SHAPOVALOV COULD BE NO. 1, ‘IF HE KEEPS HIS NOSE CLEAN’

For­mer up-and-comer Belkin likes what he sees in Canada’s teenage ten­nis sen­sa­tion

Regina Leader-Post - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES

Mike Belkin has been the next great ten­nis player.

He has also seen the next great ten­nis player. And he has ad­vice for the cur­rent next great ten­nis player, 18-year-old De­nis Shapovalov, who head­lines Canada’s Davis Cup team en­ter­ing its tie with In­dia in Edmonton.

“This kid, he can re­ally play, but now the pres­sure is go­ing to be on him, you un­der­stand?” Belkin said Thurs­day from his home in Key Bis­cayne, Fla. “He looks like the real deal, this guy. If he stays with it and keeps his nose clean, he’s go­ing to be some ten­nis player this kid.

“What I’m afraid of is he might get caught up in all this, ‘Oh, you’re a great ten­nis player,’ stuff. He’s just go­ing to have to be a ten­nis player, you un­der­stand? If he stays straight and is just a ten­nis player, he could be No. 1 in the world.”

More than 50 years ago, even more glow­ing praise was heaped upon a young Belkin, the trans­planted Mon­trealer who took up the game at age 11 and quickly be­came the hottest thing on clay.

While liv­ing in Miami, he won the U.S. boys and ju­nior cham­pi­onships and the pres­ti­gious Orange Bowl cham­pi­onship. As a wispy high schooler — he was five foot 11 and just 150 pounds — Belkin also took the Florida men’s ti­tle. By 1963, he’d won so of­ten — 26 sanc­tioned tour­na­ments in a row — that Sports Il­lus­trated dis­patched a writer of con­sid­er­able re­pute to check out the wun­derkind.

“You’re 16 or 17 years of age and Frank De­ford is writ­ing about you. You’ve heard of Frank De­ford, right?” Belkin said.

“He flew in to see me in Miami and he did this ar­ti­cle on me and ev­ery­body was call­ing me the next great player, be­cause I was win­ning all the time. I never stopped win­ning.”

The piece, ti­tled “A big word for a small boy,” hit the streets March 18, 1963, when Belkin was 17.

“Around na­tional ju­nior sin­gles cham­pion Mike Belkin, the word ‘great­est’ is used with much the same care­less aban­don and the same lack of point that it is around co­me­dian Jackie Glea­son,” De­ford wrote.

Belkin was in the midst of aug­ment­ing his base­line game with a serve-and-vol­ley com­po­nent. He was en­ter­tain­ing mul­ti­ple col­lege of­fers and was chock full of the con­fi­dence that came with beat­ing ev­ery­one.

“The way I’m go­ing with my serve and vol­ley now, I think I should be on top by the time

I’m 20,” he told De­ford. “Yeah, on top. That’s right, the great­est player in the world.”

He didn’t get there. While in his late 20s, right knee surgery de­railed what had been a mod­est pro ca­reer. But he had been run­ner-up to Arthur Ashe in the 1965 NCAA tour­na­ment and was peren­nial Cana­dian champ in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

He coached for a cou­ple of decades too.

“I made a nice liv­ing. I love the game and it’s been good to me. It kept me straight. It’s just a won­der­ful sport,” the 72-yearold Belkin said.

Some of his fond­est rec­ol­lec­tions are at­tached to the Davis Cup. His ster­ling sin­gles record of 14-7 gives him one of the best win­ning per­cent­ages in Cana­dian his­tory and that’s a point of pride. Per­haps ow­ing to his joy­ful ex­pe­ri­ences with base­ball and hockey, he loved be­ing part of a Davis Cup team in a pres­surepacked en­vi­ron­ment like the one fac­ing Shapovalov and his mates to­day.

“It’s the same old story,” Belkin said. “When you rep­re­sent your coun­try in some­thing, there is a lot of pres­sure no mat­ter what level. It’s amaz­ing, the pres­sure in Davis Cup. All these guys get­ting ready to play in Edmonton, it’s all about the pres­sure, you un­der­stand? You want to win.

It’s very dif­fi­cult. And I feel the team at home has got a lot more pres­sure.

“I loved the pres­sure. Didn’t bother me. I liked it more than the other guys.”

What I’m afraid of is he might get caught up in all this,

‘Oh, you’re a great ten­nis player,’ stuff.

JA­SON FRANSON/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Canada’s Bray­den Sch­nur reaches out to re­turn a serve to In­dia’s Ramku­mar Ra­manathan dur­ing Davis Cup ten­nis ac­tion at North­lands Coli­seum in Edmonton on Friday. Ra­manathan won 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-5 to give In­dia a 1-0 lead af­ter the first rub­ber.

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