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Shapovalov joins pal Auger-Aliassime in Miami Open

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Denis Shapovalov has continued a marvellous March for Canadian teen tennis players.

The 19-year-old native of Richmond Hill, Ont., joined fellow Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, in the men’s semifinals of the Miami Open with a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 win over American Frances Tiafoe on Thursday night.

“It’s kind of crazy to share this with Felix,” Shapovalov said. “I was just thinking in the locker room how far back we go, and from the national groupings when we were eight and nine years old, so it’s so crazy to see how far we have come.

“And at such a young age, I feel like both of us have such of bright future ahead of us. It’s really great to see him doing well. Honestly, it’s not a shocker for me that he’s gone this far, that he’s doing so well.”

Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime are making headlines less than two weeks after 18-year-old BiancaAndreescu of Mississauga, Ont., captured the women’s title of the BNPParibas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.

Shapovalov, the 20th seed, will face No. 4 seed Roger Federer in the semifinals of the ATP Tour Masters 1000 event Friday night. Montreal’s Auger-Aliassime, a qualifier, meets No. 7 seed John Isner of the U.S on Friday afternoon.

WATCH | Shapovalov surges into Miami Open semifinal:

Denis Shapovalov came back from a 1-0 set deficit again to defeat Francis Tiafoe 6-7, 6-4, 6-2. 2:12

Federer, who beat No. 6 seed Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-0 on Thursday, is 37 years old. That’s the combined age of the two Canadian teens in the men’s semifinals.

“It’s great for the game because they will carry the sport when we’re long gone and we’ll be sitting on the couch watching those guys slug it out,” Federer said about the young Canadians. “It’ll be a joy to watch because not only are they great, great players but they’re good people, too.”

It will be the first career meeting between Shapovalov and Federer as well as Auger-Aliassime and Isner.

Federer was Shapovalov’s favourite player growing up and the Canadian said it will be a “dream come true” facing the Swiss legend.

“I [will] try to put on some tennis sunglasses so I don’t see him [smiling], so I see blurry or something, or I see someone else on the other side,” Shapovalov joked.

“No, honestly, I’m going to try to go about it the same way. And I’m really happy with how the week’s gone so far, so I’m just going to go out there, enjoy myself, just have a good time on the court and give it my all. You know, that’s all I can ask at this point.”

Denis Shapovalov makes a return against Frances Tiafoe in the Canadian’s three-set win at the Miami Open on Thursday. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

If Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime both win, it would set up the first ever ATP Masters 1000 final featuring two teenagers. It also would mark the second all-Canadian ATP final, five years after MilosRaonic beat VasekPospisil in the Citi Open final in Washington, D.C.

The Tiafoe-Shapovalov match started more than three hours late because of rain. When it finally did get going, fans weren’t disappointed as the hard-hitting players produced regular winners.

Shapovalov rallied from a set down with two breaks in the second set and another two in the third against the 28th-seededTiafoe.

With the score tied at 1-1 in the third set, Shapovalov took the lead for good when he converted on his fourth break-point opportunity of the game.

Shapovalov was better on first serve, winning 76 per cent of his points, as compared to 63 per cent for the 21-year-old Tiafoe. Shapovalov also had a 36-18 edge in winners.

As for Auger-Aliassime, it’s fair to say he is a surprise semifinalist.

Denis Shapovalov talks about making the semifinals of the Miami Open with fellow Canadian teen Felix Auger-Aliassime. 1:02

It’s fair — because he’s even surprising himself.

Auger-Aliassime will face 33-year-old big-server Isner, the defending champion. Auger-Aliassime is the youngest player left in a tournament where plenty of youngsters have made splashes, yet he says there’s no time right now to think about how rapidly his stock is rising.

“A lot of things are working, obviously,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think I have been just improving in the last couple of weeks. But I don’t want to look back right now. I think I will do at the end of the tournament. Right now I’m looking forward to the next match and how far I can go in this tournament. Definitely I will take some time back home to reset and think about what happened.”

