Denis Shapovalov’s 6-4, 7-5 loss to Alexander Zverev in the Rogers Cup semi-finals on Saturday night wasn’t the result he had hoped for but it still didn’t feel like there wasn’t a happy ending.
At just 18 years old, Shapovalov looked and played like he belonged with Zverev. During the handshake at the net the No. 8-ranked German said to him, “we’ll play a lot more times and have some really good matches.”
That was a nice touch by Zverev, 20.
There’s likely to be an additional bond between the two going forward – both their families have ethnic Russian backgrounds. As a matter of fact their mothers could be seen talking to each other in the players lounge following the match.
Out on centre court at STADE IGA in Montreal, yet another sell-out crowd of 11,715 watched Shapovalov and Zverev play an entertaining match. There was no question Shapovalov was a little antsy. The three times he lost his serve in the match it was with a double fault that flew long well beyond the service line.
But he gave almost as good as he got in the baseline rallies with one of the tour’s heaviest hitters but wasn’t opportunistic enough – Zverev was 6/7 in break points saved while Shapovalov was 0/3.
Shapovalov has dazzled all week with his explosive shot-making off both sides, his aggressive and artful serving and his net play, although there were a few too many bad misses in the forecourt against Zverev on Saturday.
After the match, Zverev spoke about a seldom-mentioned aspect of Shapovalov’s game. “I was actually a bit surprised how quick he is,” the 6-foot-6 German said. “I know that he has big shots. I know that he has a big forehand and big serve.
“I can play aggressive, and he was handling that quite well, going from side to side. That impressed me that I hadn’t seen on TV. I witnessed it today, which was a surprise for me a little bit.”
Shapovalov’s combativeness was also never in doubt as – after being broken at 5-all in the second set – he had two break points and saved two match points before losing the last game in the one hour and 43-minute contest.
It has been a transformational week for Shapovalov as he entered the consciousness of the tennis world with four impressive victories, including defeating Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6(4) in the second round and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(4) in the third.
But his coach, Martin Laurendeau, was actually most impressed by his 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 42-ranked Adrian Mannarino of France in the quarter-finals. “I think the win over Mannarino on Friday was the most important one of the week on several levels,” Laurendeau said. “Denis earned a lot of respect from the other players and coaches on the tour with the Mannarino match because that proves that he’s capable of stringing together wins and not just resting on his laurels and saying, ‘I beat Nadal, my tournament is over.’ He went out there and beat a top-50 player and that sends a message to the other players and everyone who follows tennis.”
A reporter traveling around on the Montreal Metro on Saturday sat on several different station platforms and saw five or six replays of Shapovalov’s match point against Mannarino on the closed circuit television system.
Asked if he has been aware of the saturation coverage of himself, a smiling Shapovalov said, “on TV, I wasn’t expecting to, like, hear my name every two minutes. It’s like, ‘all right, guys, enough, enough!’
“I mean it’s quite a change going from just being a junior coming up to kind of now people consider that I’ve made the transition and it’s more about stabilizing myself and keep advancing.
“But regardless, this is one week. It’s just a small part of this season. I still have to work really hard. I still have so many aspects of the game I can improve. I’m really going to make a good effort to improve those parts.”
While most of the tennis world is aware of his incredible coming out party in Montreal, it’s still surprised that it has happened when he is just 18 years old. Basically since he defeated No. 47-ranked Kyle Edmund on the centre court at the Queen’s Club tournament in London in mid-June before losing 7-5 in the fifth set to Tomas Berdych, he has been playing like a legitimate top-50 or top-75 player.
When asked if he himself had a sense of how and exactly why this marked improvement had occurred at this time, he replied, “I’ve kind of seen that I’m capable to push these guys. I mean, I went pretty tight with Tomas (Berdych), took out Kyle (Edmund) on grass (at Queen’s). I think maybe the serve is getting bigger. That could be from the racquet change. As soon as I went to Yonex (in April), I felt that little bit more pop on my serve and my forehand. Yeah, I have more feel with the racquet. So it could be that.
“But also I just think I’m improving every week. I’m playing a lot, but I’m also working a lot with (coach) Marty (Laurendeau). This is still a transition year for me. I’m really trying to improve my game so that I can anchor myself in the top-50, top-20, top-10.”
