It all started with a volley. Arguably the most daring and improbable shot of the tournament. It wasn’t just any volley. An off-balance moment of improvisation that Denis Shapovalov had no business converting.
Rogerio Dutra Silva had one leg into the second round of the Coupe Rogers. A rifled, dipping forehand at his opponent’s feet was surely enough to send him over the finish line, but a moment of magic would stop the Brazilian in his tracks and bring the Montreal faithful to their feet. It was every bit audacious as it was brilliant: an off-balance drop volley winner from just inside the service line. Match point saved. The dream stays alive.
One of four match points saved on that day, Shapovalov would advance to the second round at his home ATP World Tour event for a second straight year. Where many wide-eyed 18 year olds might be satisfied with the result, the local favourite is cut from a different breed. Wins over Juan Martin del Potro, Rafael Nadal and Adrian Mannarino have catapulted the Canadian into the semi-finals and firmly inside the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.
“I’m most proud of my fighting spirit,” said Shapovalov. “If I don’t save those match points in the first match, there’s no chance of being here. I think just having to battle every day. I’ve had several tough matches. Just getting through it every day, it’s really motivating.
“And the crowd was ridiculous. I’ve never been in a sporting event where the fans get so loud. It’s so much fun to be a part of. It’s so much fun having them cheer me on. Honestly, I don’t think I could be in this position without them.”
Shapovalov’s dizzying run on home soil has captured the attention of the sporting world and invigorated a proud sporting nation. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, the Richmond Hill, Ontario resident moved to Canada with his family before his first birthday.
“My mom was coaching my brother and I would watch them play,” said Shapovalov, whose mother, Tessa, introduced him to the sport at the age of five. “At that age, I wanted to be like my brother so I begged my mom to let me play. Eventually she started working with me. I’ve had my one-handed backhand from a very young age. Growing up, many coaches were telling my mom that I was too young to be hitting a one-hander, but it always felt natural to me so my mom never tried to change it.”
The Dream Continues: Shapovalov Makes Montreal SFs
With Canadian red and white coursing through his veins, Shapovalov lives for moments like these, regardless of the stage. Whether it be at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal or a smaller ATP Challenger Tour event, the 18 year old’s energy and charisma are equally as palpable. Soaring through the air with every forehand and every fist-pump, Shapovalov has endeared himself to legions of fans in his native Canada and throughout the world.
And it is those very fans that he has leaned on most, through the good and the bad. In what has been a whirlwind 2017 campaign, Shapovalov has experienced an accelerated maturation process. In February, during a Davis Cup tie in Ottawa, he inadvertently struck the chair umpire with a ball in a moment of frustration. Subjected to worldwide scrutiny, it was a devastating moment for the teenager, but one that he used as a wake-up call and a learning experience to channel his energy for the better. Shapovalov took responsibility and demonstrated the character of a champion. Each crossroad presents a new opportunity for growth on the Canadian’s path to stardom.
“I knew I couldn’t undo what happened, so the only thing left was to face my mistake and work on never letting this happen again,” Shapovalov wrote in his Challenger Chronicles entry in May. “It was probably the most maturing experience for me since turning pro. I love this game and can’t wait to get on the court every waking day. I hope I can compete here for years to come.”
Shapovalov would flourish as he plotted his ascent up the Emirates ATP Rankings. Buoyed by the home fans, his success on Canadian soil has launched him to new heights. A maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Drummondville saw him crack the Top 200 for the first time and a second trophy in Gatineau last month moved him inside the Top 150. Now, with his run to the semis in Montreal, the #NextGenATP is projected to nearly slash his ranking in half, soaring to a career-high Top 70 position.
Moreover, Shapovalov is already setting records without pause. Last year, he became the first player born in the year 1999 to win a match on the ATP Challenger Tour. This week, he became the youngest ever to reach the semi-finals at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level and youngest in the Open Era to reach the last four at the Coupe Rogers.
If there is any explanation for Shapovalov’s surge, look no further than his forehand. The 18 year old spent the 2016 offseason training with Philipp Kohlschreiber, Jerzy Janowicz, Dominic Thiem and Thiem’s coach Günter Bresnik in Spain. He explains that a revamped stroke has made a big difference.
“I was working a lot on my forehand with Günter. He was very technical with my finish. We were there for four hours each day just smacking forehands around and really focusing on it. It’s been a big improvement in my game.
“It was a great experience for me, because I’m not used to hitting with guys that are Top 10, Top 20. It was a lot of fun for me and I think it helped bring my game to the next level.”
Having previously revealed a year-end goal of finishing in the Top 150, it might be time for Shapovalov to reassess his expectations. In addition, projected to rise to fourth in the Emirates ATP Race To Milan, a trip to the Next Gen ATP Finals is now well within his grasp.
“It would be a great experience for me to go and test my level against the top players 21-and-under. With the two past weeks, I’ve really made a push for it. Honestly it’d be a great privilege to go and play. I hope at the end of the year I can be a part of it.”