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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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It wasn't the ultimate breakthrough they crave, but it was a breakthrough all the same.

Denis Shapovalov advanced to his first career Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. His friend and countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime advanced to his first major quarter-final. 

"It's amazing for the country," said Frank Dancevic, Canada's Davis Cup captain. "These are two young guys and I feel like it's just the beginning of something special."

On the biggest stage of his career, Shapovalov went toe-to-toe with World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Friday. He ultimately fell in straight sets, but the match was anything but straightforward. The 22-year-old served for the opening set and dictated play much of the second. And even when trailing by two sets, he never stopped fighting. 

Shapovalov was emotional as he left the court. 

"What hurt so much this time was just that I felt like the game is there and it's possible to go and play for the trophy," Shapovalov explained. "It's a feeling I've never had before, so that's why it just hurt so much. I felt like I was outplaying Novak in parts of the match. If you're outplaying Novak, you can beat anyone."

In the third round, Shapovalov made his debut at Centre Court, which is perhaps the most sacred ground in the sport. He faced two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and played near flawless tennis in a straight-sets win. 

"The biggest thing was how calm he was," observed Rohan Bopanna, who became a friend and mentor to Shapovalov after they started playing doubles together. "Every time I saw him in between points or at the changeover he was very calm. I think he just soaked in each and every moment and played his best tennis."

In the quarter-finals, Shapovalov trailed Karen Khachanov two sets to one, but didn't get flustered. Instead, he raised his level at the right time. 

Shapovalov has learned how to harness his emotions on court. In an interview with TSN, he joked that he only yells out after every third point now versus every point. He's more relaxed in big moments. 

"He has matured as a player," observed Djokovic, who went on to win his sixth Wimbledon title on Sunday. "I feel like he's probably taking down the number of unforced errors. I feel like he's always been a very aggressive player, trying to make winners, come to the net, dictate the play from the back of the court, but I feel like now he's probably a bit more patient in his game. He's understanding how to construct the point."

Auger-Aliassime is also maturing. In the fourth round, the 20-year-old faced No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, who he had never taken a set off in three previous matches. Auger-Aliassime fell behind by a break in the first and second sets before rallying to win both. He saved a set point in the second set tiebreak. 

Zverev roared back to take the third and fourth sets, but Auger-Aliassime didn't back down. He took an early lead in the fifth set and, even after the German got back on serve, Auger-Aliassime refused to go away. 

"It's a big milestone for me in my young career," he said afterwards. "You want to play well in the Grand Slams, especially here being my favourite tournament. Also, the way it happened, so many ups and downs, this match really had everything. I had to dig deep physically and mentally. Of course, it makes it even sweeter."

The run at Wimbledon capped off a strong grass-court season for Auger-Aliassime, who picked up a win over childhood idol Roger Federer at Halle and finished with a 10-3 record on the surface. 

"His game is coming together," said Tennis Canada vice-president Eugène Lapierre, who is the tournament director in Montreal. "It's getting more and more confident. He showed us last year and before that he could make too many double faults, get pressured on his serve, but not anymore. His ground strokes are very good. His forehand is a weapon. If he can come in a little more and close some of those points at net, I think he’s going to be one of the top guys out there." 

Auger-Aliassime lost to good friend and eventual finalist Matteo Berrettini in four sets in the quarter-finals. 

The Wimbledon runs by Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime are even more impressive when you factor in the pandemic and bubble environment. 

"I've been here for a month," Shapovalov noted after his loss. "Mentally I'm starting to go ... I'm exhausted not just from the tournament, but from this whole situation, the restrictions, I mean, it's not easy for anyone."

"These guys are so young," stressed Dancevic. "When I think of Felix and Denis, I think of guys who are 24, 25 years old, but these guys are in their early 20s ... These are two guys who are potential Slam winners in the next five to 10 years."

In the ATP rankings released on Monday, Auger-Aliassime is up four spots to No. 15, which is a new career high. Shapovalov is up two spots to No. 10, which matches his career high. 

And there's no doubt they have emerged from Wimbledon better versions of themselves. 

"I'm super happy with my level and the way I've been able to play throughout these two weeks," Shapovalov said. "It's a level I've never played before. The way I carried myself these two weeks, it's been different. I don't consider myself the same player. Hopefully I can use this to keep going and improve even more ... I don't want to stop here. I want to keep going and just get back on the court and keep improving even more.

"If anything, this has made me more hungry to try to win a trophy."