NEW YORK—Which legendary tennis champion does Denis Shapovalov remind you of? It seems that everyone has a slightly different opinion. Put them together, and one thing is clear: The 18-year-old Canadian, who on Friday became the youngest man to reach the fourth round at the US Open since 1998, has the traits and mannerisms of a champion.
Lleyton Hewitt’s name is usually high on the list of antecedents, and it’s easy to see why. Shapovalov wears his blond hair at shoulder length—hockey hair, as it’s known up north—and hides it under a backwards baseball cap, the way Hewitt did. But Shapovalov has added a personal touch. He wears a hat that appears to be about five sizes too big, and then pulls the adjustment band so tight that it ends up sticking out in front of his face.
“I have a small head,” Shapovalov explained with a laugh on Friday, when he was asked about the origins of this unique style choice.
But he’s sticking with the too-tight look. “I do have smaller hats, but it’s just kind of a little bit of my trademark. And a couple people are calling it ‘Shapo fashion.’” (Whether those couple people know anything about fashion, I have no idea.)
On Wednesday, Brad Gilbert added another interesting name to the list of Shapovalov’s tennis ancestors: John McEnroe. Specifically, McEnroe’s lefty serve. Johnny Mac positioned himself parallel to the net and wheeled his body around on the ball, creating a sharp angle and vicious spin on his serves into the ad court. Shapovalov’s motion is more conventional, but his spin and angle are just as severe and hard for opponents to defend. As he does with all of his shots, Shapovalov launches himself into this serve; rather than his positioning, it’s his athleticism and energy that makes his serve special.
Moving into our own era, Darren Cahill compares Shapovalov’s one-handed backhand to Stan Wawrinka’s—high praise indeed. While Shapovalov can’t match Wawrinka’s upper-body strength yet, he does have something like his flexibility and racquet speed.
Shapovalov began hitting a one-hander at age 6, when his mother placed a tennis ball on a cone, and he began trying to pummel it with one hand on his mini-racquet. In the years since, Shapovalov has worked hard to learn to drive through the shot, rather than lift up on it. Since hiring Martin Laurendeau as his coach at the start of 2017, Shapovalov's backhand has been the most-improved element of his game. Now, when he finishes the shot, he’s often a foot off the ground, with both arms extended straight behind him.
“My coach calls me the Snowy Owl, because of my wingspan,” Shapovalov told ESPN.
Photo: Anita Aguilar
When Shapovalov blows on his fingers after hitting a winner, he can call to mind the Angelic Assassin, Bjorn Borg. According to others, there’s a Borissian vibe to Shapovalov: As in Boris Becker. Like Becker, Shapovalov goes through a trademark ball-bouncing ritual before he serves. The Canadian throws it between his legs; the German, who served and volleyed, dribbled the ball back and forth with his racquet on his way back to the baseline—“walking the dog,” as it was known.
Beyond that, Shapovalov’s puppyish energy, and the way he leaps for his shots, brings to mind a teenage Becker, who had already won Wimbledon twice by the time he was Shapovalov’s age. So far, though, Shapovalov hasn’t gone so far as to try one of Boom Boom’s full-on, knee-bloodying dives onto the DecoTurf.
As for Shapovalov himself, he would likely want us to be reminded of Roger Federer when we watch him. Like virtually tennis player under 30, he idolized Federer growing up. Shapovalov, in fact, has never known a tour without Federer; the Swiss’ career began the year before the Canadian was born. It would be strange if Shapovalov hadn’t internalized some of the Maestro’s game, and I’ve heard him described as a left-handed version of Federer. To me, the way Shapovalov sets up for his forehand, with his shoulders square and racquet high, is reminiscent of Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco. Ether way, Gilbert predicts that Shapovalov’s forehand will soon be the best in the world.
It will take time, though. Shapovalov came down to earth in his third-round match against Kyle Edmund on Friday. He eventually won when Edmund retired with a neck problem at 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 1-0, but Shapovalov reminded us of what we might have forgotten watching him earlier in the week: He’s human, and his game is still raw. But he also showed that he’s patient and positive enough to work his way into a match, even when he doesn’t start out smoking winners.
“He was playing me the right way,” Shapovalov said of Edmund. “I picked it up in the second. Stayed calm after the first. I knew I would have my chances.”
Shapovalov comes across as confident but not arrogant, a wannabe champ rather than a wannabe star. Those traits, along with his patience and positivity on court, remind me most of Rafael Nadal. Maybe it’s because Shapovalov is left-handed, or maybe it’s because he made his name by beating the Spaniard in Montreal last month, but there’s something about his nervous, jumpy energy that’s very teenage Rafa.
You can see it in the way he bounces his legs up and down when he sits down during changeovers. Shapovalov started doing this on the advice of his mother, Tessa (who was also his first coach); she throught he came out too flat during the first points after a changeover. But even if the bouncing legs are part of a plan, Shapovalov, like Rafa, is a guy who can’t help showing us how excited he is to be out there competing.
And as with Rafa, that fact alone is going to make us want to watch him compete for years to come.
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