Alcaraz dazzles, but Paul digs in to oust world No. 1 in NBO quarterfinal


TORONTO — In every match, there is a moment.

Call it a shift in momentum, a turning of the tide on the tennis court. A single shot that swaps the trajectory of each player and threatens to turn the contest into a whole new game.

Friday night in Toronto, that moment appeared to arrive midway through the second set, on the racquet of Carlos Alcaraz, who pulled off a shot you’d have to see to truly believe: a between-the-legs, game-point dart sent sailing down the sideline and perfectly placed just beyond his opponent’s reach to tie the set at 3-3.

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The shot sent a jolt of joy around Centre Court at the National Bank Open, the crowd instantly erupting and delivering a standing ovation for the world No. 1, whose thrilling style of play has captured the adoration of the tennis world — and this city — with every match won.

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It was a shot that should’ve changed everything, could’ve sent Alcaraz barreling into the semifinals, would’ve extended his match win streak to 15.

But Tommy Paul wasn’t going to let that happen.

The tournament No. 12 seed, who this year reached his highest career world ranking at No. 14, dug in for the win, a three-set thriller that saw the American prevail by a score of 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. He’ll now take on Italy’s Jannik Sinner in Saturday’s second semifinal.

“Yeah, I mean, the momentum could have easily switched there,” Paul said after the match of that sensational shot from Alcaraz. “I think he broke me at love and then went up 30-love on his serve. So, six points in a row after the tweener.”

It was a shot that clearly reinvigorated Alcaraz, who entered Friday’s quarterfinal riding a remarkable 14-match win streak but found himself unable to find his footing in the first set versus Paul, fighting for every point.

“I was thinking about it, trust me,” said Paul of that sequence. “I was, like, man, like I could lose, like, 10 points in a row right now and it could be the match.”

Alcaraz made quick work of the game that followed and stole the next one, too.

“In his service game at 30-love, I think we played a good point or something, and I was, like, all right, like, really dig in here and try and get into this game,” explained Paul, who gave up the second set to tee up the final battle.

“Whether you win it or lose it, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, like, you just want to set the tone for the third set,” he said. “And I think I really did that. I mean, he held there anyways and won the second. But I think digging in there kind of let him know that I was going to be there for the third.”

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And he was. At the net, bounding cross-court, and serving up what he said was perhaps his strongest forehand performance yet, Paul was everywhere he needed to be.

“I mean, he’s certainly a complete player,” Alcaraz said of Paul, who also bested him at this tournament in Montreal in the second round last year. (The two met most recently in Miami this past spring, with Alcaraz taking the round-of-16 match.)

“He’s a really solid player. Has great talent, great shots. You know, he’s really, really fast as well,” he continued. “He’s one of the best players in the world right now. There’s no doubt about it.

“He’s really tough on every surface. I mean, he’s a mix of everything. It makes him really, really tough.”

Asked about that game-winning ‘tweener post-loss, Alcaraz smiled and admitted that, yes, he did feel a shift in his favour in the moment.

“I think, after that moment, I probably increased my level a little bit,” he said, adding that the moments after the shot were “unbelievable.”

“You know, I’m going to say it’s a key moment of the match, you know. I pushed myself up a little bit,” he said.

Over the course of this week in Toronto, Alcaraz has played his best tennis when his back is up against the wall — and when he’s sprinting toward the net, keeping his opponents on their toes with his crafty slices and tight shots. But it was Paul who won the battle at the net on Friday, and it was Paul who played the stronger match overall to answer the call and oust the best player in the game today.

And it will be Paul who takes the stage at Centre Court on Saturday night for a shot at the NBO final on Sunday, a chance to build on the strong momentum that brought him to Toronto following a strong run to the semifinals at the Australian Open earlier this year.

As he spoke post-match, Paul was still awaiting word of who his next opponent would be, stealing glances during his press conference at the battle brewing between France’s Gael Monfils and Sinner. Sinner is up a set, he remarked

Asked about what the week in Toronto and his performances here have meant for his career and overall game, Paul puts off the question for now.

“At the end of the week, I’ll tell you what the week means to me,” he said. “Hopefully, that will be on Sunday,” he adds, another glance at the television set. “But, we’ll see.”

We now know, of course, that although Monfils went on to win the second set, it was Sinner who ultimately claimed the contest, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. And with it, a semifinal date with Paul.

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Earlier on Friday, Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina punched his own ticket to the semi-finals with a straight-sets victory over American Mackenzie McDonald, 6-4, 6-2. The unseeded 24-year-old, who currently sits at No. 37 in the ATP world rankings, hasn’t had an easy path at his first-ever National Bank Open — he took out third-seed (and world No. 4) Casper Ruud in a tightly-contested third-round matchup on Thursday that required a pair of tiebreaks before facing McDonald. That was his first top-10 win on hard courts.

“I knew that Mackenzie is going to play very aggressive from the beginning,” Davidovich Fokina said post-match. “I knew that from the beginning he’s going to play very solid, very fast, very aggressive. And I just have to be there every point.”

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It’s a game that his next opponent knows well — and practises himself, too.

That’s Alex de Minaur of Australia, who pulled off an impressive upset of his own Friday, outduelling No. 3-ranked Daniil Medvedev in a rally-filled matinee with plenty of creative net play from the unseeded Aussie that won over much of the crowd in attendance. De Minaur took the match in straight sets, 7-6 (7), 7-5, requiring a tiebreak in the first set to tee up the upset.

“I just tell myself that I’m going to fight ’til the end, until the last point, no matter what the score is,” he said following his win. “And I think that’s a big virtue. I learned it from a young age to always compete no matter what the score is. And, you know, it gets to the point where the opponents know that as well. They know that, and they’re going to have to beat me. I’m not going to give up at any stage.”

Medvedev, 27, has found plenty of prior success at this tournament — he won the title the last time the men took the courts in Toronto in 2021, and in 2019 reached the final for the first time in Montreal — and was anticipated by many to have another shot at another title. However, too many untimely double faults on Friday (his seventh of the match secured de Minaur’s victory) as well as what he cited as slow ball conditions contributed to his inability to defend his Toronto title.

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Friday’s showdown wasn’t de Minaur’s first upset of the tournament. The 24-year-old snuck past American Taylor Fritz (No. 9 in the world) on Thursday to reach his first career Masters 1000 quarterfinal , and now prepares for his first semifinal against an opponent

His opponent is very familiar to him. De Minaur said he’s known Davidovich Fokina for quite some time, having played often on the junior circuit. He recognizes the parallels not just in their careers but in their respective journeys in Toronto this week.

“I think we’ve both shown that we kind of deserve to be here by the opponents we’ve beaten. So, it shows that we’re both playing some great tennis. We’re both playing some confident tennis,” he said.

“We’ve been able to grow up together. So it’s going to be a very fun match. I’m looking forward to it,” he continued. “And, yeah, get ready for his fire power. He’s got great hands as well. So, it should be a great match.”

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