by breaking out an original rap verse in the middle of an on-court interview that immediately went viral on social media. The lanky lefty with the one-fisted backhand and backward ball cap also displayed some pretty fine tennis in stringing together six wins during an eight-match run. Shapovalov showed his superiority in beating a pair of his Next Gen ATP contemporaries, Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe, in back-to-back matches. Finally, his luck ran out against a vintage Federer, as the Swiss maestro won 91 percent of his first-serve points and his serve was only in danger two times. Although neither he nor Auger-Aliassime were able to make the next leap in a Masters 1000 tournament and reach the final plateau, each now knows what it takes to get there. There will be better days ahead for these kids.

The reception each has received following the “Swing through Spring” in Indian Wells and Miami has been welcoming. There have been lots of smiles and happy faces. Both in Toronto and in Montréal, it’s been game recognizes game. Andreescu was feted at a recent FC Toronto football match after returning home, in which she presented the game ball, and this week, she threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game, adorned in a bright blue Blue Jays jersey. Plus, she held a big Q & A with her fans on Twitter, where she has more than 340,000 followers. She said, “What really motivates me is the love of the game. I enjoy playing. Having the opportunity to inspire others and travel around the world is also a big part of why I enjoy it so much.”

On Tuesday, Auger-Aliassime received a tremendous ovation while attending a Montréal Canadians ice hockey match in his home town. For now, each is relaxing away from competition – as a recent Instagram photo showing Auger-Aliassmine enjoying a quiet moment at home playing Yiruma’s “River Flows In You” on the piano shows.

Looking back, Shapovalov recently tweeted how it was “so great” to see biodegradable stringing bags being used at the Miami Open. “I used 42 bags just this week alone. Think about how much plastic we are wasting yearly. We need to see more of this on tour and try to be more #EcoFriendly.”

Not long from now, new challenges will await each, beginning on European clay, and later on, there’s the grass-court season culminating at Wimbledon. A lot can happen between now and the time each returns home this summer for the North American hard court season and receives a hero’s welcome at the Rogers Cup. One thing’s certain about Andreescu, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov: They are young talent ready to shine on big stages. Each in their own way has made watching tennis fun again.