Shapovalov Neutralises 'Secret Weapon' Safiullin, Gives Canada Lead

Canada lost its first four matches of this ATP Cup. But Denis Shapovalov on Saturday put his country one win from the championship tie in Sydney.

The dynamic lefty worked hard to neutralise Russia’s “secret weapon”, Roman Safiullin, battling past the World No. 167 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the semi-finals. Felix Auger-Aliassime can now clinch the tie if he upsets World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in the No. 1 singles match.

It was a tough start to the ATP Cup for Shapovalov, who missed his first singles match as he got up to speed following his quarantine due to a positive Covid-19 test. But the 22-year-old has worked into form and he played his best when it mattered most to take down the gritty Russian.

“Definitely super tough. Obviously Roman is playing with a lot of confidence,” Shapovalov said. “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.”

Safiullin is competing with more confidence than ever, and he fought hard for his country against Shapovalov. But the Canadian’s firepower — from his serve to baseline game — proved too difficult to overcome in the crucial moments over two hours and 39 minutes.

“I’ve known him for a while because the first time I played qualifying of juniors at the Australian Open, Roman was playing the juniors and he won the tournament. He won the Aussie Open, so he’s a guy I’ve looked up to and I’ve always thought he’s got an unbelievable game,” Shapovalov said. “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.”

Team Russia Captain Gilles Cervara helped talk Safiullin through tactical adjustments throughout the match in the Team Zone. In the middle of the second set, Cervara urged his No. 2 singles player to return Shapovalov’s second-serve return from deep in the court if more comfortable, but to step forward for the second ball to avoid forcing shots from far behind the baseline.

That paid dividends, as the 24-year-old increasingly put pressure on his opponent’s serve. For a large portion of the first two sets, Shapovalov powered his way out of trouble. But on Safiullin’s second set point, the World No. 14 hit an overhead into the bottom of the net.

Safiullin sensed an opportunity to press home his momentum and at 2-1 in the third set he earned six break points in a game that lasted nearly 12 minutes. But he did not gain an advantage on any of those points, as Shapovalov took the racquet out of his hand.

Roman Safiullin won two singles matches in group playing coming into the semi-finals.
Photo Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
That game proved absolutely critical. Break there, and Safiullin might have surged to the finish line. Instead, the momentum flipped back to the Canadian’s side of the court, and he broke for a 4-3 lead, which he never relinquished. Shapovalov held to love to close out the match and gave his Team Zone a big fist pump and a “Come on!” to celebrate.

“For sure I felt like I had to buckle down, especially in that game,” Shapovalov said of the 2-1 game. “I just fought through it. I knew if I held that game, the momentum was going to switch quite a lot. That’s exactly what happened. I had a lot of good looks after that on his serve. It was definitely a very crucial game.”

Canada has now won six consecutive matches after losing its first four. Shapovalov is 2-1 in singles, with wins against Safiullin and Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff. Russia winning from here would not be unprecedented. Jannik Sinner beat Safiullin at No. 2 singles on Thursday, but Russia rallied to triumph and win Group B.

Medvedev leads Auger-Aliassime 2-0 in their ATP Head2Head series. It won’t be their first massive clash, as the Russian emerged victorious against the Canadian in last year’s US Open semi-finals.

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