NEW YORK -- Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, decided against traveling to New York from her home in Toronto to defend her title. Canadian fans, though, still have plenty to cheer about, as the national delegation has compensated for her absence.
Canada has yet to see its first male Grand Slam singles champion, but it is getting closer. For the first time, three of the nation's men claimed places in the fourth round this year.
Denis Shapovalov will attempt to become the first Canadian man to play in the US Open semifinals. Seeded No. 12, he will meet No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta in the quarterfinals Tuesday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium (ESPN).
Although Shapovalov has been as far as the fourth round in New York before, he was 18 at the time and feeling no pressure. He was unable to duplicate that feat at any major until Sunday. Thanks to the default of top-seeded Novak Djokovic, Shapovalov will be, at least on paper, the favorite.
"To kind of get over that hump of the fourth round and make my first [Grand Slam] quarters, it's a huge boost for me," Shapovalov said. "I see that my hard work [is] paying off."
Shapovalov knows he has a tough assignment in Carreno Busta, a player similar to the one Shapovalov eliminated on Sunday, No. 7 seed David Goffin.
A left-hander, Shapovalov is arcing upward, thanks to significant changes made in his support team within the past year. Last August, he hired a new coach, former Russian ATP pro Mikhail Youzhny.
Shapovalov was 17-18 on the season and in the middle of a 2-6 slump when they formed a partnership at the Winston-Salem Open. Shapovalov soon found his footing again, finishing the season 38-27 -- an encouraging prelude to 2020. He started this year ranked No. 14 (one tick off his peak career ranking) with back-to-back wins at the ATP Cup over top-10 fixtures Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
"He's definitely made me a smarter player out there," Shapovalov said of Youzhny.
Renowned for his willingness to take risks and powder almost any ball that comes his way, Shapovalov said Youzhny also has been teaching him to modulate, to win more points with his head than that big left bicep.
"I am definitely trying to play more steady," Shapovalov said, acknowledging that Youzhny's grasp of tactics and strategy opened his eyes. "I feel like Mischa [Youzhny] has helped me a lot with that. I'm just not going out there and trying to blast balls left and right, but actually playing smarter and playing more crafty."
Pospisil, a Wimbledon doubles champion, was beaten by 22-year old No. 21-seed Australian Alex de Minaur, but not before sending shockwaves through the draw with a pair of wins over fellow countryman Milos Raonic, a former Wimbledon finalist, and one of the most feared under-the-radar contenders, No. 8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
But reaching the fourth round was already big for Pospisil, who had not been that far at a major since 2015, when he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Now 30, Pospisil has struggled for years with back pain, but said he is healthy again. "I just assumed that it was just a normal part of sport that everyone had to deal with, having pains every three, four weeks," Pospisil said following his third-round win. "... Clearly it wasn't normal, because now I feel amazing."
Auger-Aliassime was the third Canadian man who still had a shot at the title in the Round of 16, but he fell afoul of Dominic Thiem, the highest seed (No. 2) left in the tournament -- and one of just two players (Daniil Medvedev is the other) who has played in a major final. Thiem has lost in three.
Auger-Aliassime, 20, had another learning experience in his deepest run of a Grand Slam draw. "You play those top 5 players and it reaches another level," he said after his four-set loss. "Thiem is a player who has gone far in these tournaments, I just feel like he was doing everything better than me today."
While Pospisil and Raonic, 29, are veterans who have provided inspiration and leadership in the Canadian contingency, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, along with Andreescu, are the ones who move the needle when it comes to star power.
Fast friends and separated by just a year in age (Shapovalov is older), they rose -- "ripped" may be a better word -- through the Canadian junior development system together, constantly pushing each other to ever greater heights. Shapovalov was the first to get a full view of the kingdom when he became the youngest player to reach an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 semifinal. It happened, fittingly enough, in Montreal in 2017. Shapovalov was just a few months into his 18th birthday.
Then in 2019, the pair of Canadians made a powerful joint statement, just days after Andreescu stunned tennis with her unexpected triumph at Indian Wells. On opposite sides of the draw, the men belted their way to the semifinals at the Miami Open, where Shapovalov was finally throttled by Roger Federer, and Auger-Aliassime was halted by John Isner.
In under two weeks during the North American winter, Canada had emerged as a potential tennis superpower.
The nation's young stars suddenly found themselves under the lens of a larger microscope, and the adjustment hasn't always been easy. Auger-Aliassime won just three Grand Slam matches since the start of 2019 before his US Open run. That included a painful first-round loss at the Australian Open, the only previous Grand Slam of this year, to No. 256 Ernests Gulbis.
Auger-Aliassime has shown flashes of brilliance in reaching the finals at four ATP Tour events since that Miami breakout, but he has struggled to close the deal. He hasn't won one and lost to a lower-ranked player in two. But the six-month lockdown triggered by the pandemic enabled him to pause, reassess his needs and work on his game and attitude.
"Physically I got better [during the break] at the consistency of my efforts, my concentration and commitment," Auger-Aliassime said. "They're very rare now, matches now that I feel like I don't give myself a chance, or I'm not fighting well enough."
Both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime profess a love for New York City and its crown jewel tournament, even though it currently lacks the vibrancy and roar of former years because of the absence of fans. Auger-Aliassime has described growing up in Canada as a happy experience because the nation has become, like New York, a "melting pot." In fact, Canadian tennis players may be the ultimate testament to that. Auger-Aliassime's mother is a Quebecoise, his father is from the African nation of Togo. Shapovalov was born in Tel Aviv to Israeli-Russian parents.
"To kind of get over that hump of the fourth round and make my first [Grand Slam] quarters, it's a huge boost for me." Denis Shapovalov
Auger-Aliassime, who hadn't won a main draw US Open match before this year thanks largely to the efforts of Shapovalov (who defeated his friend in the first round in each of the last two years), has embraced the tournament despite the onerous protocols and restrictions of life in the bubble.
Shapovalov has his own reasons to feel inspired by the US Open: a history of success. He reached the fourth round in his first attempt in New York. He's 14-3 at this tournament, two of his three losses coming in epic, high-profile battles with ATP stars Gael Monfils and Kevin Anderson.
With those frustrating first-round US Open meetings in the rearview mirror for both players, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime found themselves in opposite halves of the draw this year. The prospect of them meeting in the final in an event that no longer had a Grand Slam champion in contention was in play until Monday. Don't think the young Canadians didn't fantasize about the prospect.
"To grow up with a really close friend, a guy that you've been battling against for years from juniors, to go through Futures, Challengers, everything together -- all the way to the top," Shapovalov said. "It would be great. It would be ... a movie."
That movie will not be shot at this US Open. There's a new script now, but this one too might end with a Canadian singles player once again hoisting the trophy on Sunday.