Rotterdam 2019

Denis Shapovalov: I had a phase when I hated the tour – but I started to embrace it

Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov is the youngest man in the draw in Rotterdam this year

Denis Shapovalov
Denis Shapovalov (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The exciting Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov is the youngest man in the draw in Rotterdam this year, and should he win his first title come Sunday, he would become the youngest champion in the tournament’s 45-year history.

It is, of course, a long shot for a man who started 2018 ranked 51, and has yet to make a main-tour final. But there are few who do not expect the explosive tennis of the young Canadian to mature into tournament-winning shape sooner rather than later.

And there are a good many who think he has the game, the attitude, and the work ethic to win some of the bigger tournaments in the calendar. After all, he reached the semis of his home Masters as an 18-year-old and reached another last year in Madrid at just turned 19.

Consolidating the top-30 ranking that came with Madrid proved to be hard work, but hard work and some disappointments along the way seem not to have fazed this laid-back teenager—at least, not for too long.

He went on to challenge world No5 Kevin Anderson in a five-set thriller at the US Open, followed that with a sterling five-set win over Robin Haase in Davis Cup a week later, and stopped off at St Petersburg on his way to the Asian swing and a semi-final run in Tokyo.

And he played quite a few doubles matches along the way, a trend that has continued into 2019 with his upward trajectory to No25: More Davis Cup efforts—singles and doubles—and on to Montpellier—singles and doubles—before heading to Rotterdam for the very first time.

His debut at the Ahoy made a decent first impression, a 7-5, 6-3 win over Franko Skugor. After a slow, error-marred first set, in which Shapovalov broke to avoid the tie-break, the Canadian wavered only briefly at 5-2 before closing out the second set, and surely won some new fans in a starry Tuesday schedule.

His athletic, leftie, single-handed game and zestful style will have ensured as much, though he now faces a tough draw if he is to showcase his talent further. Next up is former champion Tomas Berdych, returning to considerable form after an injury absence, followed by either Stan Wawrinka or Milos Raonic.

Just as winning as his tennis, however, is the young Canadian’s endearing personality, on show in an open-book press conference punctuated by huge grins and self-deprecating charm. Told that he came across as very level-headed—“Thank you” and a big giggle—he quickly agreed with the suggestion that much of his relaxed style was down to his family and friends.

“My whole family is very close. The other day my brother was giving me advice and it’s great to have that support. I have very few friends that I stay around with—they’re all guys from my childhood. They don’t see me as a top tennis player, they see me as the same bratty kid I was at 12, 13 years old. That’s why they can tell me straight up—not that I ever get too cocky—if anything’s wrong. They tell me straight away.

“And same with my family. I grew up in a really humble family, we didn’t have much as I was growing up, and my parents gave everything they had for my tennis. So it’s just part of who I am and who the people around me are.”

This, too, was clearly the rock that underpinned those difficult months when the young Shapovalov was thrown into the spotlight in the summer of 2017. On that subject, his heart was well and truly on his sleeve.

“I had two or three really unbelievable weeks with the Rogers Cup and US Open, then Laver Cup two weeks after, the Davis Cup, everything was insane.

“After that, there was so much noise, and distractions and media, sponsors and everything. All at once, I went from a kid who’s playing Challengers, who’s promising but on his way up, to all of a sudden being top 50 in the world, and all the cameras are on me.

“So I had to change the way I am. I had to mature a lot quicker, I had to deal with all the media, and it wasn’t easy, to be honest. It was really distracting, and I feel like at the end of that season, I wasn’t able to play my best tennis, just because my mind was somewhere else.

“After that, I had time to sit down and think about it, talk to my team, and we kind of knew what to expect going into the new season, what it’s going to be like, all the hype, and we worked as a team to ensure my main focus was my tennis—and I think that’s why I had such a great year last year.

“To be honest, at the beginning, when I had that phase, I hated the tour, I didn’t want to travel, I wanted to stay home. But I started to learn to embrace it, and by the middle of the season last year, I really started to enjoy it.

“And it’s something that is part of me now, that I want to do this for as long as possible. I would love to play as long as Roger [Federer] is.”

A little of these struggles surfaced in the off-season video Shapovalov made with the ATP, in which he talked of his other passion: writing and performing music. One particular line in his rap was especially revealing:

“People always tell me, Shapov’s lowish down…”

As he went on to explain: “Some people mention I had a really unsuccessful [2018], and I’m thinking, I’m 27 in the world, I was 50 last year… There are always people that say you should be winning titles, doing this and that. And I try to tell them, I’m only 19 and everyone’s going at their own speed… But it never got me down, I’ve always stayed motivated, positive.”

This led to another heart-on-sleeve moment.

“For me, it’s therapeutic to write music and lyrics, that’s my passion. I do express myself, but not everything, except to the people close to me.

“With the music, it gave me a way to talk about things I really want to. The things I would keep inside, I could just let go of them after I wrote about them. So the music is very big. The videos are more for my team… and it’s something the fans like. And we have fun, we get to be just doofuses, idiots, just doing random stuff.”

Long may that last. Shapovalov once considered an ice-hockey career, but went for the individual sport, the one without the team infra-structure and camaraderie. All the more vital, then, for health and happiness, to preserve the personal support network.

Had he not, who knows? He may have walked away before he had barely got going.

Shapovalov plays the last match of the Wednesday schedule against Berdych, by which time he will know whether it is Raonic or Wawrinka should he make the quarter-finals.

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