How does an 18-year-old tennis sensation carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders – at home court – respond after winning the biggest match of his life?
By winning again, of course. Answering big is becoming routine for Denis Shapovalov.
“I started off pretty slow. Just drained from yesterday,” Shapovalov told the assembled media in Montreal after his 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal victory over Adrian Mannarino of France on Friday night.
Less than 24 hours earlier he beat one of the biggest names in tennis history, ousting 15-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in three sets.
“Rafa took a lot out of me. But Adrian did a good job of, you know, playing fast with me in the first set, really taking it to me.”
Not many would’ve bet on Shapovalov after the opening set on Friday. Winning just 55% of his first serve points, and giving Mannarino a look at seven opportunities to break – two of which he conceded – the Canadian was soundly thrashed in the opening frame. But resiliency is an ingrained trait for the talented teenager.
He made global tennis headlines at the start of this season for all the wrong reasons, accidentally hitting an umpire with a ball during a moment of frustration at a Davis Cup tie in Ottawa. The incident followed an emotional apology where Shapovalov admitted to feeling “ashamed and embarrassed.”
Instead of dwelling on the international infamy from a momentary lapse in judgement, just six weeks after the incident Shapovalov responded by winning his first ATP Challenger title in Drummondville, Quebec.
At the time, Drummondville represented the peak of his career, a feat that has been surpassed convincingly this week in Montreal, and it is once again owed to his ability to bounce back quickly after a fall.
“I think just my fighting spirit,” Shapovalov said looking back when asked what has made him most proud this week. “If I don’t save those match points in the first match, there’s no chance of being here.”
Rogerio Dutra Da Silva, a 33-year-old Brazilian had the young man nearly half his age on the ropes in the first round. Shapovalov saved four match points in a second set tiebreak before turning the tables on the veteran in the third.
Shapovalov thankfully never let things get so carried away against a far more punishing Nadal, but again few would’ve fancied the Canadian after the Spanish legend took the first set 6-3 on Thursday night. But there was Shapovalov, clawing his way back into the match before stunning the tennis world by knocking off a giant.
“I’ve been … against the wall a couple times this week,” Shapovalov reflected. “I’m very happy I’ve come out several times just playing really good tennis in those situations.”
The lone Canadian singles player left in either Montreal or Toronto in the split tournament between the men’s and women’s tours, Shapovalov will have his nation and the home crowd behind him on Saturday against 20-year-old German rising star Alexander Zverev, ranked eighth in the world to Shapovalov’s ATP ranking of 143 (although that number will be significantly lower after this week).
“Mentally speaking, I feel fresh,” Shapovalov said on Friday night. “I took last week off. I’ve been winning some tough battles.”
They will only get tougher from here for the Canadian, and so it will be for his opponents as well, because Shapovalov has repeatedly shown he is difficult to keep down.