Someday we may look back on international junior tennis in 2016 and think of it as a vintage moment in the sport.
The ITF’s No. 1 junior that year was Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia but he didn’t win a junior singles title at any of the Grand Slam events. Neither did Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece who lost to Alex de Minaur of Australia in the Aussie Open quarters, Denis Shapovalov in the French Open quarters, eventual winner Shapovalov 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 in the Wimbledon semis and finally, 6-4, 7-5 to champion Felix Auger-Aliassime in the US Open semis.
None, except Kecmanovic, played the juniors in 2017 – all opting to pursue a career on the men’s tour. And all have done well at a young age – Tsitsipas (20), with his runner up finish at the Rogers Cup, is ranked No. 15, Shapovalov (19) is No. 32, de Minaur (19) is No. 43 and Auger-Aliassime (18) is No. 120. Kecmanovic, who turns 19 in two weeks, is No. 200.
At the moment the class of 2016 is led by Tsitsipas and Shapovalov. Until last week when he ranked No. 26 and Tsitsipas was No. 27, Shapovalov was its leader and best prospect – partly because he’s eight months younger than Tsitsipas.
It was also because Shapovalov beat Tsitsipas 6-1, 6-3, 7-6(5) in the first round of this year’s Australian Open and was clearly the better player.
Afterward Shapovalov said he sensed nerves in his Greek opponent and a downcast Tsitsipas later confirmed that, saying, “it’s true actually, I was really nervous. Things went downhill from the beginning of the match. I didn’t play against a lefty for I think three or four months. It was tough for me to adjust to the game – and my serve was really bad.”
Shapovalov dominated in total points – winning 100-72. “It was really disturbing that I couldn’t play my game, the way I perform at 100 percent,” Tsitsipas summed up.
The Greek, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Sunday, got a measure of revenge when he beat Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4 in the first round on clay in Monte Carlo in April. But that’s Shapovalov’s worst surface and it was his first match on clay in 2018. Tsitsipas had already won two rounds in the qualifying event.
Fast forward to last week at the Rogers Cup and the dynamic Greek made a quantum leap as he beat four top-10 players – No. 8 Dominic Thiem, No. 10 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Sascha Zverev and No. 6 Kevin Anderson – on his way to the final where he lost 6-2, 7-6(4) to Rafael Nadal.
It was comparable to Shapovalov making the 2017 semi-finals in Montreal when he upset No. 31 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 2 Nadal. Tennis matches can be decided by the slimmest of margins – and confidence elevated by navigating perilous situations. That applied to Shapovalov a year ago and to Tsitsipas last week. In 2017 in Montreal, the then 18-year-old Canadian saved four match points in his opening round 4-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 victory over No. 64-ranked Rogerio Dutra Silva of Brazil.
Last week, Tsitsipas was at the edge of the ledge three times – saving two match points in a rousing 3-6, 7-6(11), 6-4 win over Zverev in the quarter-finals and one more against Anderson in a 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6(7) victory in the semi-finals.
Those were charmed runs for Shapovalov and Tsitsipas and the latter’s victory over Anderson rested on his slightly miss-hit forehand on match point that drifted toward the far sideline and landed just inside before he was able to rock a blistering backhand cross-court winner, putting an exclamation mark on his fearless bravado.
There’s no question the rangy Greek has improved since the Down Under meeting with Shapovalov in January – he seems to have filled out and is now more man than boy.
His rise to No. 15 has been meteoric, considering he started the year at No. 91 and was No. 63 as recently as April 23rd.
In Toronto last week he served big, his single-handed backhand was a thing of beauty as well as a weapon and his forehand had the same kind of concussive power as those of modern-day legends Nadal and Roger Federer.
Shapovalov has the same arsenal and attributes. Although he may have fallen behind Tsitsipas at the moment, there’s every reason to believe he can catch up and surpass him.
At 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas has the advantage of size and leverage over the 6-foot Shapovalov but the Canadian is left-handed, which is arguably at least an equal asset.
A year ago, Tsitsipas followed old junior rival Shapovalov’s Rogers Cup exploits from afar. “I was watching on television in Portoroz (Slovenia) at the Challenger I was playing that week, I was watching his matches every single day,” he said after Sunday’s final. “So it was so inspirational to see him beat those guys. To me it seemed like completely out of any world what he was doing on the court.
“And now I understand that it is more simple and less complicated than it looks. So I just had to believe in myself and feel confident playing those guys. It looks like a big thing, but to me it seems like it’s simple things that you need to do on the court – just play the right angles and play the right tactics and play the right way.
“So I’m not surprised that I’m here in the finals. I did the job that I had to do.”
There’s nothing like that break-through period for a young tennis phenom when he or she basically doesn’t know any better and everything just flows freely. There’s no baggage from past experiences and no pressure of expectation. Shapovalov, who has ranked as high as No. 23, talked during Wimbledon about how he is now favoured in many matches – and about preferring it when it was the other way around.
He had disappointing losses in the second round of both Roland Garros to No. 70 Maximillan Marterer of Germany and Wimbledon to No. 47 Benoit Paire of France – both matches where he had opportunities to pull away early but seemed tense and lost some of his resolve and confidence.
Tsitsipas will now have a target on his back the way Shapovalov has had most of 2018. The great players – and those hoping to be great players – have exceptional physical skills and develop the mental application to maximize them.
So far in 2018, Shapovalov has a 23-19 record and only six of his losses have come to players outside the top 50. And just one from outside the top 100 – that was his first tournament on grass in Stuttgart in June when No. 169 Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India beat him 7-6(6), 2-6, 6-3.
Shapovalov and Tsitsipas have a few things in common – both their mothers are Russian and have tennis backgrounds. Denis’ mother, Tessa Shapovalova, played competitively and had a WTA high ranking of No. 445 in 1992 while Stefanos’ mother, Julia Salnikova, made it to No. 194 in 1990.
Both players speak English and Russian – with Tsitsipas able to add his native Greek as well.
But there are differences, and it doesn’t appear the two are best buddies.
On Monday in Cincinnati when Shapovalov defeated 20-year-old American Tiafoe 7-6(6), 3-6, 7-5, there was a warm embrace between the two at the net.
Last week after he upset Milos Raonic at the Rogers Cup, Tiafoe said about his relationship with Tsitsipas, “I’m not really close with Stefanos,” while mentioning others of his generation like Shapovalov and de Minaur with whom he gets along better.
Tsitsipas, after the contentious win over second-seed Zverev in the quarter-finals, said about his relationship with the 21-year-old German who also has a Russian background, “it’s not too bad, it’s not too good.”
One suspects that the way Zverev was sullen and testy after the loss, saying “I think the match was absolutely pathetic on all levels,” would have been less extreme if he and Tsitsipas were as close as he is with players like Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios.
As for Tsitsipas, he conceded, “the younger generation, we’re pretty competitive. I have good friends, but most of my friends on tour are not NextGen players. They’re like…they’ve been years on the tour.”
So there’s a reserve in the relationship between Tsitsipas and players like as Zverev, Tiafoe and others such as Thiem, Kyrgios and Shapovalov.
As much as the past decade’s great players – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray – have become compatible while maintaining a certain competitive enmity, it might be nice to have a little edginess among some of the emerging generation.
As with all things over time, the relationship between Shapovalov, Tsitsipas and other players may remain cool – at least until an even younger generation begins to overtake them and challenge what they have achieved. At that point – possibly several years into the future – a bond might be formed out of the need to confront a common threat.
ATP players often do autograph sessions on site during events and that was the case at this year’s Rogers Cup. Here Spanish player Albert Ramos-Vinolas poses and signs for a young fan.