When Mikhail Youzhny retired last year at age 36, after 19 years on tour, I had a moment of regret: never again would I get to use the phrase “Youz Your Daddy” after one of his wins.
In truth, I didn’t have the chance to do it all that often even when he was on tour. Youzhny spent most of his career just below the top tier, and just below the media radar; he was hardly a journeyman, but he wasn’t exactly a star, either. More than anything, he was a guy who made the most of the talents he had. But now that the Russian has returned as Denis Shapovalov’s coach, we have a chance to revive the saying. “Youz Your Daddy” may be the theme of Shapo’s 2019 season, and for the foreseeable future.
Shapovalov has been working with Youzhny since the summer, and while they haven’t spent every week together since, the improvement in the Canadian’s game during that time has been obvious, even dramatic. After a long dry spell through the middle of the year, he reached the semis in Winston-Salem and Chengdu, won two rounds at the US Open, and won his first title, in Stockholm. On Thursday at the Paris Masters, Shapo recorded another first when he beat Alexander Zverev 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.
What has Youzhny contributed so far?
“I think he’s done a lot of kind of talking to me and telling me what I should be focusing on in the matches, kind of how to operate with myself,” Shapovalov said when he was asked that question at the US Open. “It’s been really important for me.”
“I think he understands me really well, how I’m trying to play, finish the points.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Youzhny has first-hand knowledge of how to play so many of Shapovalov’s opponents.
Shapovalov has always been a world-class talent and shot-maker, but he hasn’t always been a world-class match player. How do you translate talent into results? How do you choose the right shot for the right moment? When do ditch the leaping backhand, and make the safe, smart play instead? How do get the most out of that lefty serve? That’s what Youzhny, who didn’t have Shapo’s raw athletic ability, must be talking to him about.
Against Zverev, Shapovalov was aggressive early. He moved up to take his ground strokes in front of the baseline, rather than waiting for them to come to him, and he won the first set easily. But it’s what Shapovalov did when things didn’t come so easily that made the difference.
In the middle of the second set, Zverev broke Shapovalov after a long rally and let out of a roar. In the past, that might have sent Shapovalov into a tailspin; at the first sign of adversity, he would start to look unsure of how to attack his opponent, and the errors would flow. This time, Shapovalov broke back right away, and while he lost that set, he bounced back again in the third.
Shapo has always had the flash; today he showed substance to go with it. While he made just 54 percent of his first serves, he won 83 percent of those points. Perhaps most important, and most indicative of his new mentality, was how he responded to break points: he saved 11 of 13. Shapovalov hadn’t won a set in three meetings against Zverev before today, but I had always felt like he had the more dynamic game. Today he made it a winning game, too.
This has been year of waves among the ATP’s Next Gen. Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime led the way early, but Shapovalov, who is still just 20, has answered their challenge over the season half of the season.
Did it take some old-fashioned military discipline to rein Shapo in? Youzhny’s father was a Soviet army colonel, and the son was famous for saluting the crowd after a win. Youzhny may not be Shapo’s daddy, exactly, but he seems to make a pretty good drill sergeant.