Former Kentucky teammates would meet in Sunday’s wrap-up with semifinal victories

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Liam Draxl and Gabriel Diallo are sporting that Can-do attitude.

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Or is that a Ken-do attitude?

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Whichever the case, the two young Canadians — and former tennis teammates at the University of Kentucky — are bringing something special to the court at the 2023 Calgary National Bank Challenger.

In fact, they’re flirting with the possibility of facing in each other in an-all Canuck men’s singles final Sunday at the OSTEN & VICTOR Alberta Tennis Centre.

“Still a lot of work to do,” said 22-year-old Diallo, a Montreal phenom seen as one of the favourites at the week-long event. “The job’s not finished — we have semifinals to prepare for. Take it one match at a time.

“But it’s looking pretty good. It would be great for the tournament.”

Indeed, it would, with so many sporting fans cheering on the young Canadians at the ATP Challenger Tour stop.

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Friday’s fifth day of the tourney saw plenty of support for the half-dozen home-grown players left to carry Canada’s colours, with the highlight being Diallo and Draxl in quarterfinal action at the same time on different courts.

And both winning — No. 4 seed Diallo over Tunisia’s Aziz Dougaz 6-3, 6-2, and wildcard Draxl defeating Spain’s Inaki Montes-De La Torre 7-5, 5-7, 6-1.

“Making a little run here,” said 21-year-old Draxl, of Newmarket, Ont. “I’m just playing on a side-court here (Friday), and in the big moments — whether it’s in the first set or the second set or third one — there’s a lot of people watching and cheering. There’s a lot of people supporting the Canadians, which is great to see — especially at the Challenger level. Sometimes, you don’t get too many fans at this level.

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“So the support has been incredible. It helps so much. When you have a long, gruelling match like I did, having a little home-crowd support, it makes a difference.”

The Calgary crowd was also stoked Friday to see Vancouver’s Stacey Fung triumph in her ITF Women’s Pro Tour singles quarterfinal match — a 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 drop of Switzerland’s Lulu Sun, the No. 3 seed — at The Challenger. The fifth-seed B.C. talent now moves on to play Poland’s Urszula Radwanska in semifinal play Saturday (noon).

The all-Canadian doubles tandem of Ontario’s Justin Boulais and Montreal’s Juan Carlos Aguilar also advanced on Day 5, after a walkover of Diallo and Belgium’s Zizou Bergs. Boulais and Aguilar now face the Great Britain team of Ben Jones and Charles Broom in Saturday’s final (4 p.m.).

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In fact, the only hiccup for Team Canada on Friday was Ontario’s Kayla Cross and partner Justina Mikulskyte, of Lithuania, losing 4-6, 6-4, 10-5 to American Hanna Chang and Serbia’s Katarina Jokic in women’s doubles semifinal action.

But otherwise, it was happy entertainment for the home folk, especially with the two men’s quarters involving the Canucks running simultaneously on each side of the ATC.

“Played well, served well, played well behind my serve, returned really well and competed well,” Diallo said of dumping eighth-seed Dougaz. “And I got the breaks when I needed them.”

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Said Draxl of his former Kentucky teammate of three-and-a-half years, “Gab’s got a lot of power — huge weapons. He’s playing really well. When his serve and his forehand and his backhand are all clicking, he’s so dangerous. He can beat anybody on the planet.”

As for Draxl himself in his quarter with fellow grinder Montes-De La Torre, it was — as to be expected — peppered with long, intense rallies.

“Naki, I have so much respect for him — he’s so solid and such a good competitor,” said the Ontarian of the qualifier from Spain. “I know I have to try for every single point. He’s never going to go anywhere. Even if I’m up 3-0, 4-0 in the third set, I still want every single point, because I know you can’t let a fighter like that come back into the match. He’ll take it. He’ll be there.

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“That’s what physical, grinding tennis looks like.”

But what would a men’s singles final featuring the last-standing Canucks look like?

Diallo is quite composed compared to the ever-emotional Draxl.

“I don’t think so,” said Draxl, when asked if there’s anyone more emotive than him on the court. “I don’t think I’ve met that guy yet. It’s just part of me. I just try to do my thing out there and try to win tennis matches, and that’s how it all kind of comes out. Just doing me.”

“We are a little bit different,” agreed Diallo. “But in college, we complemented each other really well. He was bringing a lot of energy, and he was getting the rest of the lineup really dialled in. On the other hand, I was more reserved and more calm and trying to do my thing.”

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He’ll need that in trying to exact revenge against the defending Calgary Challenger champ — Germany’s Dominik Koepfer in Saturday’s semifinal (3 p.m.).

The tourney’s top seed took out Diallo in last year’s semi here.

“I played him on the same stage last year, and he got the better of me,” Diallo said. “This year has been a really good year for him. He had a great result. He’s been playing some great tennis this week.

“I’m going to have my hands full. It’s going to be a difficult match. I’m going to try and bring some of my best, as well, and hopefully get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Draxl hopes to get the job done against American Andres Martin in the other semi, with sights set on that all-Canadian finale (1:30 p.m.).

“Hopefully,” added Draxl. “I’ll try to win my match. He’ll try to win his. And we can battle it out for The Challenger title. That would be amazing.”


The other ITF semi Saturday sees American Jamie Loeb, the No. 7 seed, versus Germany’s Sabine Lisicki (3 p.m.) … The ITF doubles final pits Chang and Jokic up against Great Britain’s tandem of Sarah Beth Grey and Eden Silva … Start-times for all games Saturday are subject to change based on duration of previous matches … All games are at the ATC.

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