There’s the big, bending lefty serve; “swing it like Shapovalov,” kids may say someday. There’s the forehand that he can hit for winners crosscourt, down the line, inside out and inside in, and which never ever looks rushed. There’s the one-handed backhand that he rarely gives in and slices, and which he rarely misses when he sees a crosscourt opening. There’s the too-large backwards hat and the leaping energy that lets you know that, yes, while his game may look 25, he’s still just 18.
But what has really set Denis Shapavolov apart this week in Montreal is what happens when he gets done leaping and comes back to earth. He slows down, collects himself and finds his best, calmest, most forceful tennis when he needs it. In Shapovalov’s matches with Juan Martin del Potro on Wednesday and Rafael Nadal on Thursday, I kept waiting for the veteran Grand Slam champion to assert his authority and run away with the match. Instead, it was Shapovalov, the teenage wild card ranked outside the Top 150, who ran them off the court.
Shapovalov, the 2016 Wimbledon boys’ champ, followed up the biggest win of his young career, over Del Potro, with a much bigger one, over Nadal, by the suitably dramatic score of 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4). Over the last two sets, Shapovalov controlled the rallies and pushed Nadal back with his hooking serve and heavy forehand, while at the same time forcing Rafa to scramble far beyond the sidelines with both shots. Shapovalov hit nine aces and 49 winners to just 18 for Nadal; that included a 33 to 14 edge from the forehand side.
But it wasn’t the number of aces or winners he hit; it was when he hit them. Up 4-1 in the second set, Shapovalov let Nadal come back to 4-4 and take a 0-30 lead in that game. The crowd that had been so noisy was quiet now; the end looked near. That is, until Shapovalov uncorked two aces down the T (something he hadn’t done much of, if at all, until then), smoothly sent a forehand winner into the corner and finished the game with a nasty, slicing body serve. From there, he broke to win the second set.
Again, early in the third, it looked as if Nadal would reassert himself. Through a long, multi-deuce third game, Nadal kept forcing break points, only to watch as Shapovalov wiped them away with line-painting serves and forehands. In the stat of the night, Shapovalov saved nine of 11 break points. By the time the match reached its climactic and well-earned third-set tiebreaker, the outcome seemed inevitable—and not in Nadal’s favor.
Even when Rafa went up 3-0 in the breaker, you felt like Shapovalov hadn’t fired his last shot just yet. Nadal berated himself when he missed an easy backhand with a chance to go up 4-0; he knew he needed to build his lead while he still had the chance. He was right. Shapovalov, as he had all night, played his best, most settled tennis with the match on the line, hitting two aces and three forehand winners in the last seven points.
For Nadal, this was another in a long string of close losses and missed opportunities on surfaces other than clay. He spent much of the match 10 feet behind the baseline; from there, he struggled to get the ball to Shapovalov’s backhand. And while the 18-year-old rookie was firing aces and winners in the breaker, the 15-time Slam champion double-faulted and smothered a hanging forehand into the net. Nadal can still reach No. 1 next week, but he could use a victory in one of these tightrope-walk matches before he gets to the U.S. Open.
“No. 1 With a Bullet” is an old phrase that seemed appropriate again on Thursday: Nadal was going for No. 1, but it was Shapovalov, the youngest of the ATP’s young guns, who was carrying the bullets.
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