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Shapovalov learning the value of patience ahead of Nadal clash

  • Alex Sharp

A couple of years ago, a stuffed toy wolf joined Denis Shapovalov's 'pack' as a mascot in the player's box.  
The supremely talented 22-year-old still channels that symbolism.

Off court he's a pretty mellow, calm guy. On the court, the Canadian is a fearless striker, showing his teeth to his rivals, hunting down opponents like his spirit animal.

MORE: Men's singles results AO 2022

In the past two seasons Shapovalov has steadily built up some impressive results. On Sunday he posted one of his finest, outmaneuvering an inconsistent showing from world No.3 Alexander Zverev 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 to book an Australian Open 2022 quarter-final berth.

The straight sets milestone was his first Top 5 win since that night in August 2017: a blockbuster 3-6 6-4 7-6(4) teenage-triumph breakout win over Rafael Nadal on home soil in Montreal.

Shapovalov, 18, became a household name overnight, and also the youngest Masters 1000 quarterfinalist ever in front of an electric Canadian crowd.  
Picture the scene. Shapovalov was staying at close friend and fellow Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime's house. You may have heard of him… 
Shapovalov was sleeping in the basement, recharging between matches as he made waves as a wildcard.

The stuff of dreams: Shapovalov after defeating Nadal in 2017

Returning to the Auger-Aliassime household following his lights-out thriller with Nadal, Shapovalov made his mark.

"The funny thing about it is that he (Auger-Aliassime) had a Rafa poster in his house. I kind of took it down as a joke. I told him, ‘We got to take it down.' After that he legitimately took the poster down," said Shapovalov, the current world No.14.

"He's like, ‘Nah brother, the poster's gone. Now I've got to put one of you.' It was a great moment." 
From that life (poster)-changing moment, he's never looked back, going full circle at Australian Open 2022 with Nadal his quarterfinal opponent on Tuesday.

"I'm definitely expecting a long battle out there. Obviously he makes you play a lot. His defence is very good," stated Shapovalov, 3-1 down in their head-to-head record.  
"So gonna have to try to play my game, take it to him and keep doing what I have been doing: playing patient, fighting for every point, and picking my spots to play aggressively." 
Could this be the Canadian's true major moment? He's been building his reservoir of experience to venture into the US Open 2020 quarterfinals and Wimbledon 2021 semifinals. The 22-year-old is in that ballpark once again in Melbourne.

Preparation for the 2022 season was filled with doubts due to contracting Covid, interrupting his practice, but over to Melbourne Park the 14th seed has patiently plotted his path into the last eight.

MORE: Men's singles draw AO 2022

He's hurdled Laslo Djere in four sets, battled back in a tense five set thriller over Soon-Woo Kwon and also withstood the serving juggernaut Reilly Opelka over four sets. His patient but potent victory over Zverev capped an impressive opening week, a real statement win.

"It's definitely something I've been learning to do," stated Shapovalov, determined to bide his time to find the answers within the major arena. "Hasn't come natural to me. I've always wanted to play quick and go for my shots. 
"But it's difficult when you play a guy with the calibre like Sascha; you can't go through him in one or two shots. You have to stay in the rallies, you have to work for the points. Then when you have an opportunity then you can swing in and go for it. 
"It's been a little bit of adapting to that as I've grown.

"Unfortunately, I haven't been able to have a breakthrough run until now at the Australian Open but I've always felt also that the courts suit my game and it's gonna come eventually."

One of his building blocks for another step up at Grand Slam level has been enlisting Andy Murray's former coach Jamie Delgado during the off-season. 

"It's been just a couple of weeks, but we've definitely clicked in terms of personalities and in terms of working on the court. I think we both have the same vision for my game," continued the Canadian.

"He's got so much experience and he's been through so much with Andy. That's something that I really thought would be great to add to my team."

Denis Shapovalov

Time for Nadal to have a 2017 flashback. 
"Was a tough one, I remember because I was playing for the No. 1," said the Spaniard with a smile, recalling that night in Montreal. 
"As everybody knows, he's one of the players with the biggest potential on the tour.

"After that match I said he gonna be potential multi-Grand Slam winner. And I still think that if he's able to keep improving. He has a lot of amazing things on his game, and his results says that. When he's playing well, it's very difficult to stop him."

The Zverev result made Shapovalov just the third Canadian man to feature in the singles quarterfinals at Melbourne Park. He's hoping his compatriot can join his pack. 

"I think what we've been doing has been amazing, especially with the start of the season for Canada, lifting our first team title in tennis in history, along with Felix. And what we're doing in Australia here is special," said Shapovalov, referring to the recent ATP Cup triumph alongside ninth seed Auger-Aliassime. 

"It's great to be doing it alongside a guy like Felix who's obviously a remarkable player, as well, and we've come up from the juniors together. It's a pretty special story I think to share with him." 
Shapovalov is ready to lead the hunt.