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Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov among Canadian tennis players on the rise: McEnroe

VANCOUVER — Tennis legend John McEnroe went into last year's Laver Cup an underdog.
Team World's Felix Auger-Aliassime celebrates after winning a point against Team Europe's Andy Murray and Matteo Berrettini on final day of the Laver Cup tennis tournament at the O2 in London, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kin Cheung

VANCOUVER — Tennis legend John McEnroe went into last year's Laver Cup an underdog. 

He'd captained Team World through the first four iterations of the international tournament, falling each time to a star-studded Team Europe helmed by his longtime rival Bjorn Borg. 

The losses were beginning to weigh.

“I was starting to feel like the Washington Generals playing the Globetrotters," McEnroe told reporters on a video call Thursday. "This was getting to be too much."

It was a Canadian that proved to be the difference maker.

Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime teamed up with American Jack Sock to down Andy Murray and Matteo Berrettini in doubles action, then stunned onlookers with a singles win over Novak Djokovic to give World a lead that ultimately turned into the team's first Laver Cup title.

"Felix was our MVP last year," McEnroe said. "He really turned the tide for us big time, beating Novak, winning a huge doubles match. And that was critical for us."

The 22-year-old Canadian will look to help Team World defend its title when the tournament founded by Roger Federer's management company comes to Vancouver Sept. 22-24. 

The annual event sees six of the top men's players from across Europe battle six of the top players from around the world, and Auger-Aliassime became the first player named to McEnroe's 2023 squad earlier this month.

Bringing the current world No. 9 back was a "no brainer," the captain said. 

“It seemed like he got a spark from (last year's) Laver Cup because he went out and had a great fall and showed who was boss out there for the next two, three months," he said. "So he's got to bring that type of energy and willingness to keep improving.” 

Auger-Aliassime won four ATP Tour titles in 2022 and helped Canada to its first Davis Cup victory. He also climbed to a career-high sixth spot on the world rankings in November.

There are higher accolades in the young athlete's future, McEnroe said. 

“I think he's going to win a major in the next year, 18 months at the most," he said. "I think he's made great progress."

Canadian tennis as a whole has captured the world's attention in recent years.

Back in 2019, Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., had just defeated Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open, while Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., sat above a number of Americans in the world rankings. 

"We’re like, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on? I thought Canada was just hockey players, They were better in tennis than we were and we (Americans) were like ‘What the hell’s going on up there?’” said McEnroe, an American who won 77 ATP singles titles and 78 doubles titles over the course of his playing career.

“Back in my day, you’re like ‘I hope I play a Canadian.’ Not the case anymore."

Tennis Canada appears to have given young, up-and-coming athletes the support they need, and more success is likely to come, he added. 

Shapovalov is one player that McEnroe believes could be in for bigger wins.

The 23-year-old is currently ranked 27th in the world, down from the career-high 10th he achieved back in September 2020. 

He's been compared to McEnroe for his intensity and occasional on-court incidents, including vocal disputes with umpires.

“Denis is hugely talented. He’s a good kid, he works at it. At times, he’s a little bit like a chicken with his head cut off — you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get from him, which is difficult to play against," McEnroe said.

What Shapovalov needs in order to take another step is consistency, said the legend, who now runs a tennis academy in New York

“You’ve seen signs with Denis that he can go a long way. And I wouldn’t say he couldn’t win a major. He could absolutely win a major. But he’s got to shore up a couple things in his mind and be able to sort of, as seldomly as possible, beat himself," McEnroe said. 

“I firmly believe he could be in the top 10.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press