A lefty with a viciously powerful dipping forehand. It must be Rafael Nadal, right? A guy with a serious serving action leading to easy aces. That’s got to be Roger Federer, hasn’t it? A guy with easy power off his beautiful one-handed backhand. One who likes getting to the net to finish off the point. Who else but the Swiss? A player who has superb all court movement and a never say die attitude to every point. And, in the biggest moments the greater his response, the better he holds his nerve. Yes, they are surely the qualities of Nadal and Federer. Or are they?
The start of the run
On the basis of what unfolded recently in Montreal, one may not be entirely shocked to discover that the player described is Denis Shapovalov, or at least the version of Shapovalov who turned up in Canada’s second city at the Rogers Cup. From the very first match, against the doughty Rogerio Dutra Silva, the young Canadian had to do his best impression of his idols to survive. He was faced with no less than four match points. He saved them with a fearlessness and aggressive style of play that would have done justice to both these great champions. Of particular credit to Shapovalov was the incredibly difficult feathered volley to save the second match point.
When he faced Juan Martin del Potro in the second round, Shapovalov showed the assurance of both these majestic champions by roughing it out when the big points arrived. This was never more so than in the second set tie-breaker. When 1-3 down, he reeled off five consecutive points that ultimately helped secure him the set and the match. It was almost Federer-esque.
Denis Shapovalov arrives in the big time
Nadal faced him in the next round and might have had an overwhelming feeling of deja vu. Seeing an 18-year-old, wired to the grid and thundering to every ball must have reminded him of himself. All the more so when Shapovalov started delivering impossible winners from impossible angles with his fearsome lefty forehand. In the end, the youngster outhit the Spaniard on his fabled forehand side by 33 winners to 14. Just as impressively, he overturned a 3-0 deficit in the third set tie break. Shapovalov won seven of the next eight points, to conquer the ten-time French Open champion. It must have been a strange feeling for Nadal to succumb to a player who, in some ways, is a mirror image of his younger self.
Adrian Mannarino’s guile in the next match looked like it would undo the young gun. The Frenchman took the first set 6-2 and looked in control. But once Shapovalov took stock of the Frenchman’s craft, aided by a rain delay, he set about plotting his own route to victory. He made tactical adjustments and elevated the execution of his shots as if he had torn a page right out of Federer and Nadal’s playbook.
The defeat to Alexander Zverev in the semi-final showed the current limits in his fast improving mental and physical development. Key double faults at critical moments were his undoing. Shapovalov didn’t have enough left in the tank to push back fully against his accomplished German opponent. At the moment, there is no doubt that Zverev is the best young player in the world. But the Canadian still dragged Zverev through a wild final game, saving two match points and forcing three break points. The German eventually pulled through but it was another terrific effort from Shapovalov.
How far can he go?
The tournament concluded in the wake of an easy final victory for Zverev over a physically impaired Federer. But the lasting memory for those lucky enough to see this young Canadian was his sheer verve, dash and skill. And of the perhaps limitless potential, this young man possesses.
Zverev is undoubtedly blessed with many talents. He has the backhand prowess and mental strength of Novak Djokovic and the power of Tomas Berdych. But it is arguable that Shapovalov has the greater potential. Anyone able to mirror so many strengths of not just Nadal, but Federer too, is an incredibly rare talent. It’s a scary, intoxication and inspiring future version all wrapped up in one player.
Of course, there is no guarantee that he can replicate his performances in Montreal. The challenge to better them consistently and on bigger stages is a huge one. Yet, after this showing, he at least deserves our recognition for the tremendous gifts and talents he possesses, for the strong essence of Federer and Nadal which appear already from his game.
Beyond that, he must relentlessly invest the time and dedication necessary to hone himself into a seismic serial winning force. That dedication, as much as their talent, has turned Nadal and Federer into the all-time greats they are. Shapovalov has shown he has the talent, now it’s time for the work.
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