The first full season on the professional tennis circuit is an eye-opening experience for any teenager. Few have faced as tough an opening six months though than Denis Shapovalov. A moment of madness thrust the teenager into the limelight after accidentally hitting umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye while smacking a ball away in frustration during the Davis Cup.
After a media storm, the furore has since died down around the unfortunate incident. Denis Shapovalov has been able to turn his attention fully back to tennis and is reaping the rewards, sitting inside the top 200.
“The gRASS SUITS MY GAME WELL”
His big serve and aggressive game off the ground make him as engaging on the court as he is off of it. Now, he has brought that game to Britain for his first crack at a summer grass court season. As last year’s Wimbledon Boys Champion he certainly boasts pedigree on British soil.
“For me I love playing on grass”, Denis Shapovalov responded gleefully when discussing his favourite surface. “It’s too bad that the season’s so short. I love being in Great Britain and playing on this surface.
“I think the grass suits my game well. Big serve, big forehand, I like coming to the net and finishing the points so I’d definitely say the grass [is my favourite].”
The 18-year-old suffered a narrow 6-4, (1)6-7, 6-3, loss to fourth seed Thomas Fabbiano at the ATP Aegon Open Challenger in Nottingham, his second event of three before heading to Wimbledon to have a crack at qualifying for the first time.
“I think it was a very tough match”, he said following the defeat. “Fabbiano is a great player and I just think in the third set he played too good.
“It’s a little bit frustrating or saddening that I’m so close to these guys and every week I kind of seem to be losing but with a very close score. Then again its a game of tennis and its my first year on tour so I’ve got a lot of learning to do and a lot of catching up to these guys to do.”
Homesickness – “It hit me pretty hard”
It’s not just on the tennis court that Shapovalov has plenty of learning to do. The rigours of being on the Tour full time can take their toll and homesickness has had an understandable impact on the teenager.
“I wasn’t expecting so many weeks on the road and being away from the family and friends for so long,” he openly admitted. “It hit me pretty hard at the start of the year being in Australia for three of four weeks, missing New Year which is a pretty close celebration with my family.”
After suffering from early season homesickness he acknowledged that the support of his coach, Martin Laurendeau, was pivotal. “The big part of it that has helped me get through it is my coach Marty. He’s got a lot of experience with this – he’s been through it himself – and he’s told me ways to avoid getting homesick and I think at this stage of the season I’ve kind of got used to being away from home.”
After six months on the Tour now he has begun to find some joy in the travel element, as has particularly enjoyed his stop in Nottingham. “I love discovering new cities. I mean for me its fascinating being here where Robin Hood used to be and everything is so historical here.
It’s honestly mind blowing when I’m walking the streets – it’s amazing how they’ve kept the buildings together and how beautiful it is.”
Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime: A Competitive Bromance
As well a fascination with exploration, Shapovalov also finds plenty of comfort in friendship. Luckily for him he is not the only young Canadian scaling the rankings ladder and is often joined at tournaments by fellow junior Grand Slam champion, Felix Auger-Aliassime and occasionally Benjamin Sigouin.
Speaking fondly of his close friend Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov said, “Obviously we’re huge rivals because we’re two of the best coming up in Canada but its amazing how close we are, we’re honestly like brothers and its always so good to see him at a tournament and we can play doubles together and its great to see him go far.
— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) March 20, 2017
“We always check on each others results, always talk, talk daily and our Snapchat streaks are pretty impressive I think.”
As well as the bromance with his doubles partner, Shapovalov has a number of other friends in high places. The arrival of Canada on the tennis circuit has seen Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil both make waves on the ATP while Eugenie Bouchard has found success on the WTA.
“He’s one of my idols for sure”
Only last week at Roland Garros, Gabriela Dabrowski became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam title, sealing the Mixed Doubles title with Rohan Bopanna. Denis Shapovalov has been doing his best to utilise his Canadian colleagues.
“I’ve talked to Milos a couple of times but I’m not as close with him but with Vasek, I think Vasek has helped me a lot on Tour. He’s always messaging me – I sent him a message yesterday when he qualified [for the Ricoh Open in the Netherlands] and we kind of talk to each other weekly, see how we’re doing.
Earlier in the year, Shapovalov found himself staring Pospisil down from the other side of the net as they met in a challenger event in Guadalajara. The younger Canadian emerged victorious, 6-3, 6-3. “He’s one of my idols for sure and actually to have a chance to play him and to see how my level matched up against him was pretty fun.”
“At the beginning of the year I wanted to be [ranked] 150”
It is no wonder with the current crop of talent emerging out of Canada that Shapovalov is rising hastily up the rankings.
“At the beginning of the year I wanted to be [ranked] 150. Now that seems very realistic to me [currently] being around 190. Obviously the higher I get the better but its tough.
“I have a lot of points coming off with Rogers Cup and a couple of semi-finals in Challengers so its difficult to have a range in the first year but I’m just playing it weekly and seeing how far I can get.”
Will we see Denis Shapovalov at the Next Gen Finals in Milan?
An obvious target for all teenagers making their way through the ATP Tour this year is the new Next Gen Finals in Milan. Shapovalov is aware enough though that to make the journey to Italy is going to be a mammoth task in his first full season.
“It’s a little bit tough. There are so many guys doing well – I think I’m 15th right now in the race – but obviously it would be incredible to play. It’s looking like it’ll be next year unless I have some big results coming up.”
Regarding the format changes being implemented at the Next Gen Finals, Shapovalov said, “I don’t know if I have a positive or negative opinion on it, it’s just different.
— Next Gen ATP Finals (@nextgenfinals) March 19, 2017
There is one rule that stands out to him as being particularly odd though. “I think the no let rule is a little bit unfair because there is going to be a lot of times when you aren’t going to realise you need to play the ball.
“But its different, they’re trying to experiment with things which is good – its always good to try new things so we’ll see how the tournament goes.”
Whether he makes the Next Gen Finals or not, there is little question that Denis Shapovalov has a big part to play in the future of the ATP Tour. His first six months may have been tainted by the unheralded Davis Cup incident but he is learning day by day how to cope with the rigours of the Tour and is starting to figure out where the enjoyment lies.