Denis Shapovalov was halfway off the court when he set down his bags, put a hand to his heart and waved goodbye to the crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium following his fourth-round loss to Pablo Carreno Busta at last year’s US Open. The roar was deafening. A new tennis star had been born and the fans in New York knew it. In one month’s time, the 18-year-old Canadian had morphed from rising prospect to legitimate threat on the ATP tour. But his spellbinding summer streak almost ended before it began.
Given a wild card at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Shapovalov faced four match points in his first-round match against Rogerio Dutra Silva before squeaking by. Then, the former junior No. 2 and 2016 Wimbledon boys’ champion went on to upset Juan Martin del Potro in the second round, setting up a third-rounder with Rafael Nadal that would become a thriller. With his backwards hat cinched tight over his flowing blond locks, Shapovalov played just as forceful and physical as his childhood idol that magical August evening. As the home crowd cheered him on, Shapovalov fired a cathartic winner to upset Nadal in a third-set tiebreaker, going on to win one more match before falling in the semifinals to Alexander Zverev.
It was an exhilarating breakthrough, sure. It was also easy to wonder if those four wins on Shapovalov’s home soil were a fluke. The teenager cleared things up at the US Open, qualifying for the main draw and then upsetting world No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to becoming the youngest player since Michael Chang to reach the fourth round in Flushing Meadows.
With his overnight success, Shapovalov spent more time with the press in the month of August than he had in his entire career. Still new to his celebrity status, Shapovalov looked uncomfortable with all the attention, admitting to ATP Uncovered that it’s nice “for the first five minutes.” But by year’s end, he had come to accept his new normal.
“The toughest part is the increased demands on my time and being able to maintain my already very tough and long days of training,” says Shapovalov, who began 2017 ranked No. 250 and peaked at No. 49. “It’s just a matter of getting used to it, as I enjoy working hard and I’m grateful to my sponsors for their support. It’s all actually a lot of fun.”
Shapovalov is well spoken, but also soft spoken, which is quite the contrast from the loud, brash, irreverent game he plays. Wielding a wicked one-handed backhand, the southpaw has eye-popping power disproportionate to his 167-pound, 6-foot frame.
“I like watching Denis,” Roger Federer, who played against Shapovalov at the inaugural Laver Cup, told TennisTV. “I remember practicing with him a few years back in Toronto. He had these big shots, great sliding serves and a lot of diff erent types of shots. I like to see that. I like people who go for it and have a positive demeanor about themselves.”
Though a quick study, Shapovalov knows he has maturing to do. While facing Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in Davis Cup last February, Shapovalov struck a ball in anger, accidentally hitting chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye. Promptly disqualified and later fined, a guilt-ridden Shapovalov admitted struggling to get out of bed in the days following the incident. He’s since formed an unlikely friendship with Gabas and says the episode has helped him better handle his emotions on the court
Today, Shapovalov calls every day a “classroom.” Intent on learning from his experiences and inspiring young Canadian players along the way, he seems prepared to handle the added expectations this season.
“The biggest expectations and pressure I have is what I put on myself, so I don’t let outside pressure affect me,” Shapovalov said. “Of course, I feel it on the court like any tennis player, but I go for my shots no matter what the score is. I love the sport and can’t wait to get on the tennis court every day.
“Very little can take that joy away from me.”
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