When discussing the abundance of young talent in the men’s game, someone who is often mentioned is Canada’s Denis Shapovalov. The 21-year-old had found some of the best form of his career before the coronavirus pandemic halted the season and will surely be determined to continue his progress when tennis returns.
The Canadian really burst onto the scene with some of his heroics at the Rogers Cup back in 2017. It was at that tournament that he picked up his first win over a top-10 player, beating then world #2 Rafael Nadal as a main draw wildcard aged just 18, during a memorable run to the semifinals. He backed that up by reaching the fourth round at the US Open and many were expecting the young gun to enjoy a fruitful 2018 season.
But as is often the case with players making a name for themselves early in their careers, there are inconsistencies and periods of struggle to overcome as they get to grips with their own game, learning on the job as they make their way up the rankings. Players must also adjust to the reality of touring, with the nomadic lifestyle of moving from tournament to tournament enjoyed by some more than others, with homesickness not entirely uncommon.
For Shapovalov, after promising end to 2017, the next two seasons proved to be difficult. He did enjoy some standout results, breaking into the top 30 in 2018 after reaching the last four at the Madrid Open and making another semifinal at Masters 1000-level at the 2019 Miami Open. But his progress was not as swift as many had expected and although his lively, flamboyant game continued to leave fans on the edge of their seats, the Canadian lost his way during the 2019 clay-court season.
He looked uncomfortable on the slower red clay, with his confidence appearing to have deserted him. Shapovalov, a player that likes to take the ball on, often looking for the early winner and to use his explosive power to dictate proceedings, is almost unplayable at his best. But as effective as his brand of attacking tennis is, it also holds him back during the off days that every professional has to endure, with Shapovalov seeming to lack a reliable plan b.
Shapovalov’s miserable run of form continued through the clay-court swing and the grass-court season. He scored just two wins, beating Pablo Carreno Busta at the Italian Open and Ugo Humbert in Lyon, and lost in the first round in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Paris, Stuttgart and at Queen’s and Wimbledon. But that loss of form proved to be temporary. Despite a mixed start to the North American summer hard-court swing, things started to click for Shapovalov in Winston-Salem.
The Canadian looked to have finally solved the puzzle, much of which appeared to be down to the addition of the respected former professional Mikhail Youzhny, once ranked as high as 8th in the world, to his coaching team. Youzhny has clearly a brought a great deal to the table in a short space of time, but Shapovalov also deserves a lot of credit for his willingness to listen to the Russian’s advice and take his criticisms on board.
Initially the Russian arrived on a trial basis at the Winston-Salem Open, where he had an immediate impact. Shapovalov reached the semifinals, winning three matches back-to-back for the first time in five months. That did not necessarily mark an immediate turning point, although Shapovalov did put in an impressive showing at the US Open, reaching the third round, but it appears to have illustrated to Shapovalov that Youzhny’s ideas could work, provided he applied himself.
First and foremost, Shapovalov’s point construction has been very different under Youzhny’s tutelage. The Russian has not looked to radically alter Shapovalov’s aggressive game, but he has encouraged the young gun to temper that aggression with greater patience. Shapovalov appears to have taken this advice to heart, taking on the right ball and playing the percentages, instead of rushing to try and hit a winner too early in the point.
These improvements saw Shapovalov finish 2019 in excellent fashion. The Canadian won the title in Stockholm without dropping a set, beating Filip Krajinovic in the final, and backed that up with a great week at the Paris Masters, where he reached his first Masters 1000 final, picking up three top 20 wins en route. He was well-beaten in that final by Novak Djokovic, but there can be little shame attached to losing to the Serbian, one of the greatest indoors players of all time.
The second drastic change implemented by Youzhny and Shapovalov during that period of time saw the Canadian alter his approach to returning. Earlier in his career, Shapovalov looked to take almost every return on, whether it was a realistic play or not. But under Youzhny’s watchful eyes, Shapovalov has gradually introduced the block return, long used to impressive effect by both the great Roger Federer and his countryman Stan Wawrinka.
It has enabled Shapovalov to get involved in more return games. He has been getting significantly more returns into play, giving him the chance to build the point from the back of the court. For Youzhny it has been about not only giving Shapovalov a greater chance of getting the best out of his game long-term, but also making those off days a little less erratic and a little more measured. And the positive strides the Canadian has made have created real excitement about what he might achieve if tennis does return at some point in 2020.
Now he has the luxury of experience on his side, of going through a loss of confidence and learning what works in his game and what doesn’t, the future looks to be bright indeed for the young gun. He has always been blessed with the quality to take on and beat the best in the game when he is firing on all cylinders. But Youzhny has helped Shapovalov find the consistency he was lacking, turning him into a top-15 player in the process. What remains to be seen is if he can help Shapovalov to rise further still.
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