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Sports Auger-Aliassime forced to retire match with health concern, advancing Shapovalov at U.S. Open

Denis Shapovalov, left, passes in front of Felix Auger-Aliassime during their first-round match at the U.S. Open in New York, on Aug. 27, 2018.

Julio Cortez

Back when he was quite possibly the most obnoxious teenager in history, Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten liked to begin conversations by asking people their age.

Once they’d answered, Rotten would sneer, “You’re too old.”

He grew as famous for this act as for his inability to sing – the perpetual child who loved making adults feel spent and superfluous.

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Eventually, Rotten met his match in Julie Burchill, a journalistic genius who quit high school to write for the New Musical Express.

Burchill, 16, began her interview by asking Rotten his own question. When he said, “19,” she stuck the knife in: “Too old.”

It was the making of her and, to a certain way of thinking, the end of him.

If not top of mind, that sense of accelerated ageing was somewhere in the vicinity of mind as Denis Shapovalov played Félix Auger-Aliassime at the U.S. Open on Monday.

Until a few weeks ago, Shapovalov, 19, was Canadian tennis’ plucky, overachieving kid. He’d been coasting for most of a year on one great win in Montreal and a fourth-round appearance at Flushing Meadows.

He hasn’t done much this season. Back in May, he made the semi-finals of the Madrid Open, a biggish tournament, but that’s been it.

That was all just fine until the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Auger-Aliassime announced himself there, showing just as much pluck as his national counterpart – and perhaps a smidgen more charisma.

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As you have no doubt heard a million times in the last little while, the pair are the best of friends. Apparently, they Snapchat every single day. So it must be true, because the only man who could make me communicate electronically so regularly is a parole officer.

Shapovalov said all the right things about Auger-Aliassime nudging his way into the Canadian spotlight, but it was also hard not to notice that the older teen was suddenly a little irritable about his place in the world. The low point was whining that he’d been moved from the main court at York University because of a rain delay.

Whatever the cause, Shapovalov seemed off the whole time he was back home – and was bounced early and hard.

That leaves the U.S. Open as his last chance to make a serious impression on this season. So you know what happened.

When he heard he’d been drawn in the first round against his fremesis, Auger-Aliassime was blasé about the unlikelihood of it all: “It’s against the odds, but that’s how it is.”

(Parenthetically, I don’t think that’s how that song goes.)

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We have to guess at what Shapovalov thought because he didn’t come out to say anything about it. If the goal here is proving how little pressure he feels, he might want to rethink his approach.

Whatever these two are selling, people are clearly interested – and not just Canadians. Although this was the youngest combined men’s pairing in a dozen years, it had the feel of a formidable encounter.

The U.S. Open’s organizers gave them a sweet slot on opening day – a 5 p.m. start on the grandstand. They were to be the opening act for the night’s headliners.

Milos Raonic called it “a nice showtime” – heavy emphasis on the “show” part.

(Canada’s former big man got a shortly-after-the-crack-of-dawn start and won in four sets. Vasek Pospisil won as well.)

If people were hoping to be entertained by two teenage prodigies, they certainly were. If they were counting on learning anything about the finer technical points of tennis, they most definitely did not.

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The all-Canadian match was a mess. A very watchable mess, but a mess nonetheless.

For most of the first hour, Shapovalov served like a malfunctioning sprinkler.

During one stretch, Auger-Aliassime was broken in nine of 10 service games.

In between, each man repeatedly pranged the ball into the net. Or the stands. Or the courtside seats. If there had been a stop sign to hit, they’d have hit it.

Combined, the pair notched a truly ambitious 93 unforced errors in just three sets (against 35 total winners).

Early on, Shapovalov was the one who looked most brittle. He spent much of the first set staring forlornly at either his box or his racquet – as if the stick was to blame. Upon losing the second set, he Incredible Hulk’d his T-shirt, ripping it from the neck down.

This is only his fifth grand slam, but he suddenly looked desperate.

Playing in his first-ever major, Auger-Aliassime was overawed, perhaps dangerously so.

The match ended early – and in worrying fashion. Midway through the third, Auger-Aliassime began perceptibly struggling – so much so that the umpire urged him to stop and see the trainer. He complained of a racing heart and lay on his back with his feet elevated for several minutes.

He returned but was unable to move with any vigour. After two games, he retired and then burst into tears. He and Shapovalov spent a long time embracing at the net.

When Auger-Aliassime retreated to his bench for further treatment, Shapovalov trailed along so he could sit alongside with a protective arm around his friend.

“Look, we’re going to be back here,” Shapovalov said later he told Auger-Aliassime. “We’re going to be playing in the finals. This is just one match. We’re going to have so many of these.”

You could see the full pressure of prodigiousness then, from two distinct angles.

For Auger-Aliassime, it was being overcome by expectations and the pressure of the moment. At least, let’s hope that’s what it was.

For Shapovalov, it was the sense that he is no longer young. Not “young” young. They’re already coming up behind him, even his friends. He’s no longer doing this for fun. He’s doing it for a living.

It’ll be a good while before either man is old, never mind too old. The future is still tantalizingly bright.

But one can only be precocious for so long. And it’s not long at all.

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