Denis Shapovalov started the year ranked 250. A humble target was to at least touch the 150 mark by the end of the season, but for the form the Canadian has struck, capped by his dizzying run at the US Open. As the wins started piling on, so did the raucous following from the stands, something India’s Davis Cup squad will run into this weekend.
Playing at home as Canada host India in the World Group Playoff, the youngest US Open fourth-round entrant will be thrust into his next Davis Cup tie in Edmonton with a supersonic tailwind of Canadian support. Tipped to give Canada two points against India’s lowly-ranked singles players, the teenaged Shapovalov has emerged as an unanticipated roadblock for India, especially after last week’s performance at Flushing Meadows.
Bhupathi’s boys will realise Denis is one right menace when playing at home. Last month at the Montreal Masters, for the first time in the match, there wasn’t a peep coming out from the stands, but it was the first indicator of where the support lay. Before them, on centre court, the usual favourite Rafael Nadal had an upper hand, but against Canada’s own young southpaw Shapovalov. Trailing 0-30 on serve at 4-4 in the second set (Nadal won the first), the teenager sent two aces down the T, struck a venomous forehand winner, and then launched an audacious serve straight at the Spaniard to win the game.
The noise grew as the points went Shapovalov’s way — the 18-year-old was feeding off the crowd. He won the set, and then the Round-of-16 match. Later, he’d become the youngest ever to reach a Masters semifinal. “The support has had a good effect on me,” says Shapovalov at a post-match interview. “I’ve won both my Challenger titles at home, and now this.”
A six-footer with shoulder-length blonde hair, he’s not quite the stoic tennis professional who shuts off the noise in the background. Often he’ll raise a finger to his ear, egging the crowd on just to push himself further playing that one-handed backhand.
It’s helped him rocket up to 51 in the world, and he’s done it by scalping some of the bigger names in the sport.
A round before he got the better of Nadal at Montreal, the southpaw toppled 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets.
Later at his first senior level outing at Flushing Meadows, he rose from the qualifying round to beat world no 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And even when he crashed out in the fourth round – he became the youngest to reach that stage – he forced Pablo Carreno Busta to a tie-breaker in each of the three sets.
“I practised with Denis years ago, and he was already beating me then,” recalls veteran Daniel Nestor at a pre-Davis Cup tie conference. “I was frustrated at that, but not so much anymore because he’s beating everyone.” But it isn’t just the results, he plays with the fearless aggression of an 18-year-old. The groundstrokes, though he doesn’t quite have a strong upper body to hammer the ball, have enough intent and direction – be it down the line or cross court. The one-handed backhand is struck early and he tends to drive it through rather than a defensive slice.
These are traits that, in the absence of world no. 11 Milos Raonic, have made Shapovalov the spearhead for the Canadian attack in their first Davis Cup encounter with the Indians.
But the youngster doesn’t hold fond memories of the tournament. During Canada’s first round World Group tie against Great Britain in February, Shapovalov was trailing two sets to love in the deciding rubber when he was broken early in the third. In frustration, he tried to launch a ball into the stands but inadvertently struck the chair umpire and defaulted the match.
But there was shame and motivation from the result. “I let a lot of people down, including my country, Davis Cup teammates, supporters, and fans,” he wrote in an ATP blog. “The incident was probably the most maturing experience for me since turning pro. It made me focus on my game and on the mental aspect of competing, which in turn brought me these latest results.”
He adds at the press conference on Tuesday: “I’ve matured a lot from that and I’m ready to play for my country again.”
Last year, Shapovalov competed and won the junior Wimbledon title. The Indians too have a junior Grand Slam champion in their ranks. In Yuki Bhambri, there’s a former junior world no. 1 and 2009 boys’ Australian Open winner. The 25-year-old has twice broken into the top 100s, only for his body to be ravaged by injuries.
Shapovalov and world No. 82 Vasek Pospisil will be expected to play the four singles rubbers. Meanwhile, in-form Ramkumar Ramanathan and Bhambri will bring their own recent results — upsets over Dominic Thiem and Gael Monfils respectively — to the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.
Yet, the Indians’ exploits fade in the face of what Shapovalov has achieved in such a short time on tour.
He’s become a different player between the Davis Cup tie in February and the one this Friday. And he’ll be looking to redeem himself after what happened against the British, with a home crowd to egg him on.