Denis Shapovalov, 18-year-old Canadian, seems to have had a revelation in Montreal this week.
“Yeah, tennis,” the 2016 Wimbledon junior champion said after saving four match points to beat Rogerio Dutra Silva in his opener. “It’s more than just going for the shots. You have to have really good defense. You have to build the points.”
It’s one thing to say it, and quite another to do it. But Shapovalov had no trouble implementing his new ideas on Wednesday against Juan Martin del Potro. Before a capacity center-court crowd, he played solid defense, built his points intelligently and when he had his chance, he went for his shots. In the end, he came up with the biggest win of his career, over a man he calls one of his heroes, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Welcome to the NextGen club, Denis, and to the club of up-and-coming Canadians who also happen to be children of immigrants. Like Milos Raonic, whose parents came from Montenegro, and Vasek Pospisil, whose parents are from Czechoslovakia, Shapovalov’s mother is a tennis coach from Russia, and his family moved to Canada when he was a year old. Before Wednesday, he was best known for being defaulted from a crucial Davis Cup rubber after drilling the chair umpire in the eye socket with a ball. Along with the joy that comes with beating a player like Del Potro, there must be a fair bit of relief for Shapovalov that he can begin to put that incident behind him and become known for his game instead.
What’s that game like? As with so many other products of the polyester age, spin is at the heart of everything Shapovalov does. He has a heavy lefty serve that he can slice or kick anywhere, including into the body; he won half a dozen points by jamming the long-limbed Del Potro. Shapovalov can also hit a heavy forehand for winners, especially when he goes inside out, and he always seems to be set up for that shot with plenty of time to spare. Most interesting is his backhand; it’s a one-hander, but he returns well with it, and during rallies he loves to come over it and make the ball dive.
Shapovalov says he needs to build points, and he used his backhand to build an important one on Wednesday. Down 1-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, he carved under one backhand down the line, and then, with Del Potro out of position, he snapped the next one for a topspin winner crosscourt. Momentum was back on his side, and he won five of the next six points for the match.
We knew Shapovalov had a temper. But more so than Raonic or Pospisil, he also has a swagger, and a sense of the occasion. Welcome to the show, Denis; this time the moment wasn’t one to forget.
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