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Sky's the limit for Shapovalov

  • Linda Pearce

Denis Shapovalov. You’ve heard the name. Remember it. The story so far: from Wimbledon junior champion to giant-slayer in Montreal to the last 16 at the US Open and into the world’s top 50 - all in little more than a year.

"It seems that Denis has an extra gear … I think he's going to be a wonderful player," said Roger Federer of the Canadian teenager, who in August stunned the Swiss legend’s great rival Rafael Nadal in a come-from-behind third set tiebreak to become the youngest ever ATP Masters 1000 semi-finalist. Not for the first time, Roger, it’s hard to disagree.

And yet the boom 18-year-old seems to be doing it all so easily, soaring from 250th to win the peer-voted ATP Most Improved Award, deploying that powerful, exciting game and marvellous single-handed leftie backhand, while winning fans with his charisma and apparent perspective (admittedly, these are early days).

For now, it seems to be more about relishing the opportunities than feeling the pressure. Only 12 months ago, Shapovalov’s Australian schedule was limited to the Happy Valley and Canberra Challengers.

"I'm only 18. There's still so many years and so many things I could achieve. I have so many chances to do so," he said recently. "So when I'm going out on the court these days, I'm just going out there to enjoy and do the thing I love, which is to play tennis."

Having started with a top-150 goal in 2017, Shapovalov believes he has learnt and matured since the unfortunate incident during the first-round Davis Cup tie against Britain in Ottawa, when he was defaulted for belting a loose ball in frustration that cannoned straight into the left eye of chair umpire Arnaut Gabas. Sill, even that was handled as well as it could have been.

His season petered out slightly, which was understandable, following that crazy-exhilarating US Open run that finished with spontaneous applause for a crowd that adored him right back.

It was a headline-grabber - in his own words, a life-changer - that left Milos Raonic in the shade as Canada’s male tennis pin-up, the commentators digging out their 'I-first-heard-of-him-back-when' anecdotes, tremulous young fans in Central Park wishing they could untie their tongues, and observers lauding a young man on a mission to get more tennis racquets than ice hockey sticks into the hands of youngsters who can now see what’s possible.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Indeed, as one US reporter asked in New York, where the qualifier eliminated Daniil Medvedev, former top-tenner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and an ailing Kyle Edmund before Pablo Carrena Busta pricked his balloon: "You're in the United States where we're desperately looking for a young, charismatic, long-haired guy with a great forehand and backhand. Do you think you could have impact beyond Canadian borders, your appeal goes beyond that?" 

Let’s answer for the long-haired guy: yes. Even tipsy types were handled with aplomb during his night-time debut on Arthur Ashe Stadium against Tsonga. "I noticed a couple of guys had a little bit too much to drink. I mean, some of them were standing and, like, just talking to me as if we're buddies. I was up a break in one game, I think it was probably 40-15, I just miss a backhand. He's like ‘Aah, no’. I'm like, ‘don't worry, man, I got this’."

For different reasons, Laver Cup was another highlight: John McEnroe as his coach, Bjorn Borg as the opposition’s, and, well, what might best be described as a "spirited" line-up of Team World teammates made the Prague event an experience to remember for the baby of the team.

"I'm enjoying these moments. It's what I grew up wanting to do: play on big stages. Rogers Cup, US Open, playing for Davis Cup, and this event, these are just weeks, just dreams coming true for me. Yeah, I'm just enjoying every minute of it."

It was Sascha Zverev who eventually ended Shapovalov’s bravura Rogers Cup - Canada’s showpiece tennis event where he first broke through in senior ranks via a shock defeat of Nick Kyrgios in 2016. But it is also the long-term Zverev/Shapovalov rivalry between two crowd-pleasers of Russian descent that has everyone excited.  

Zverev is already in the top four. Shapovalov, two years his junior, is coming fast. "I think this is just the beginning of a very long story," the German said in Montreal. And what a compelling start.