There’s one thing that’s indisputable about Denis Shapovalov – he draws a crowd.
But what the people in those crowds all over the tennis world would like to see is more happy endings for the 23-year-old Canadian.
He plays amazing tennis and is showcased in entertaining matches but too often he comes out on the losing end.
It’s hardly time to be too down on him in an era when the dominant players in the game are in their mid-30s – and he is still a decade away – but the least that can be said is that Shapovalov diehards are getting a little impatient.
On Saturday afternoon in a packed 8,125-seat Grandstand for his US Open third-round match against No. 9-seed Andrey Rublev, he kept his fans on the edge of their seats for more than four hours with his gloriously explosive tennis. At several junctures in the match, it looked very much like he was going to wind up the winner. Not, as it turned out, on the wrong end of a 6-4, 2-6, 6-7(3), 6-4, 7-6 [10-7] score against the 24-year-old Russian.
In the second set, Shapovalov bounced back from the loss of the opener and began pulverising the ball in spectacular fashion as only he can – even if he thinks Nick Kyrgios may be just as spectacular. The types of winners he hits could be described as ‘break out’ because they explode out of the pattern of rallies, leaving his opponents defenceless and out outmanoeuvred. They can suddenly appear to be passengers just along for the ride.
He played like that in taking the second and third sets on Saturday and there were almost feelings of pity for Rublev because he seemed to have no answers. At that point, a Shapovalov victory was certainly conceivable.
But the only thing that his opponents can do to stop him is keep their spirits up, keep challenging him to continue to make those dynamic winners off the ground, with the volley and on the serve.
Toward the end of the match in the fifth set there were moments when it also appeared he might be closing in on a victory, particularly when he saved three match points with Rublev serving for the match at 5-4. On two of them, Shapovalov played meticulously error-free, eventually making Rublev flinch. On the third, he hit a beautiful inside/in ‘break out’ forehand for his 72nd winner of the day.
He went on to break Rublev and hold serve for 6-5, with the Russian looking shaken and vulnerable after failing to convert any of those match points.
Shapovalov is a runaway train when he gets on a roll and Rublev deserves kudos for keeping his cool and plugging away. The runaway train gradually slowed down, made a few unforced errors, including on the first three points of the match tiebreak that decided the outcome. Rublev held on to finish it off 10 points to seven.
There’s really nothing that Shapovalov can do but persevere, hone his exceptional gifts and believe that these disappointments are part of a natural learning process.
In the meantime, fans of the sport all over the world will be treated to human-highlight reel performances keeping them royally entertained and, hopefully, in on the ground floor of a rare talent’s evolution to a champion at the greatest venues in the game.
Sometimes, watching Shapovalov, it seems that there needn’t be so much fist-pumping and emoting when he hits a fantastic shot. Maybe a calmer demeanour would send the message to opponents that even the most jaw-dropping shots are not that unusual in his own mind. That, like a Roger Federer who seldom over-reacts, this is just business-as-usual for him and that guy on the other side of the net better get used to it and expect that there is plenty more to come.
As much as Shapovalov is disappointed with the result against Rublev, it was a much-improved display compared to his losses at Roland Garros – 6-3, 6-1, 7-6(4) to No. 40-ranked Holger Rune and at Wimbledon – 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(6) to No. 56 Brandon Nakashima.
Rublev was candid in his assessment after the match. “Obviously (it) was a crazy match,” he said. “Denis deserves to win as well. We all know, he deserves to win. Both of us deserve to win. When you play these kinds of matches, there is no winner, in my opinion. Obviously, it’s a game, so has to be someone. But both players deserve to win.”
As for Shapovalov’s side of things, he told TSN, “credit to Andrey, he played amazing, fought really well. I’m happy with my level but obviously very disappointed to lose – a lot of positive things going forward.”
“I’m a little bit of a not flashy player, but still need time to settle into my game, grow and improve of course. For sure I put in a lot of work so it’s definitely great to see the game come out but unfortunately it doesn’t always click like this. So definitely happy that it was able to click, disappointed with the loss. But I’m just going to take what I have and try to keep going forward.”
On Saturday what he had in the Grandstand was a wild ride, with stats telling some of the story – 76 winners and 72 unforced errors to 38 and 37 for Rublev. Despite the fact that he was at times brilliant at returning deep on the Rublev serve, he was not as efficient as the Russian at converting break points – 4/17 to 4/9 for Rublev.
Hard to know exactly what’s next for Shapovalov, but there may be at least a small chance he could play Davis Cup for Canada in the Finals group stage in Valencia, Spain, the week after the US Open. The fact that Félix Auger-Aliassime said he is reconsidering playing would suggest that he would like his long-time international teammate to join him. But that’s just speculation as Canada faces a tough four-team group that includes host Spain, Serbia and Korea.
LEYLAH OUT IN DOUBLES, STILL IN MIXED
After upsetting the second-seeded pairing of Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula in the first round, Leylah Fernandez and her Australian partner Daria Saville were beaten 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6 [12-10] on Saturday by American Bernarda Pera and Dalma Galfi of Hungary. Fernandez/Saville had a match point at 10-9 in the decisive match tiebreak.
On Sunday, Fernandez is scheduled for her second-round mixed doubles with partner Jack Sock against compatriot Gabriela Dabrowski and Australian Max Purcell. It’s the fourth match on Court 17 after Dabrowski and Guiliana Olmos of Mexico, the fifth seeds in women’s doubles, play the second Court 17 match against Asia Muhammad of the U.S. and Ena Shibahara of Japan.