Rafael Nadal returns to Montreal looking for 5th Rogers Cup title
Spanish great praises young Canadian talent
It was far and away the biggest moment of Denis Shapovalov's young career.
But for Rafael Nadal, their Rogers Cup quarterfinal two years ago stands out as both an electric night and a missed opportunity.
A wide smile plastered across his face, Shapovalov lay on his back after upsetting one of the sport's living legends in a third-set tiebreak before a raucous crowd that included NHL great Wayne Gretzky.
The 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., had just burst on the scene. Canadian tennis fans couldn't get enough.
Nadal, meanwhile, was on the cusp of once again becoming the top-ranked player in the world. He instead walked off centre court wondering what had just happened.
"A great match," he recalled Sunday. "Honestly, I lost plenty of opportunities. He played great ... he played with the right determination."
Nadal, who would reclaim the No. 1 ranking a few weeks later, is back in Montreal after winning his fourth Rogers Cup with a victory over Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2018 tournament's final.
"I have a good memory in terms of atmosphere," the 33-year-old added of the abrupt end to his last appearance in Quebec some 24 month ago. "Not a good memory personally for me because I lost a match I had under control."
Shapovalov, who has struggled recently, said Saturday he sometimes goes back to watch the tape of that night to find inspiration.
"You can play at that level, you can beat these guys," the now-20-year-old said of reliving his victory over Nadal. "I was so fearless, so confident, going up against a beast like Rafa."
Nadal, who beat Shapovalov handily in their only subsequent meeting on clay, again figures to be a beast at this year's Rogers Cup.
Nadal applaudes Auger-Aliassime
He's 37-6 this season with two tournament wins, including his 12th French Open, and is ranked second in the world behind Novak Djokovic and one spot ahead of Roger Federer, who are both skipping the tournament.
"I cannot be thinking if Roger or Novak are here or are not here," Nadal said. "Tennis is more than only three players."
With that in mind, eight of the world's top-10 will compete at IGA Stadium, including 2017 champion and third-seeded Alexander Zverev (ranked fifth in the world) of Germany and a Canadian contingent headlined by Milos Raonic (20th) of Thornhill, Ont., Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime (22nd) and Shapovalov (31st).
The women's bracket of the Rogers Cup, meanwhile, is being played in Toronto.
Nadal said he's been especially impressed by Auger-Aliassime, set to turn 19 on Thursday and under an intense hometown microscope. He's already won 28 matches this season and holds a 12-4 record over his last four tournaments.
"I like his character," Nadal, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, said. "He's passionate about his sport.
"I would love to see him on top position winning important things because I really believes he deserves it and I really believe he will do it."
Zverev, who defeated Shapovalov in the semis in Montreal two years ago, and both youngsters could be greats one day.
"Canada has two potential Grand Slam champions growing up right now," said the 22-year-old with 11 singles titles to his name. "Felix, with what he's doing this year, is amazing ... and Dennis has shown over the past few years that he's going to become a great champion as well.
"I'm excited to see what the future holds."
Raonic will be the first Canadian to hit the court in the first round when he faces Lucas Pouille of France on Monday before Shapovalov takes on Pierre-Hugues Herbert, also a Frenchman, under the lights.
Auger-Aliassime is scheduled to open his singles tournament Tuesday against Vancouver's Vasek Pospisil. The pair are also doubles teammates and continue the Canada versus France theme Monday against Jeremy Chardy and Fabrice Martin.
Montreal's Rogers Cup venue was originally built as Jarry Park Stadium — home to the Major League Baseball's Expos from 1969 to 1976 before the team moved to Olympic Stadium — with the curved press box and south end of the renovated south grandstand still offering a shadow of the venue's past.
The owner of a bye to the second round as the top seed at the US$5.7-million ATP Tour Masters 1000 series event, Nadal will likely have to wait until Wednesday to open his tournament.
Hardcourts haven't been kind to him in recent years, including a withdrawal from the 2018 U.S. Open, but he said the prospect of an injury never enters his psyche.
"I am focused on the ball, on the opponent, on things I have to do well to play at my best," he said. "If you think about getting injured, you cannot play tennis."
Nadal has changed the way he plays compared to 10 years ago, but the surface remains hard on the body.
"Sometimes it's unlucky, sometimes it's because I am 33," he said of the injuries. "At the same time, hardcourts are tougher for the body than clay or grass."
Nadal has won two of his four Rogers Cups in Montreal, including his first-ever hardcourt victory in 2005 in the final against Andre Agassi.
"It means a lot to me, that moment," he said. "I always have good feelings playing here."
Last time, however, Shapovalov ruined those good vibes.