He had Thursday off, which probably saved him a bit of a frustrating day mentally. Play was to begin at 1 p.m. in a women’s semifinal match between 12th-seeded Ashleigh Barty and 21st-seeded Anett Kontaveit — they were delayed an hour at the start because of rain, then for another 2 1/2 hours after getting only two games in before the next wave of rain arrived.

Weather is supposed to be better Friday, when Auger-Aliassime will face off with Isner.

Denis Shapovalov discusses the development of Canada’s teenage tennis stars. 1:46
The Canadian teen swept Croatian Borna Coric 7-6, 6-2 in their quarter-final match at the Miami Open. 2:03

Auger-Aliassime wasn’t even in the top 100 of the world rankings two months ago, or in the top 50 when the Miami Open started. He’s now assured of climbing to at least 33rd when the rankings get updated Monday and becomes the first men’s player born in the 2000s to get past the No. 50 mark.

“Obviously it’s a privilege to be compared to all these great players,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think it just shows that I’m doing good things, I’m on the right track.”

On the women’s side, Barty is finally through to her first Miami Open final.

The Australian endured three rain delays — one before the match, two more during play — to beat Kontaveit 6-3, 6-3 on Thursday night.

Barty, who will rise to a career-best No. 9 in the world rankings next week, will face either second-seeded Simona Halep or fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in Saturday’s final.

Halep and Pliskova were scheduled to play later Thursday night. Halep would return to No. 1 in the world with a win in that semifinal.

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Marner signing impact on salary cap

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Now that they’ve outsmarted Mitch Marner into taking a US$11-million per year deal, the Toronto Maple Leafs are collectively paying their top four players about US$40-million annually.

That doesn’t leave much for everyone else, and though they may love the game, they aren’t going to play it for free.

The Boston Bruins have been kicking the Leafs like a can down the playoff road for a few years now. They pay their top quartet about US$28-million, and just convinced defenceman Charlie McAvoy to take a cut-rate bridge deal (US$14.7-million for three years).

Boston has done what Toronto can’t – getting its players to buy into an one-for-all culture rather than a multilevel-marketing operation.

The Tampa Bay Lightning – the most talented, most humiliated and therefore most dangerous team in the NHL – notch in around US$33-million. Through a different route, the Lightning have managed the same thing.

That leaves the Leafs in what’s known around your house as a budget crunch. Except your house isn’t competing for anything.

And when someone comes home to your place and says, “Bad news. We have to get rid of the car,” your kids aren’t going to say, “Mom, dad, we appreciate all you’ve done for this organization, but we’re gonna have to go with a different approach. We wish you all the best of luck with your next family.”

There are two ways of looking at this right now – the Leafs have secured their future; or, the Leafs have bought themselves a golden parachute (since gold has a way of getting you to the ground a lot faster than you’d intended).

That window of contention people are always talking about didn’t just open. Instead, it’s starting to close. The club has this season, and this season only, to prove it has made the right choices.

This is what happens when you take risks, which should always be applauded in sport. But doing the right sports thing is not synonymous with doing the correct thing. You don’t know a right thing is correct until it works out. If it doesn’t, it was wrong by definition.

Signing John Tavares to the biggest contract in club history was the right thing, but it created a grab-all-you-can-for-yourself atmosphere for everyone else. William Nylander was emboldened to climb onto the contract barricades. Rather than put him in hockey jail for a year, the Leafs gave him what he wanted. That doesn’t look so smart in retrospect.

Auston Matthews got paid, which is also right, but a simultaneous deal wasn’t done with Marner – even if was just a nod and a wink – setting up a second opportunity for off-season brinksmanship.

The Leafs did all the right things, but in the wrong order. Whether the ordering of it was their choice (it wasn’t), that’s how you end up paying more for your elite talent than any team has before. And it still ends you up in a financial pickle that cannot be solved by saying, “We didn’t want to do it this way.” Try that one at the mortgage department of your bank and see how far it gets you.

