Shapovalov becomes main draw for Canada
First, he won the Battle of North York, beating his fellow Toronto suburbanite Milos Raonic in Madrid. Then Denis Shapovalov overtook Raonic in the ATP ranking after storming back to beat longtime top ten player Tomas Berdych in his first ever match on the damp clay of rain-soaked Rome.
Now the official Rogers Cup website is featuring Shapovalov, not Raonic, in its pre-tournament hype, even though Raonic, if healthy, is a much bigger threat to win the tournament than his young protege.
It’s not all about winning tennis matches. It’s about winning hearts and minds too. Shapovalov is quickly doing that in Canada and other countries.
Shapovalov, 19, said he didn’t realize he had become Canada’s number one until journalists told him at a press conference in Rome. He said it was pretty cool, and pretty crazy too.
Born in Israel and raised in Canada, Shapovalov is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Rome for his pizzazz and risk-taking. Late in a tight third-set versus Berdych, Shapovalov tried to catch a mis-hit ball in his pants. He then upped his level. Instead of getting tight and playing cautiously, Shapovalov increased his pace and intensity to wrestle the match from the brawny Berdych.
Shapovalov showed his ability to keep his cool in his next match against Robin Haase. After missing some easy shots and blowing a first set lead, he didn’t fold as many players would, of any age. He set himself straight and won the first set tie-breaker. He eventually won in three sets.
Few observers gave him any chance against Rafa Nadal, the King of Clay. But Denis fought hard to hold his serve in a long third game. Denis actually led 3-2. But Rafa stepped up his game and wore out Denis the rest of the way.
When I asked Rafa what advice he would give to Denis, he said: “He doesn’t need my advice. He’s good already.”
Denis later thanked Rafa for the praise, saying that Rafa’s achievements on clay are “unhuman-like”.
Shapovalov is still a long way from the top ten in a grinding sport where injuries have derailed the ambitions of many men such as Raonic. Denis said he often felt lonely and homesick on his world tour last year while his friends were finishing high school and starting university. But he says he sat down with his support team and realized he would accept his role as a pro tennis player. He says he’s enjoying the tour — and the full-time job of being a tennis player — much more this year.
He’s working hard at his job. He’s learning to block or chip return of serves, and he’s developing an effective slice to go with the spectacular follow-thru on his topspin backhand. His slice lured Berdych uncomfortably into net and drew errors at key points
Denis has the balance, body control and symmetry of an elite athlete.
Like Federer and other top players, Denis is poetry in motion, as Hemingway would say.
He’s a dream to photograph, because he is seemingly playing in what Andre Agassi called “a waking dream” of sublime confidence and joy for competition.
Denis says he learned his technique from his mother Tessa, who runs a tennis academy in north Toronto. He’s been inspired by Raonic, who told me in Tokyo 2010 that he wanted to become an “ambassador” for tennis in Canada. Vases Pospisil has also taken Shapovalov under his wing, especially when Denis was a lonely teenager on his first trip around the world.
The smaller Denis is much more agile than the big, bulky Raonic, giving him extra time to set up for his elaborate strokes. Denis, like Milos, works hard to toss the ball consistently in the same spot and use his legs for extra force.
His future will likely depend on his health. If he can avoid the injuries that have beset Raonic throughout his career, Shapovalov might become the most successful player in Canadian history, and one of the best in the world. Everything seems within his reach.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved).