MELBOURNE, Australia – Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are enjoying quite a run in the Australian sun.
For the first time, two Canadian men have reached the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Auger-Aliassime wore down 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2, 7-6 (4) to join Shapovalov in the last eight.
“I lost three times to Marin. He’s going to come out with his best level and make me earn my win and I’m happy to get through, particularly the way I did it,” the 21-year-old, No. 9-seeded Auger-Aliassime said. “The sun here in Australia hits you pretty hard (but) I feel good.”
The Canadians tuned up for the Australian Open by winning the ATP Cup in Sydney earlier this month, the pair winning their singles matches to defeat Spain in final.
The 22-year-old Shapovalov will play 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals on Tuesday in the top half of the men’s bracket. Auger-Aliassime will play U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev on Wednesday.
WHERE IS PENG SHUAI?
Tennis great Martina Navratilova and French player Nicolas Mahut have joined the criticism of Australian Open organizers following a crackdown on activists wearing T-shirts and unfurling banners at the tournament to support Chinese player Peng Shuai.
Mahut said the order for spectators to remove the banners and T-shirts came as Melbourne Park carries signage for 1573, a Chinese distillery.
“What’s going on!?” What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors (hash)1573. beyond disappointed” Mahut posted on social media.
The Chinese government has been accused of “disappearing” tennis player Peng Shuai after she made a sexual assault allegation late last year against a close ally of President Xi Jinping.
The WTA, which runs the women’s tennis tour, has responded by saying it won’t play any tournaments in China this year.
Navratilova, a three-time Australian Open singles champion, added her voice to those condemning the censorship when she tweeted: “That’s just pathetic. The (at)wta stands pretty much alone on this!!!”
Mahut, who was seeded seventh in the Australian Open men’s doubles competition with compatriot Fabrice Martin, and Navratilova were outraged by footage screened on Sunday of security and police requesting a fan remove a shirt which featured an image of Peng on the front and “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back.
Tennis Australia responded initially by stating that such attire breached its rule on “political messaging.”
In a further response Monday to the social media backlash, Tennis Australia said it understood “people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues.”
“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her well-being,” the statement said. “Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.
“To ensure that the Australian Open remains a welcoming, safe and inclusive event for everyone, we have a longstanding policy of not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political.”
After advancing to the quarterfinals, veteran French player Alize Cornet said “I think that everybody should, like, be able to manifest their support to Peng Shuai.” Asked about the issue at a daily briefing in Beijing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China was “always opposed to the politicization of sports.”
“Such actions are unpopular and will never succeed,” Zhao said.
FLYING THE FLAG
Iran has its first female winner in a Grand Slam tournament with Meshkatolzahra Safi’s advance in the Australian Open girls singles event.
Safi emphasized the message to “don’t give up on your dreams” after beating local qualifier Anja Nayar to set up a second-round match against eighth-seed Sofia Costoulas of Belgium.
Inspired by watching Rafael Nadal on television, Safi is determined to forge a path for others to follow in Iran where soccer is the major sporting passion.
Safi started playing through the ITF program Junior Tennis Initiative and won six of seven finals during 12 tournaments last year.
“I really had tough times. Playing professional tennis in my country is really hard. I had a really tough time playing tournaments, I couldn’t get visas, I didn’t have sponsors a lot of times. I didn’t have a chance to get a lot of points because I couldn’t play tournaments,” she said.
“In my country, if you ask which sport you like, they say football. I was watching (Nadal) with my mother, we were curious, is there any tennis in Iran? We can just try.”
Safi wears the traditional head covering and long pants which is difficult with the searing temperatures on Melbourne Park’s hard courts.
“I like the sun, but not this much. I’m used to this hijab and this covering. I’ve been playing with this since I was nine. Today was really, really difficult . but I’m used to it (the hijab) and it doesn’t bother me,” she said.
The 17-year-old Safi, who’s ranked 74 in juniors, has a goal to play all four Grand Slam junior events this year. The next step is to get a visa for the French Open to continue to boost her ranking for the main singles draws.
“I just really want to say don’t give up on your dreams. When I start my journey, everyone in Iran was saying this is impossible, you cannot do that. I just kept pushing. Believe in your dreams,” she said.