Denis Shapovalov  Denis Shapovalov 

Shapovalov shot-making set to light up AO19

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AO19 Ones to Watch: Denis Shapovalov

First round, Australian Open 2018, the future was playing out on Court Two.

 

Denis Shapovalov v Stefanos Tsitsipas, two teenage shot-makers going at it with laser-like single-handed backhands. Swashbuckling lefty versus soulful, slicing right-hander. Fans were pinching themselves. If this is the future of tennis, bring it on.

 

Shapovalov struck 33 flashy winners to prevail in straight sets over the older Tsitsipas for his maiden win at Melbourne Park. He exited next round to veteran Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, but not before giving the AO2008 finalist an almighty battle, serving for the match at 5-2 in the fifth set.

 

If he ran out of legs at the end, Shapovalov as usual gave fans their money’s worth. There are no tennis-factory robotics in the free-swinging lefty’s game. You want to tell him to rein it in a bit, except he so often pulls off the outlandish. The young showman brings to mind the teenage Andre Agassi - a crowd-magnet who loves to involve the fans. 

 

“We’re entertainers,” Shapovalov told GQ. “I grew up wanting to play on the big stages in front of all these fans. I feel like the point is to go out there and express your emotions and your feelings for the game.”

For the second year on tour, to do what I did, I’m pretty proud of myself
Denis Shapovalov

The breakout player of 2017, when he was peer-voted Newcomer of the Year andMost Improved Player, Shapoalov negotiated the difficult back-up 2018 season with aplomb. No sophomore slump here. The youngest man in the top 30 since Richard Gasquet in 2005, Shapovalov rose from 51 to a career-high No.23.

 

On the back of his Madrid defeat of countryman Milos Raonic, he become Canada’s No.1, albeit briefly. He made semifinals on three different continents, scored several top-20 wins, took out former No.3 Stan Wawrinka in Tokyo, and ended the season at No.27, youngest man in the top 100.

 

“For the second year on tour, to do what I did, I’m pretty proud of myself,” Shapovalov told Canadian press at the end of 2018. “For me the goal was just to stay inside the top 50. To be able to finish 27, it’s huge for me. It’s pretty inspiring and motivating to keep going forward.”

 

Born in Israel to Russian emigre parents, Shapovalov was less than a year old when the family migrated to Toronto, Canada. He took up the game at age five, after successfully pestering his mother Tessa. “My mom was coaching my (older) brother (Evgeniy) at the time,” Denis recalls. “I was always begging her to play. Eventually she gave in and started working with me too.”

 

A dual Israeli and Canadian citizen, Shapovalov has the expected goals of a young thruster: Grand Slam titles and world No.1. Less predictably, “The biggest goal for me is to really advance the sport in my country.”

 

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15 Jan 18
Match highlights from Denis Shapovalov's first round victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas on Day 1.

Denis Shapovalov def. Stefanos Tsitsipas match highlights (1R)

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Already in his brief career, Shapovalov has done the Maple Leaf proud. The 2016 Wimbledon junior champion, he defeated Alex de Minaur in the final on the same day Raonic lost the men’s final to Andy Murray. Although Shapovalov says Raonic, the highest-ever ranked Canadian, was “my inspiration” the top two Canucks are a study in contrasts - the extrovert, daring teen versus the introvert, rocket-serving Raonic.

 

As junior Wimbledon champion, Shapovalov was given a wildcard at his hometown event in Toronto and in just his second ATP main draw, stunned No.19 Nick Kyrgios. A year on at Montreal, ranked 143, he upended Juan Martin del Potro and followed up with a 3-6 6-4 7-6(4) stadium-detonating defeat of No.2 Rafael Nadal - “The loudest thing I’ve ever heard in any sport event ever.” Shapovalov says he essentially blacked out after his down-the-line winner on match point. No.8 Alex Zverev ended his charge - at 18 years four months, the youngest-ever Masters semi finalist.

 

Though he slashed his ranking to No.69, Shapovalov was forced to qualify for the 2017 US Open. He went to work without complaint, winning six matches to make the fourth round in just his second Grand Slam outing. Edged in three tiebreaks by the seeded Pablo Carreno Busta, he was the youngest man in the New York round of 16 since Michael Chang in 1989.

 

Shapovalov was then invited to take part in the first Laver Cup in Prague, where Team World captain John McEnroe declared of his youngest charge: “He’s going to be a great player. He brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy. And it’s nice to see that fresh face.”

 

He’s still a youthful face with time on his side, but Shapovalov will be seeded in his fourth straight Slam at Melbourne Park. A year ago he was No.51; two summers ago, ranked 250, he failed to qualify at the Happy Valley Challenger in South Australia. Leaps and bounds.

 

“I’ve come up quickly,” he said at the end of 2018. “But it feels normal now for me to be competing with these top guys. I feel like my level’s at this stage.”