No. 3 seed Denis Shapovalov advances, Alexei Popyrin plays out boyhood dream despite loss

Popyrin returns to Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships where he was once a ball kid

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DUBAI: Denis Shapovalov came through an intimidating opening match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday, defeating Jan-Lennard Struff 6-1 6-3 to reach the third round.

The No. 3 seed could have been forgiven for feeling a sense of despair when he saw the draw as he had lost the last four matches he had played against his German opponent, his lone victory coming in 2018.

But the Canadian was on the front foot right from the start and never looked in any danger of conceding his advantage.

His turnaround in fortunes was at least partly due to having former two-time Dubai runner-up Mikhail (Misha) Youzhny in his coaching corner.

“Misha told me the balls would be flying but that pretty much suits my game. From the first practice, I was able to feel the court well,” said Shapovalov, who is making his debut in Dubai this week.

“I knew it was a very difficult match. I’ve had difficulties with him in the past, so I knew it was going to be a tough match for me, but I feel any match is a new match and it’s always starting from zero zero. So, the past doesn’t really mean much.

“I definitely played very well. I was just trying to pick my target on my serve to be honest, playing the way I’ve been playing in practice. I didn’t really change my game plan compared to the other times I played him.

“I was just trying to make a lot of returns, to place the ball on my serve, and I was able to put a lot of pressure from the beginning on the returns and I think he felt that pressure and started throwing in a couple of double faults and more second serves so I was getting a lot of looks,” he added.

No. 8 seed, Russian player Karen Khachanov, was stretched to the limit by tournament wild card Alexei Popyrin, edging through 6-4 3-6 7-6(4) after a grueling two hours and 16 minutes. The 21-year-old Australian won the first title of his career last month in Singapore, and once worked as a ball kid at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

“I came out to practice on court and remembered center court being much bigger than it actually is,” said Popyrin.

“It’s a beautiful center court and I remember just, you know, just being part of a group with the ball boys, having my friends there around. I remember having lunch and dinner at the back where the ball boys usually were. And, you know, the smells. The smell is very similar, and they bring the pictures back of me being a ball kid,” he added.

Aslan Karatsev continued his remarkable run of success since the season began by overcoming No. 12 seed and 2020 semi-finalist, British player Dan Evans, 6-4 4-6 6-4.

The tournament wild card was the sensation of the recent Australian Open, where he won eight matches to advance all the way from the qualifying rounds to the semi-finals, when his run was ended by eventual champion Novak Djokovic. His only other defeat this year came last week in Doha to world No. 4 and Dubai top seed Dominic Thiem, although as consolation he won the doubles with Andrey Rublev.

It took Karatsev two hours and 22 minutes to overcome a resilient Evans. The Russian ended a run of three successive first set breaks by leading 4-3, and fortunes swung one way and then the other in the second set as Evans rallied from 2-4 to level the match. The final set was even more closely contested, with Karatsev breaking in the first game but then having to fight off two break points as he served out the match.

Malek Jaziri’s tournament was ended 7-5 6-2 by 11th seed Dusan Lajovic, 13th seed Hubert Hurkacz beat Richard Gasquet 6-3 6-4, 16th seed Jannik Sinner defeated Alexander Bublik 2-6 7-6(2) 6-4, and 17th seed Lorenzo Sonego overwhelmed qualifier Bernabe Zapata Miralles 6-2 6-2.

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