Another problem, with creating a situation in which siblings rush to grab as much of mom and dad’s money as possible, is that no one is particularly satisfied after getting what they want.

When he’d done his deal, Marner did the usual “I bleed blue” routine, while also complaining about how hard this all was. He told TSN some kid yelled at him in a park.

This year, with front-loaded bonuses, he’ll make more than anyone in the NHL. Maybe it’s not yet time for him to be writing The Sad Ballad of Mitch Marner.

On the European continent, if you don’t play well, the more unbalanced fans will sneak into the stadium overnight and dig you an imaginary grave, or throw flaming Vespas at you from the stands. North Americans – professional athletes, as well as all the rest of us – have a very poor basis from which to bemoan their lot in life, but it has never stopped them.

Getting the paperwork in order is great and all, but now the Leafs have to win. Not should win, or would love to win, or believe they can win. But must win.

Because if they don’t win – and a single postseason round is no longer the benchmark – the operation begins to blow smoke and pop rivets.

The first thing that will happen is a power struggle within the hierarchy. The coach comes under enormous pressure. The GM only slightly less so. That struggle inevitably begins leaking out into public. It usually ends with someone packing all their stuff into boxes.

Then you have to go out and secure your remaining talent with reduced resources. It’s great that new arrival Tyson Barrie looks like the real deal. It will seem somewhat less so if the Leafs lose again and he then asks for a substantial raise. Getting defencemen under contract will imminently become a crisis for the team.

Goalie Fredrik Andersen is not the best Leaf, but he is the most important. If he gets hurt, the team’s top backup option is three jumbo bags of flour strapped into pads.

Andersen’s going to be looking for a raise in a couple of years and, based on the way Kyle Dubas & Co. have been splashing around cash, he’s unlikely to limit his financial aspiration.

This could conceivably work if the salary cap rises steeply, but that’s a basis for prayer rather than planning.

The worst thing about being short of money (rather than honest-to-God poor, which is a unique hardship) is the worrying.

Worrying is contagious and non-conducive to performance. It brings out the best in some people, but the Leafs – historically and presently – have not yet shown themselves to be those sort of people. Expectations seem to eat them from the inside out.

None of them – up and down the organization, top to bottom – has felt pressure like this before. By April, it will be the weight of the world.

Once there, they probably have to get through the Bruins or the Lightning, and maybe both. Things haven’t got easier since the last time they got this bit wrong, despite the hurrah-ing over recent administrative successes. They’ve got harder.

Then we’ll see if all this money has bought the Leafs something that becomes precious material under extreme stress, or something more brittle.

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Fajardo leads Riders to game-winning field goal

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REGINA — Cody Fajardo helped lead the Saskatchewan Roughriders to another win in Week 14, with the quarterback orchestrating a seven-play, 54-yard drive in the game’s final minutes to set up Brett Lauther’s game-winning field goal against the Montreal Alouettes.

The 27-year-old completed 19-of-27 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown against the Als, and he also added a key rushing touchdown and a two-point conversion that tied the game in the fourth quarter. Fajardo responded after the Riders’ defence held the Als out of the end zone in the first half.

“I think offensively, we started really slow,” Fajardo said after the win. “Our defence did an incredible job of keeping us in the game because they held them to three straight field goals, and if they punch in three touchdowns there this is a 21-0 game and we’re looking around like ‘what’s going on? Our defence held us in it all game long, and we knew we had to pay them back by going down and scoring and getting a field goal.’”

Shaq Evans was Fajardo’s go-to target once again in the win over Montreal. Fajardo connected with his leading receiver for a big 46-yard gain in the second quarter that led to the Riders’ first score of the game, and their 25-yard connection with two minutes to play helped set up the game-winning kick. Evans is now up to 869 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 72 catches this season.

