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
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.
Canada’s Denis Shapovalov reaches for a shot on his way to a 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 4-6, 6-1 victory over India’s Yuki Bhambri on Friday night.