Shortly before the breakthroughs of Andreescu and Auger-Aliassime, the tennis world was taken by storm a few years ago by a young Ontarian teenager who, with his famously undone backwards cap, confounded some of the world’s best with his heavy all-court game and lethal lefty serve. Now ranked No. 38 in the world, it has been a tough last few months for Denis Shapovalov.
After an impressive start to the season that saw him reach the semifinals of the Miami Open, and a career-high ranking of No. 20 in the world in the process, Shapovalov quickly found himself hitting a wall when he transitioned to the clay and grass court seasons. After he ended his collaboration with Canadian coach Rob Steckley, Shapovalov quickly found himself experiencing an understandable sense of discomfort in his transition to the long European swing, as he grappled with rediscovering the same joy that had inspired his passionate love for the game.
Speaking to ONTENNIS last week at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the 20-year-old spoke candidly about his on-court struggles in the last few months, his goals for the next few months as he enters the final part of the season, and his love for the current North American hardcourt swing, leading up to the U.S. Open.
A: Yeah, it feels amazing. I’m just happy to be back on the court again. I really love this swing—this time of the year—and in the past, I’ve managed to play really well in these few tournaments so I was really excited to be here. Obviously, it was a really tough one [against Joao Sousa in the first round], had to battle it out but I’m happy that I pushed through it.
A: Yeah, I don’t think my confidence is pretty down actually. I had a pretty great week last week [in Montréal], beating Herbert—a really tough player and I lost to him already this year—so that already gave me a lot of confidence, and going three with a guy like Dominic [Thiem] is not easy. I had chances to win that match, so those two matches—going into this week—told me that my game is there. I’ve been feeling good in practice, so it wasn’t so much about confidence.
It was a little bit tough with the rhythm. I arrived here pretty late on a flight on Sunday just because I was in the semis of doubles so didn’t have as much prep time, so I felt a little bit slow on the court at the beginning [against Sousa]. But I did a pretty good job of finding my game, finding my serve and just fighting for every point.
Denis and his doubles partner, Rohan Bopanna, have found success.
A: I think it definitely helps my net game a lot. I’ve felt a lot more confident this year whenever I’ve come to the net; I feel like I know what to do when I’m at the net. Before, I’m just closing my eyes and going but now I know where to place the volleys and I just feel a lot more confident at that point. I think the doubles has helped me a lot in that, and in my serve as well, but for the most part, I just play for fun. I think me and Rohan [Bopanna] get along really well. Sometimes, it’s not easy for him to play with a young guy like me, but he says he’s loving it as well and I think we just enjoy ourselves on the court—that’s what’s so important. It’s also great to have him alongside [me] to help me with my volleys and this-that, you know, just to have him at my matches and someone to practice with.
A: Definitely. I think what’s happened along the way is that I shot up so quickly and all of a sudden, this life [style]—it kind of felt like a job for me and I stopped enjoying it. Not in the terms that I stopped enjoying the sport, but I was looking at the matches differently. When I started off, every match was such a thrill for me and now, it was like, ‘Oh, another week… another week.’ So it was kind of about finding that [joy] again.
And for sure, you miss and wonder about what it would be like to be a regular 20-year-old, having a job but also having a big social life, but I think I do a pretty job of keeping a close circle of friends and kind of bring them alongside with me. But the most important thing is that I’ve begun to figure myself out and that spark or that inspiration to play the game again.
A: Yeah, I think it’s great. Seeing Bianca win Toronto is unbelievable. Obviously, we grew up together, so that’s even better. I feel like I know her, I know what she’s had to go through and her struggles and everything. She’s a great person, so I was rooting for her all week, and the same thing with Félix. It’s unbelievable to see how far he has come. We’re obviously really good friends, so it’s great to see them alongside me on the big stage and to see them doing so well.
A: Yes, I am!
A: It would mean a lot for sure. I grew up wanting to play the Olympics, and it’s an event that obviously doesn’t go on very often, so to represent my country at an event like this would certainly mean the world to me.
A: Yeah, I think right now, I don’t have any specific goals in terms of results. I’m just trying to find my game again, find my passion for the sport and that’s what I’ve been doing really well, so for me, it’s just about enjoying the rest of the season and not putting a lot of pressure on myself. I just want to have fun out there again and so far, it’s been working well so far in Montréal and here, and hopefully it will continue from here. If that goes well, I definitely think that I have the game to beat some top players so hopefully, everything clicks. For me, the most important thing is just going back to enjoying the game again.
After a strong semifinal showing in Winston-Salem, Shapovalov will now head to the U.S. Open where he will face good friend and compatriot Félix Auger-Aliassime in the first round for the second year in a row.