‘Life has def­i­nitely changed’

Shapo­valov cred­its ex­pe­ri­ence, fight­ing spirit for me­te­oric rise

Kenora Daily Miner and News - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON

TORONTO — It is fairly ev­i­dent that even De­nis Shapo­valov can­not quite ex­plain it.

How did the 18-year-old best known for bean­ing a chair um­pire in the eye at the Davis Cup last win­ter, who lost in the first round at Wim­ble­don and was ranked 161st in the world, blow into the hard­court sea­son like a back­wards-hat-wear­ing buz­z­saw? How did the teenager from Rich­mond Hill, Ont., sud­denly start beat­ing Grand Slam cham­pi­ons, plu­ral, win over New York City and be­come Canada’s Sweet­heart along the way?

“Just play­ing good ten­nis at the right weeks,” Shapo­valov said on Thurs­day morn­ing, in front of a bank of tele­vi­sion cam­eras at a Toronto lux­ury ho­tel. The set­ting was fit­ting. The Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val and all of its celebrity gaz­ing be­gan the same day in the same neigh­bour­hood, so might as well have the coun­try’s new­est star min­gle among the swells.

But, back to his break­through. Shapo­valov did al­low that there was one thing he could credit for his re­mark­able six-week run. “The big­gest thing I think I im­proved was men­tally on the court,” he said. “Just my fight­ing spirit. Just stay­ing calm and, yeah, just fight­ing for every point.”

This could be a case of an ath­lete be­ing aware of his press clip­pings, as just about ev­ery­one who has fallen for Shapo­valov has noted some­thing about his tough­ness/ tenac­ity/grit and/or for­ti­tude, but he was able to ex­plain it a bit fur­ther. Play­ing in big mo­ments, he said, al­lowed him to learn from them, and his coaches would help him adapt for the same sit­u­a­tion the next time. Try­ing to close out Juan Martin del Potro in Mon­treal, he said, “I got bro­ken and I got a lit­tle bit ner­vous and I started rush­ing my points.” Coach Martin Lau­ren­deau told him af­ter the match to slow things down, “go to the towel a lit­tle bit more,” and re­group when he was feel­ing the nerves. Shapo­valov said he re­lied on that against JoWil­fried Tsonga in the sec­ond round at the U.S. Open, stay­ing calm af­ter the French­man broke his serve, be­fore fight­ing back to beat the eighth­seed. “It’s just play­ing a lot of matches, be­ing in th­ese sit­u­a­tions a lot, it’s re­ally help­ing me men­tally im­prove.”

All of that sounds per­fectly sen­si­ble, but still: With his fourth-round loss in New York, Shapo­valov should jump al­most another 20 spots in the ATP rank­ings and be knock­ing on the top 50. That’s a jump of 110 spots in six weeks, over which time var­i­ous ten­nis lu­mi­nar­ies com­pared him to a young Rafa Nadal and a young Roger Fed­erer. Those guys turned out OK. John McEn­roe said he re­minded him of him­self (mi­nus, pre­sum­ably, the fits). That kind of rise can’t en­tirely be hung on re­newed pluck and moxie. But, what­ever hap­pened to cause Shapo­valov’s wild as­cen­sion, he ap­pears more than com­fort­able with it.

“My life has def­i­nitely changed in the past month,” he said, not­ing that he gets rec­og­nized at air­ports and in malls now. He sounded charmed by the lit­tle fans whose par­ents ner­vously in­tro­duce them — “just see­ing all th­ese young kids look up to me, it’s pretty in­spir­ing” — and he’s aware that he’s al­ready es­tab­lished an iden­tity. The cap with the strap pulled ex­tra tight, for ex­am­ple. His equip­ment spon­sor has sent him hats that fit bet­ter — “I’ve al­ways had a pretty small head” — but he likes wear­ing the larger one, pulled tight. It’s kind of his thing. “It’s be­come my trade­mark,” Shapo­valov says. And peo­ple are some­times pro­nounc­ing his name cor­rectly, too. “It looks in­tim­i­dat­ing on pa­per, I mean there are a lot of Os and As,” he says. Shapo will do, he says. “It stands out, and it’s pretty sim­ple.” It’s also bet­ter than Shara­pova, which he says he has been called be­fore.

He will play in the Davis Cup next week in Ed­mon­ton, hope­fully along­side Vasek Pospisil, who is deal­ing with a bad back. (Mi­los Raonic is out with a wrist in­jury.) The two have be­come close, hav­ing played to­gether at the Davis Cup in Fe­bru­ary, and Shapo­valov cred­its the 27-year-old from Ver­non, B.C., with help­ing him pre­pare for op­po­nents dur­ing his hard­court run. “He’s an un­be­liev­able guy,” he said of Pospisil, who was of­ten in the player’s box in New York watch­ing his young friend play. Shapo­valov also gave a nod to Felix Auger Alias­sime, the 17-year-old from Mon­treal and fel­low won­derkid. “He was kick­ing my ass in prac­tice the week af­ter (the Rogers Cup in) Mon­treal,” said Shapo­valov, who says he can’t wait to play in front of Cana­dian fans again.

That’s one last way in which Shapo­valov seems un­like his pre­de­ces­sors in Cana­dian ten­nis star­dom: He em­braces the role of am­bas­sador, say­ing he hopes kids pick up rac­quets be­cause of him and stat­ing bluntly that he wants to win for his coun­try. He doesn’t sound like some­one who would skip the Olympics.

And for now, he hopes to get into the top 30 in the world next sea­son. He smiles a lit­tle. Maybe top 20. And one day, a Grand Slam.

“I think to do that for my coun­try would be re­ally in­spir­ing,” Shapo­valov says.

Do it for your­self, kid. The coun­try will be happy to come along for the ride.

JULIE JA­COB­SON/ THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Af­ter strong show­ings at the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open, De­nis Shapo­valov, of Rich­mond Hill, Ont., should be knock­ing on the top 50 when the next ATP rank­ings are re­leased. That’s a jump of more than 100 spots in just six weeks for the 18-year-old bud­ding star.

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