Canada is through to their first ATP Cup final after Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov pulled off a miraculous comeback in the deciding doubles rubber.
The two rising stars looked outmatched at times but held their nerve when it mattered most and ultimately secured the semi-final tie with a 4-6, 7-5, [10-7] victory.
Daniil Medvedev and Roman Safiullin were yet to taste defeat together prior to Saturday and looked well on their way to clinching Russia’s second’s consecutive final.
But the Canadian combination had something to say about that and despite a slow start were able to find a way both in the second set and match tiebreak.
It’s been quite the turnaround for Team Canada who lost their first four matches of the tournament and were at risk of being eliminated in the group stage if other results had not gone their way.
And so, with Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov in a sense playing with house money, the pair fittingly took full advantage.
The crescendo came on match point when Shapovalov made a diving volley that secured the victory and saw the childhood friends celebrate by jumping into each other’s arms.
Auger-Aliassime was haunted by unforced errors in his singles match and those errors were not absent when it came time for the decisive doubles rubber.
At the same time, the World No. 11 bailed Team Canada out on several occasions with his serve and importantly found some much needed touch at the net late in the piece.
“Felix played unbelievable in the game to break and then in the [match] tie-break as well – just making them play so much,” Shapovalov said with Todd Woodbridge after the match.
“It was awesome. We kept fighting. We have great team chemistry, team spirit, so it helped us a lot.”
Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov have known each other for more than a decade now and that connection may well prove important if a decisive doubles rubber is required in tomorrow’s final.
Auger-Aliassime found himself on the quick back-up after his singles rubber, but so did his Medvedev who took the points 6-4, 6-0 in a sensational performance over 69 minutes.
Auger-Aliassime entered the match off the best win of his young career rankings wise after he defeated World No. 3 Alexander Zverev on Thursday night and was on song early.
The 21-year-old Canadian managed to keep Medvedev at bay on his service games early but a couple of loose errors at 4-4 was all the reigning US Open Champion needed.
“It was really tough for me until 4-3 in the first. I actually thought, ‘How can I actually break his serve?’ He was serving just aces, playing good, so I knew I just had to stay in the match, try to do what I can, what’s possible against his big game," Medvedev said during his on- court interview.
"He definitely started to play a little bit worse, and I managed to use it, and that was the key today.”
After Medvedev snatched the lead, the game of Auger-Aliassime began to come apart at the seams and the all-court awareness of the Russian was clearly too much for him.
A singles sweep for Team Canada was never in the offing considering the World No. 2 collected 88 per cent of his first-serve points whilst not facing a single break point.
Earlier on Ken Rosewall Arena, Shapovalov claimed the early ascendancy for his country with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win over Roman Safiullin.
The Canadian’s power-hitting saw him seize control early, but momentum would change hands several times over the ensuing two hours and 39 minutes.
It was Shapovalov’s second win for the week after he missed his first singles match due to a less than ideal preparation in quarantine thanks to a positive COVID-19 test.
A win over World No. 51 Jan-Lennard Struff and tight-loss to the red-hot Dan Evans served the 22-year-old well heading into the match and, from the jump, he looked a class above.
But a confident Safiullin, amidst the best week of his career, would not go away and when Shapovalov’s level dropped late in the second set he capitalised.
Thanks to a shift in return stance, the Russian was increasingly able to apply pressure on his opponent’s serve and the match looked to be slipping away from Shapovalov early in the third.
Down 2-1 in the decider, Shapovalov was forced to save six break points to stay in touch and while successful, the significance of that hold was far greater than the scoreboard could indicate.
The momentum shift in that game helped the Canadian to a break for 4-3 and there was never any doubt from there as the Canadian converted on his first match point.
The sheer power of Shapovalov, both on serve and from the baseline, was ultimately too much for his opponent but the level of Safiullin was once again befitting of a player ranked closer to 50 than his current ranking of 157 – just ask his opponent.
"Obviously Roman is playing with a lot of confidence," Shapovalov said post-match. "He’s a great player and surely he’s going to have an amazing season, so I’m very happy to get the win. It was definitely very tough."
"He’s shown this competition that he definitely should be ranked in the top 100. The way he was playing today, it was top 10, top 20 tennis, it was incredible."
Canada will now meet Spain in the ATP Cup final on Sunday night. Team Spain will be looking to go one better on its runner up finish in the inaugural event while Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov will be looking to exact revenge from their 2019 Davis Cup final defeat.