The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: Denis Shapovalov

The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: Denis Shapovalov

Once he began to use his great power with great responsibility, big results followed.

ATP Rank: No. 16
UTR Rank: No. 17
What he's done since last summer: Reached Paris Masters final, won ATP Stockholm, finished season with 21-10 record

There are certain shots you simply can’t teach, and Denis Shapovalov has many of them. In terms of pure shotmaking brilliance, Shapovalov is in a club of his own. Nick Kyrgios refers to him as “an absolute gun” who “will be crazy good for many, many years.” When Nick is talking up tennis, you best listen.

Shapovalov is actually so talented, with so many options on every shot, that it’s hurt him in the past. “Why play a high-heavy forehand crosscourt when I can just rip a clean winner and end the point?”—Shapovalov seemed to ask himself that question all too often. 

So far, Shapovalov's versatility has been a double-edged sword. The Canadian surely wouldn’t have broken into the ATP Top 20 before his 20th birthday without his fearless, borderline-reckless playing style and otherworldly racquet-head speed. His ability to hit anyone off the court on any given day makes him a fan-favorite, but now that he’s firmly fixed in the game’s upper-echelon, it’s time for him to tighten up the screws. 

Enter Mikhail Youzhny. The recently retired Russian, who maximized his own ability throughout his 20-year career, has seemingly done wonders for Shapovalov’s game. The two began working together last August, with Shapovalov mired in a 2-6 stretch and just 17-18 record for the year. After hiring Youzhny, Shapovalov won 21 of his last 31 matches, captured his first ATP title in Stockholm, and reached his first ATP Masters 1000 final in Paris. 

While they both defer the credit, it’s clear something clicked between the two. 

“It doesn't work like this. It's not magic work. It's not like you're coming, you say something, and he's starting to play better, like really better,” Youzhny told ATPTour.com. 

“I don't think it comes from something magical,” Shapovalov said. “The end of last season it was kind of starting to click for me. The way I started, it's great. So hopefully I can just keep up my form and just keep improving.”

So if it’s not magic, what is it? What was the primary factor responsible for Shapovalov’s mid-season breakthrough? Confidence, surely, but even more so, it was his improved shot selection and rally tolerance. What was typically an on the run slap-shot turned into a disciplined, deep rally ball, or a point-extending slice. Just because you can hit certain shots doesn’t mean you should.

Shapovalov owns some of the loosest, most fluid strokes on tour. A 75 percent swing for the Canadian is equivalent to a 90-100 perrcent swing for most other players. By aiming for bigger targets, Shapovalov quickly became a bigger problem for opponents than he already was. He finished the second half of his season with wins over Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Fabio Fognini, Alexander Zverev, Gael Monfils, Karen Khachanov and Matteo Berrettini. Once Shapovalov began to use his great power with great responsibility, big results followed. 


Strengths

One of Shapovalov’s most underrated attributes is his range. He covers a lot of court. He’s listed at just 6’1” but plays much longer than that. Though we don’t have an official measurement, it’s safe to assume Shapovalov’s wingspan is at least 3-4 inches greater than his height. His former coach Martin Laurendeau affectionately called him the “Snowy Owl” because of it, and his freakishly long arms allow him to put his racquet on shots that would normally be winners.

With a single lunge and outstretched arm, he’s able to cover half the court. 

Here, Juan Martin del Potro rips a forehand passing shot and assumes the point is won, but once again Shapovalov’s wingspan saves him. That, and maybe a little luck. 

Here, Shapovalov approaches from outside the doubles alley. Zverev strikes a clean crosscourt backhand, but once again Shapovalov’s length and talent win him the point. It’s subtle, but his ability to put extra balls in play and cover more court than his opponent expects often wins him a few points each match. At the highest level, a few points is often the difference between victory and defeat. 

Shapovalov's biggest strength—and what will set him apart from the rest of the tour in due time—is his unnaturally easy power. 

When he steps inside the court and connects with a groundstroke, the results are devastating. Novak Djokovic, arguably the best defender on tour, doesn’t even attempt to retrieve this clean strike from Shapovalov. 

Nothing about this backhand winner against Zverev is risky or unrepeatable. He’s swinging as smooth as possible, yet the ball explodes off his strings for an easy winner that no one in the world would get a racquet on.  

Shapovalov’s timing is uncanny. He’s able to redirect balls with massive amounts of pace while still swinging under control. A wise coach once said to me while watching Jack Sock, “you can’t teach sick timing on the forehand.” You certainly cannot, but unlike Sock, Shapovalov has sick timing on both wings. 

A mark of a great (or future great) player is the ability to make things look way too easy, just like this on the rise backhand angle winner. 

Here, Shapovalov paints a down-the-line winner with yet another easy stroke, made possible only by his God-given hand-eye coordination. Do not try this at home. 

Noo GIF collection would be complete without an “Air Shapo” jumping backhand montage. It’s one of the most electric shots on tour, and he hardly ever misses it. It’s not the most fundamentally sound shot, and he costs himself valuable recovery time if his opponent manages to retrieve it—but he hits it so well that his opponents almost never get it back. 

Shapovalov hits this shot on high floating balls and typically aims at big, safe targets. It may drive his coaches crazy, but it makes the crowd go wild, and there’s something to be said for that. 


The Class of 2020 is now on TENNIS.com and Baseline.

Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek | Friday, July 31: Felix Auger-Aliassime | Friday, July 31: Carlos Alcaraz | Saturday, August 1: Denis Shapovalov | Saturday, August 1: J.J. Wolf | Sunday, August 2: Bianca Andreescu | Sunday, August 2: Leylah Fernandez  | Sunday, August 2: Marketa Vondrousova, Miomir Kecmanovic