“The guys really did a great job responding,” Fajardo said. “I mean you look at Shaq making a huge play. A big hit by them and he holds on to the ball, and that’s big for the field goal range.”

Fajardo said that his first big pass to Evans was crucial in getting the quarterback going after the slow start.

“Usually for me it’s my first deep completion,” Fajardo said. “Shaq just went up and made an incredible play, and that’s what he does.”

William Powell provided crucial balance to the offence and continued his strong season with 124 total yards and two touchdowns. Powell has now rushed for 751 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.

“He’s one of the best backs in this league, and if we can get him going it makes my life easier because it opens up some passing lanes,” Fajardo said.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders get a bye week before looking for their ninth win of the season when they face the Toronto Argonauts on the road in Week 16.

“This bye week is big,” Fajardo said. “I know a lot of guys in that locker room are banged up, including myself.

“We need to keep our mindset focused on football after the break and come in just re-energized like it’s the beginning of the season.”

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Tristan Connelly calls Michel Pereira ‘perfect opponent’

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The stars were aligned for Michel Pereira to follow up on his outstanding Octagon debut this past May.

With a series of flips and tricks and a fantastic knockout of Danny Roberts, “Demolidor” established himself as one to watch in the welterweight division and smart money said that he was going to run through his next foe, late replacement Tristan Connelly.

There were signs of trouble on Friday when Pereira came in a pound heavy, but once fight night rolled around he came out looking to put on a show just as he did against Roberts.

Connelly was having none of it.

The 33-year-old Vancouver native outworked and grounded Pereira for the better part of three rounds, winning a unanimous decision and making an immediate impact in the UFC in front of his home crowd at UFC Vancouver at Rogers Arena. Afterwards, Connelly agreed that the stage was set for something spectacular, only it turned out to be for him, not Pereira.

“He was the perfect opponent,” Connelly said at the evening’s post-fight press conference. “Super-exciting, he likes to throw the rolling thunder, the front flip kick. It’s called rolling thunder, I got to steal his thunder tonight.”

Fighting out of Checkmat Vancouver, Connelly credited the capoeira practitioners he works with for preparing him for Pereira’s flashy approach. Though Pereira broke out much of his signature offense, most of it fell harmlessly short of its target and Connelly never looked rushed or panicked.

Even the size difference didn’t seem to concern Connelly, who typically competes at 155 pounds and as the fight progressed, his confidence only grew.

“You can’t stop against him and you can’t back up against him,” Connelly said. “Those are two things that I knew, like, I’ve been training with capoeira guys for a long time and they’re all like, ‘Man, what he’s trying to do is get you to freeze so he can hit ya.’ I just knew I had to be in his face. I was a little worried about the size initially and his early power, he hit me with a clean punch in the first round. I was like, ‘Eh.’

“When I wrapped my arms around him, it didn’t feel all that much stronger. I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this. He’s going to keep forward,’ and my confidence raised the longer the fight went.”

Asked if he was already feeling better about the matchup when Pereira missed weight, Connelly pointed to that error as showing “weakness.” It was only on Monday that Connelly was officially told he would be needed to step in for Sergey Khandozhko after visa issues forced Khandozhko to withdraw and even with no time to prepare and a bout well outside of his natural weight, Connelly signed on the dotted line.

As it turns out, it was well worth it. In addition to his own show and win money, Connelly took 20 percent of Pereira’s purse because of the weigh-in gaffe and he and Pereira won Saturday’s Fight of the Night award. With Pereira ineligible to collect a bonus because he failed to beat the scale, it was Connelly who was given a total of $100,000 in bonus money.

Pereira was billed as the thrilling A-side in this matchup, but Connelly knew if he stayed the course, the results would speak for themselves.

“I knew I wasn’t gonna do any show like him,” Connelly said. “I’m a fighter, if doing backflips was what was important in fighting, I’d be great at backflips. But I couldn’t do one to save my life. I practice punching people, choking people, and kicking people, because that’s what seems to work in most of the fights I watch.”

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