Midway through the third set of their first-round match at this year’s US Open, Canadian Denis Shapovalov said three words tennis fans rarely hear in the middle of a match.
“Are you okay?” Shapovalov asked fellow Canadian opponent, 18-year-old Felix Auger-Alliassime, across the net. Spectators wondered—was that a sign of compassion in the middle of a tennis match?
Two minutes later, Auger-Alliassime would lie at the foot of his chair while his trainer pulled out a stethoscope. While he’d be able to pull through for two more games in the match, those watching could feel the heaviness in his legs and the quivering of his lips. There would be no finishing this match.
Shapo and Felix pic.twitter.com/Kg8HWsmpxT
— Joe Fleming (@ByJoeFleming) August 28, 2018
When the US Open draw was unveiled on Aug. 23, the match between the two Canadians was labelled a blockbuster. Shapovalov, 19, capping off his first full year on the world circuit, walked into the tournament as one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents. Auger-Alliassime, meanwhile, was making his first main draw appearance at a grand slam tournament.
The catch is the two teenagers are best friends.
Last summer, Shapovalov became the oft-mispronounced talk of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) when he took down the highest-ranked player in the world, Rafael Nadal, at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal.
Shapovalov’s residence during the tournament was Auger-Alliassime’s basement—the two are close.
Up until Auger-Alliassime’s concession at the Open, there were few signs of the match slowing down.
The players had split the first two sets 7-5, 5-7. The yells of encouragement and racquet abuse indicated the bigger things that were at stake: a $40,000 difference in prize money, ranking points and a load of endorsement cash.
But when Auger-Alliassime’s health took a turn for the worse, the stakes evaporated. The last thing that mattered was the match.
When he officially conceded, Shapovalov exchanged the traditional handshake for a long hug as Auger-Alliassime cried into his shoulder.
It didn’t matter if you were a tennis fan or not, it was a deeply powerful moment—and a moment we should learn from.
Since sports became a source of entertainment decades ago, they’ve facilitated an increasingly hostile environment. The hyper-competitive nature of all sports—spanning from early junior leagues to the pros—have made candid moments like these even more powerful because of how infrequently they occur.
In most matches, Auger-Alliassime’s opponent would’ve shaken his hand, given him a pat on the back and hopped in an ice bath.
Coming from a background in competitive sports, the moment struck me as a beautiful lesson for young athletes and parents raising their children in an athletic environment. Nearly every junior level tennis tournament—as well as other sports—sees poorly behaved parents and children who lose their temperament in the heat of a game.
The most notable part about this match was that the athletes didn’t lose their competitive edge—Shapovalov’s ripped shirt lying beside his chair indicated just that—but the visible respect the players had for each other was unmistakable.
The hyper-competitive mentality in sports is something that’s terribly difficult to erase. Competition will always be a flawed environment and it’s a reality that’ll persist as long as the stakes remain as high as they are.
Both Shapovalov and Auger-Alliassime displayed a translation of the basic treatment of others in the real world to people in a competitive world. It’s not always easy to accomplish, but athletes like these get us closer to an equally competitive and compassionate athletic arena.
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