By beating Nadal and del Potro, particularly with his swashbuckling, no-holds-barred gamestyle and willingness to engage with the crowd, he has elevated himself to a whole new level. Jimmy Arias, a former world No. 5 (1984) and commentator for Sportsnet’s coverage of the Rogers Cup in Montreal, likely expressed the thoughts of many when he described his feelings after Shapovalov upset Nadal on Thursday night.
“It brought tears to my eyes actually because that three hours that he just lived changed him from a kid into a man,” the 52-year-old Arias said. “Normally it takes longer than three hours to become a man. He took two hours and 46 minutes and I knew his life is now completely different forever. And it’s something – being that good that young – you dreamed about when you were eight years old or whatever. It was a dream come true that minute. I was touched by that.”
Shapovalov (above with tournament director Eugene Lapierre and tournament staff post-match Saturday night), mature beyond his years and with a vastly improved ATP ranking to show for it, knows that everything is different now. For one, as he told media on Saturday night, reporters have been showing up and seeing the camps going on at his mother Tessa’s tennis programme in Vaughan north of Toronto.
“I don’t even think I realize it yet,” he said about his newfound renown. “I mean, it’s a huge (rankings) jump from 144 (actually 143) to 67. My whole life has changed in the past five days. It’s crazy how it is. I go from being not known to, you know, being so known in the tennis world, in Canada in general. It’s going to be a little bit of a change to me. I’m going to have to adapt.”
In the meantime, it appears he won’t go to Vancouver to play the $100,000 Odlum Brown Open VanOpen Challenger event next week, a decision that makes sense after all the emotions and efforts of this past week – and never forgetting that this prodigal tennis player is still just 18 years old.
There’s still an outside chance he could get a wild card into the US Open, which begins August 28. Otherwise he will play the qualifying at Flushing Meadows starting the week of the 21stth.
The Rogers Cup semi-final and the 360 ranking points he earned with it have catapulted him into a top-4 position in the race to play in the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Italy, from November 7-11. That event is for the top seven 21-and-under players (plus one wild card) and will have prize money of $1.27 million but not award ATP ranking points. Currently Zverev leads the way in the race with almost four times as many points as his nearest challenger – Karen Khachanov of Russia – with another Russian, Andrey Rublev, and Shapovalov in pursuit.
Maybe the last word on Shapovalov’s incredible breakthrough at this year’s Rogers Cup should go to Zverev, who’s in a position to offer a ‘been-there, done-that’ assessment of the Canadian’s success because he has been through the same experience as he progressed to his current top-10 status.
“I think this is just the beginning of a very long story,” Zverev said about Shapovalov. “Hopefully he can continue doing what he’s doing. But on the other hand I will say don’t expect him to win US Open in the next few months. He still needs some time. This is I think the best tennis he played in his life. For him to play this level consistently, it might take him, you know, another two to three years.
“But the other hand he has shown what level he has in himself and what a talent that he is. It’s going to be amazing watching him and playing against him.”
Compared with just a week ago, it now feels like a whole nation is along for the ride.
A BETTER WAY TO TENNIS IN TORONTO
Toronto tennis fans will be able to take the TTC to the Rogers Cup in 2018.
As part of an 8.6 km extension from the Sheppard West (formerly Downsview) station to the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, there will be two stops close to the Sobeys Stadium. One will be in the middle of the York University campus – York University – and the other – Pioneer Village – will be near Steeles Avenue and North West Gate.
Pioneer Village, 6.2 km (four stops) from Sheppard West station, will likely be the most convenient – about a 10-minute walk – for the Sobeys Stadium. The TTC website says there will be 1,881 parking spaces at the Pioneer Village station.
The estimated cost of the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension project – funded by four levels of government – is $3.18 billion.
MONTREAL POST CARD
It’s that time of year again – farmers are harvesting their crops and bringing them to market. In Montreal one of the biggest ones is the Atwater Market. That’s this year’s crop in the picture above along with people shopping at the Atwater Market on Saturday morning. Several years ago there used to be public corn roasts at the Rogers Cup site in Montreal – plenty of corn and lots of butter to lather it in. In French it was called an ‘épluchette de blé d’inde,” which basically translates as a corn roast.
NOTE: Next blog Tebbutt Tuesday with a wrap on the Rogers Cup tournaments.
Feature photo: Arturo Velazquez/Tennis Canada