There’s nothing wrong with tearing up even before getting to the net for the traditional handshake, or immediately after or when waving to the appreciative crowd when leaving Centre Court.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a loss hard – taking it to heart – after such a spectacular effort as Denis Shapovalov’s in his 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-5 loss to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon semi-finals on Friday.
“I don’t think that the score-line says enough about the performance and about the match,” five-time Wimbledon champion Djokovic said in his on-court interview referring to Shapovalov. “He was serving for the first set, and he was probably the better player for most of the second set – he had many chances. I’d like to give him a big round of applause for everything that he has done today and these few weeks. (The crowd immediately gives a rousing response.) This has been his first semi-finals of a Grand Slam – you could see that he was emotional. We’re going to see a lot of him in the future.”
Shapovalov’s virtuoso tennis captured the imagination of those present in Centre Court and many more around the world watching on television. It has surely catapulted him into the first order of tennis players in the world at the moment.
The ability to produce the shots he does is in the tennis-genius realm, putting in a stratum with another current uber-gifted player, Nick Kyrgios, but with much more sustained, competitive grit than the 26-year-old Aussie seems capable of producing.
Shapovalov’s sadness and Djokovic’s jubilation after the Serb’s ace on match point were opposite sides of a fabulous tennis match.
The first set was a highlight reel of Shapovalov brilliance – big serves, flashing backhands, power-punched forehands, and deft volleys that were overwhelming Djokovic. He broke serve to lead 2-1 and had lost only two points on serve when he served for the set at 5-4. He recovered from a love-30 deficit to 30-all with a service winner and an ace. He was back in rhythm with momentum until he fatefully missed long with a sitter forehand into an open court that would have made it set point. Although he then got to deuce with serve and volley winner, two points and two unforced errors later Djokovic had broken and was back to even at 5-5. Something of the magical spell he was casting began to fade ever-so slightly.
There were two more occasions when stray forehands into openings betrayed him – on a third break point chance of the Djokovic serve at 2-1 in the second set and then again at 5-all, 30-all in the same set – the latter fatefully followed by a double fault which gave the tournament top seed the break. He served out the set in the following game.
It’s almost unfair to focus on those unforced errors, but they stood out because they were something of a shock in the flow of his incredible shot-making – complemented by a fearsome and controlled competitive drive.
To Shapovalov’s credit, there was no sulking or letdown in the third set – as first Djokovic, and then he, saved three break points in the second and third games.
Shapovalov also saved two break points to get to 4-3 but finally was broken at 5-all. But even in that game, which started with his sixth double fault, he had one more sublime moment – saving a break point at 30-40 with what can only be described as an absolute bomb forehand down-the-line that contained every ounce of energy and reckless abandon he had remaining in him. Two points later – forehand and backhand unforced errors – and Djokovic had the break he needed. He served out to love, finishing the two hour and 44-minute match with an ace.
Shapovalov was as gracious as his emotions would allow during the handshake after such a breath-taking show of high-wire tennis.
It seems inappropriate to reduce such an aesthetically-appealing match to cold, hard statistics – but a few help tell the tale. Djokovic was an almost impeccable 28/33 in net points won to Shapovalov’s also impressive 30/39.
In terms of the winners to unforced errors ratio, Djokovic was 33/15 and Shapovalov 40/36. They don’t give style points in tennis, but if they did the 22-year-old Canadian’s numbers would have been higher.
The killer ratio for Shapovalov was break chances converted – he was only 1/11 while Djokovic was 3/10.
Both men played their part in the exhilarating match, with Djokovic hitting a few deadly-accurate lobs (to gasps from the crowd), something of a lost art in today’s baseline-oriented game.
“I think I probably held my nerves better than he did and just made him play an extra shot,” Djokovic said about the match with Shapovalov, “make him do an unforced error, which was the case. It’s tough to play Denis, particularly on grass and quicker surfaces with the lefty serve that he’s got.
“I think he has matured as a player. I feel like he’s probably taking down the number of the unforced errors comparing to maybe last year. I feel like he’s always been a very aggressive player, trying to make winners, come to the net, dictate the play from the back of the court. But I feel like now he’s probably a bit more patient in his game. He’s understanding how to construct the point. Unfortunately for him, that was maybe lacking in important moments.
“I told him after the match he should keep working, keep believing, because with a game like that he’s going to get a lot more opportunities in the future without a doubt.”
When informed of Djokovic’s comments about him, Shapovalov at first reacted with a little humour, “I’d be very happy if he could be my mentor because that would mean he stopped playing. No, definitely he’s an incredible guy. I don’t think he’s praised enough. Even he came up to me in the locker room, he just said a couple words. For me, it means a lot. He really doesn’t have to.
“He just told me he knows how difficult it is for me right now. He told me that everything will come.”
With a bit of time to reflect, Shapovalov was able to put his 2021 Wimbledon into perspective. “I’m super happy with my level and the way I’ve been able to play throughout these two weeks,” he said. “It’s a level I’ve never played before. The confidence and everything, the way I carried myself these two weeks, it’s been different. I don’t consider myself the same player.
“For sure I don’t want to stop here and I want to keep going and just get back on the court and keep improving.”
Shapovalov became a big crowd favourite over this Wimbledon fortnight – particularly with having the opportunity to play in Centre Court against two Wimbledon champions in Andy Murray in the third round and Djokovic in the semi-finals.
It has been a remarkable two weeks for him, and that helped explain his tearful reaction at the end of the match. “I think what hurt so much this time was just that I felt like the game is there and it’s possible to go and play for the trophy,” he said. “It’s a feeling I’ve never had before, so that’s why it just hurt so much. I felt like I was outplaying Novak in parts of the match. If you’re outplaying Novak, you can beat anyone.
“It’s been a long month. It’s been a long two weeks. It’s been a lot of pressure, a lot of mental fatigue. Like, it all kind of spilled out on the court before I could control myself (smiling). Yeah, that’s all it was. But for sure there’s a lot of things to be proud for myself. For sure it’s almost good to have a little bit of a taste because it just makes me want it that much more going into the next slams and into the future. Now I know exactly what I’m capable of and where my game can be at.”
While Shapovalov has to leave and is next scheduled to play in Washington the week before next month’s National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Toronto, Matteo Berrettini is now left with trying to provide as spirited and entertaining a challenge against Djokovic in Sunday’s final.
Looking to the future, trying to predict what lies ahead for young, emerging tennis players has been proved wrong so often – particularly in this era of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic – that it’s naïve to proclaim that Shapovalov will one day win Wimbledon.
But, his experience on Friday in the ultimate cauldron of professional tennis, and against the greatest player of the day, surely has to pay dividends. There now aren’t many other head-to-heads in the sport that would create more anticipation and excitement than a Djokovic – Shapovalov match-up at the US Open in the Big Apple in two months’ time.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
This will bring back memories from 2015.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak