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Denis Shapovalov – the young man who shocked the world in Montreal

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Saturday 12 August 2017
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Here is all you need to know about Denis Shapovalov, the carefree Canadian teenager who has made it all the way through to the final four at the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal, keeping Rafael Nadal (at least temporarily) out the world No.1 spot with his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 win over the Spaniard in the third round.

He is ahead of the curve

No-one can say that Shapovalov’s success came out of the blue. He was a stand-out junior player, winning the doubles at the 2015 US Open, the Junior Davis Cup the same year and the Wimbledon boys’ singles in 2016. He also won his first professional title on the Futures circuit at 16, in January 2016, then just a few months later parlayed a wild card at the ATP Masters 1000 in Toronto to knock off his first top 20 player in the opening round in the shape of Nick Kyrgios (No.19 at the time). In early 2017, he picked up where he had left off, winning his first Challenger title at Drummondville at just 17 years and 11 months – an incredibly early age, but one which is comparable with the likes of Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Roger Federer, and more recently Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev.

And now Shapovalov has outdone them all with his wins over Del Potro and above all Nadal this week at Montreal, which saw him become the youngest ever quarter-finalist at an ATP Masters 1000 (since that category of tournament was introduced in 1990), and the youngest person to beat one of the top two in the world since Nadal himself, who definitively launched his career with a win over Federer at Miami in 2004! On Monday after his epic run, Shapovalov will at least 67th in the world. He's the youngest player in the Top 200. The first player younger than him is only ranked 222nd: his fellow countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime, 17.

He is part of a golden generation

Another reason why Shapovalov’s success was less of a surprise is that he is part of a genuine resurgence in Canadian tennis. Milos Raonic, Eugenie Bouchard and Vasek Pospisil have all established themselves on their respective circuits, while Shapovalov is spearheading the second generation, along with Felix Auger-Aliassime, Bianca Andreescu and Benjamin Sigouin, who are all making the step up from the juniors to the pros. Tennis is finally grabbing the headlines in the great white north, and the youngsters all have plenty of people to emulate.

"He is a model and an inspiration for me,"  Shapovalov says of Raonic. "He’s showed us that it’s possible to hit the heights, that it’s not just something that people from other countries can do." Raonic meanwhile is happy to be a trailblazer, and is equally effusive in his praise of Shapovalov, saying: "He has a brilliant future ahead of him. There is every reason to be optimistic about the future of Canadian tennis." And the youngster’s stand-out win over Rafa will doubtless serve as an inspiration for his training partners, as well as spurring on the older generation.

Denis Shapovalov

He is a lefty with a one-handed backhand

What makes him almost unique – and special, some would say – is that Shapovalov is not only left-handed, but he also has a one-handed backhand. These two features make him a rarity … And when you consider the fact that his backhand is very much a weapon as opposed to merely a way of marking time (with seven winners against Nadal, and an amazing 33 more on the forehand wing), you have to go a long way back – and up – to find players of that calibre. The likes of Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster, Petr Korda and Henri Leconte were part of a long and glorious tradition which has fallen somewhat by the wayside since the turn of the millennium, but young Denis could be the man to usher in a return to that era.

"Sometimes I think that he might be the next Henri Leconte," says Louis Borfiga, the Frenchman who is behind Canada’s brand of tennis, having set up the first tennis training academy in Canada back in 2007. "Denis has flashes of brilliance in his game that make me think of Henri!" Will he indeed be like Leconte, or Laver – to whom the Frenchman was compared early in his career? Nobody knows at this early stage – least of all the lad himself. After all, there are too many variables that go into becoming a champion. But with his explosive brand of tennis and the way he seems to relish the big occasion, he is set to bring a welcome touch of variety and added spice to a tennis scene that will soon be moving on from the Big Four.

He is coached by his mother

Or more accurately, his mother is the person who has been alongside him every step of the way through his burgeoning career, from the first time he picked up a racquet at the age of five, in the Toronto club where she was a coach, right through until he decided to make a career of it. Tessa Shapovalova was a top-level player herself (ranked No.445 back in 1993), and she was the one who went against the current accepted wisdom to ensure that her son kept his one-handed backhand.

This "à la Judy Murrau" mummy also knew when to step back and let others take over – namely Martin Laurendeau, who has been his coach since January as well as his Davis Cup captain, after the youngster made his debut in the Canadian squad in 2016. Shapovalov also attended a pre-season training camp last winter run by Günter Bresnik, alongside the latter’s Austrian protégé Dominic Thiem, as well as Jerzy Janowicz and Philipp Kohlschreiber. "We worked a lot on my forehand," explains Shapovalov. "Günter had a very critical eye when it came to how I finish it off. We spent many an hour concentrating on this shot. It really helped me a lot." As Rafael Nadal can certainly attest…

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