Braveheart Shapovalov steps onto the World stage
From Futures, Challengers and breakthroughs on the ATP circuit, Canadian Denis Shapovalov has shown he can take on the world’s best and come out a winner.
As Denis Shapovalov charged through the draw of the Montreal Masters in August, an old childhood photo started circulating. The pint-sized Canadian, then nine years old, was posing on court with Rafael Nadal and didn’t even remember he’d been photographed.
But Shapovalov, also pictured with Igor Andreev and another rising Canadian player, did remember the moment. “We didn’t get a chance to play, I was a little bummed out because I thought Rafa was going to watch me play before his match,” the smiling teenager related. “But we got to take a picture with him, which was very cool for me.”
Nine years on, a reunion with Nadal at the Rogers Cup would prove even more unforgettable. Playing against the superstar Spaniard before a home crowd, Shapovalov held his nerve to claim a 3-6 6-4 7-6(4) upset of the soon-to-be world No.1 to reach the quarterfinals. “I’m just so happy to come out with the win,” said the 18-year-old. “It was extremely hard physically and mentally. Rafa is such a warrior. Such a tough match.”
Fighting spirit might also become Shapovalov’s trademark. Earlier, he’d showcased a heart as big as his game when he saved four match points against Rogerio Dutra Silva in the first round. He followed it with an upset of Juan Martin del Potro.
At the end of a milestone week, the Canadian had also defeated Adrian Mannarino to become the youngest-ever ATP Masters semifinalist. Later reflecting on his breakthrough with ATP Media, Denis commented: “It really pushed me up in the rankings and it gave me that extra confidence and belief in myself that I can play against these top guys and that I belong here.”
In fact, Shapovalov might even be one of those ‘top guys’ in the near future. Having entered Montreal at world No.143, the teenager surged into the world’s top 70 with his semifinal showing (he is now at 51).
Typically, that ranking would earn direct entry into the US Open but with the cut-off several weeks earlier, Shapovalov made his way through the qualifying draw, where wins over Denis Kudla, Gastao Elias and Jan Satral added to momentum.
Contesting only the second Grand Slam main draw of his career, Shapovalov progressed all the way to the fourth round, with a straight-sets win over No.8 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round marking yet another career-defining victory.
An aggressive left-hander who is already becoming known for his flashy shot making, Shapovalov is more importantly proving adept at managing high-pressure matches.
“I think it’s been a long progress,” he noted after the 6-4 6-4 7-6(3) victory over the Frenchman. “I don’t think I was always mentally solid as I am today.”
It helps that Shapovalov has the required outlook to maximize his opportunities. An early admirer of Roger Federer, among others, a younger Denis dreamed of contesting such high-profile matches. “I was having fun on the court. There were a couple times during the match I was just smiling, having a good time,” he related. “I was enjoying the atmosphere. It’s a dream come true for me to play a night match on Arthur Ashe. I mean, I grew up wanting to do this.”
Asked to recall some of his other US Open memories, Shapovalov provided a reminder that those childhood years are so recent. “The one match I do remember was sitting with my best friend watching I think it was (Novak) Djokovic and (Andy) Murray in the finals. I think Murray actually won that. Yeah, that’s one of the big matches I remember.”
In fact, that US Open final was just five years ago, when the 13-year-old Shapovalov was still a developing junior living with his family in Richmond Hill, Ontario. His start in tennis had occurred just eight years earlier, when Denis took up the game thanks to his mother Tessa, a tennis coach who remains an important advisor alongside former Canadian pro Martin Laurendeau. Among many signs that Shapovalov’s maturity as a player would be rapid was victory in the Wimbledon 2016 boys’ singles final.
Shapovalov is delighted that his impact on tennis in his nation can now be so positive. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel to Russian parents, Shapovalov moved to Canada before his first birthday and he’s fiercely loyal to his family’s adopted nation.
“My goal is to raise the level of Canadian tennis and just have more kids picking up a racquet instead of a hockey stick,” said Shapovalov, himself a hockey lover whose favourite NHL team is the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I think I have definitely helped to do that, and hopefully I can keep doing it.”
With his goal to achieve a top-150 ranking smashed even before his stunning North American summer, Denis can’t yet name his short-term tennis objectives. But projected to sit just outside the world’s top-50 after his US Open breakthrough, he’s clearly excited for the future. “It’s another life-changing event for me,” he said.