Earlier this year, when 22-year-old Nick Kyrgios easily beat 20-year-old Alexander Zverev in Indian Wells, I wrote, “what a difference two years can make on tour.” Since then, Zverev has narrowed that particular gap with surprising speed, and he beat Kyrgios for the first time this week in Montreal. But the idea still held true for his match with 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov on Saturday.
Zverev was the better, stronger, more forceful and more polished player from start to finish in his 6-4, 7-5 win. The match was competitive, but the scores didn’t need to be that close. As he did against Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, Zverev let his opponent hang around, with double faults—he and Shapovalov both finished with six—and oddly routine and rushed misses down the stretch. For the most part, though, Zverev was able to stay within himself and still control the rallies. His serve, forehand, and especially his backhand are all a cut about his younger opponent’s at the moment. He didn’t need to do anything spectacular with them.
For the first time during his remarkable run in Montreal, Shapovalov looked and played his age. He struggled on his return, especially with balls into his body, and broke serve just once. He went for too much, too early, and too often on his inside-out forehand. He missed volleys he had been making this week. And matched up against Zverev’s all-world two-handed backhand, Shapovalov’s one-hander looked like a liability. That’s what a difference two years can make.
These were two young players under a big spotlight, and the level of play from both was hit or miss. Zverev was strong enough and consistent enough, but he never showed off what he can do with his forehand—he’ll need to do more with that shot, and with his serve, if he’s going to beat Roger Federer in the final. Shapovalov, as always, was at his best when he fell behind, and he brought the crowd to its feet when he saved two match points and earned three break points with Zverev serving at 6-5 in the second. But it never felt like Shapovalov’s night; instead of clipping the line with his inside-out forehand at break point, as he had against Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal, he missed by an inch.
Still, even a 20-year-old can recognize when an 18-year-old is going to be around for a while. After they shook hands, the German pointed in the Canadian’s direction in appreciation of his performance. Zverev knows how quickly two-year gaps can close.
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