Denis Shapovalov is the modern cool teen of tennis
I am walking with Denis Shapovalov on the grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden when a woman approaches him and, after apologizing for being a bother, wishes him luck.
The young Canadian graciously thanks her, brushing his long blond hair away from his eyes. His bright blue eyes are wide with genuine glee as he tells her how cool it is to play this tournament for the first time. It’s a brief but telling interaction.
He spoke with her, a stranger as far as I could tell, as naturally and with as much warmth as I’d observed him speak to anyone else that day.
If you have the chance to follow an athlete behind the scenes at a tennis tournament, you’ll notice a lot of necessary, often subtle, behavioral shifts. Within a few steps, a player moves from a private lounge to a public court. Journalists lurk.
Photographers, amateur and professional, are everywhere. Indian Wells has lots of open practice courts, allowing fans an opportunity to get quite close to their favorite players.
This is normal life on the tour. Many get used to it quickly, handling the shifting expectations of these close spaces with ease; sometimes you can detect a protective wariness, especially when a stranger approaches.
Just a quick glint in a player’s eye that sizes up the stranger—is it a fan? A sponsor? A tournament volunteer? But Shapovalov is, for now, unusually unguarded.
For most of 2017, Shapovalov was a relatively unknown junior pro fighting for titles in remote locations in the lower-tiered Futures and Challenger circuit.
That August, Shapovalov had competed well enough to earn a wild card into the Rogers Cup in Montreal. He was then 18, ranked 143rd in the world. “That tournament,” he tells me, “honestly, it changed everything.”
He fought his way through the first and second rounds, earning the attention and vocal support of the Canadian crowd along the way.
But in the third round, he faced a formidable foe: an in-form Rafael Nadal, who at the time was chasing a return to the top of the world rankings. Throughout the tournament, Shapovalov had been staying at the family home of close friend and fellow Canadian tennis player Félix Auger-Aliassime.
Both young Canadians had grown up idolizing players like Nadal, and Auger-Aliassime had a poster of the legend hanging in his basement. Shapovalov, filled with nerves on the morning of his match, took it off the wall.
Denis Shapovalov during an ATP Masters Series press conference
Occasionally, you can get the sense that, when a lower-ranked player takes the court against an all-time great like Nadal or Federer, they do so with the modest hope of just not getting blown off the court.
They don’t expect to win, they just want to escape with their pride intact. It’s evident in their conservative shot selection, their resignation as they let a winner fly past them, their deference at the net when the better player bests them.
One could not have blamed Shapovalov—18 at the time and ranked 141 places behind—if he’d played it safe against Nadal. Instead, he competed with reckless optimism. Bolstered by the enthusiasm of the crowd, Shapovalov hit inadvisably bold shots, aiming for winners at every opportunity.
“When you’re playing up, you have to go for every shot,” he said, reminiscing with me about that night. “You can’t just put the ball in and hope Rafa misses. It’s not going to happen. He’ll just run you around the court and make the shots he needs to make. When I play the top guys, I make sure that if I have an opening, I go for it.”
I’ve since seen him play this way many times. When he’s a bit off, he loses badly, spraying wild shots way out of bounds. When his bravery and precision align, he can beat anyone on the tour.
In the third set tiebreak against Nadal, Shapovalov was exhausted and in pain. “I thought, Hey, just remember you can be out here with these guys, you can’t win yet, but you can fight, you can push them until the end.
On match point, I thought, screw it, let me go for the down-the-line and see what happens.
If I make it, I’ll win. If I don’t, I’ll probably lose the match.” Shapovalov made it, notching the biggest win of his young career. “I blacked out after that. The stadium was so loud. My ears almost popped. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in any sport event ever.”
Shapovalov’s game is a high-wire act, risky and elegant. Every swing of his racket is full, unchecked.
He hits his lefty, one-handed backhand so hard that it launches his feet off the ground. He flies. He’s fast and chases down every ball with the ferocious energy reminiscent of a young Nadal.
But the way he skips across the court, skimming the surface, seeking out every offensive opportunity, is a style of play clearly inspired by his favorite player, Federer.
“Growing up, I would always come forward and play aggressive, and my opponents would just lob over me and hit shots past me.
My mom [who is also his coach] was constantly telling me, ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll grow and you’ll be able to get these balls. Keep coming to the net, keep being aggressive.’ So a lot of my style came from my mom.”
Shapovalov is fun to watch at a time when fun is not a guaranteed part of a tennis match. The biggest stars on tour are veterans who can’t step onto court without bringing with them their legacies, ailing bodies, impending retirement.
Watching Shapovalov is a lighter affair. If he makes the impossible shot, what a thrill. If he misses, no big deal. At 19, the losses are learning experiences and little more. Regardless of the result, he leaves the court waving to the crowd, his hand over his heart in gratitude.
“As a person,” he says, “I find myself to be shy and not that exciting, but on the court I feel like a different animal. We’re entertainers. That’s our job: to give the fans a good show.
I grew up wanting to play on the big stages in front of all these fans, so when I finally get the chance to do it, I’m so happy that I let myself go. For me, I feel like the point is to go out there and express your emotions and your feelings for the game.”
His dreams for his future are similarly grounded: “Becoming no. 1 in the world and winning Grand Slams. It’s all part of the dream. But honestly the biggest goal for me is to really advance the sport in my country. For me that’s the biggest goal.”
He’s young and having fun, a kind of fun that—if his skill keeps advancing at last year’s rate—he’s sure to lose. The better he gets, the brighter the spotlight. As expectations rise, so do obligations and scrutiny.
“I didn’t ease into the top 100 like I thought I might. I just shot right onto the tour,” he says. “It was overwhelming. I wasn’t ready for it. The first couple weeks I enjoyed it, but it started to get under my skin and it was too much. It’s difficult to explain to people who aren’t a part of the tour, to my friends.
They say, ‘Oh, you’re so privileged, you’re able to travel the world and see everything,’ and I do feel privileged, but also I’m not able to be home. I don’t get to see my parents, my family, my pets, my dogs who I miss so much. It’s not easy. You’re switching hotels constantly, you’re in different continents, countries, cultures, you’re constantly adapting.”
His results for the rest of 2017 waned under the pressure, but over the off-season, he rested, regrouped, and began to formulate a plan to better cope with the pressures that awaited him in 2018.
“I feel like my whole agency, team, my family all helped me mature, and now I’m really enjoying the tour, the traveling, playing all these new events at these crazy venues. The media portion of it,” he says, sheepishly nodding toward me, “I’m even starting to enjoy that, too.”
I was thinking of my conversation with Shapovalov when, later, I was in a press conference with Roger Federer. The 36-year-old entered the room with a scruffy beard and weary look.
Jet lag, he said, was lingering longer than usual. I asked him something about isolation on tour and he said, “I think when you’re at the top, maybe it feels like everybody is watching what you’re doing extra carefully, and so you go into a sort of a shell to some extent, so that other people can’t see your ‘magic formula,’ if there is one.
You do sometimes tend to go into a sort of a bubble, I guess. I try never to go there.” The ATP rep running the conference kept a close eye on the time, and when it was up, he quickly led Federer to his next obligation.
“Can you imagine what they go through?” says Shapovalov when I brought this up to him. “The obligations they must have? Players like Roger and Rafa can’t go anywhere unnoticed, within tennis and outside of tennis. They can’t go to malls. They can’t go to the movies and just relax.
They always have to be cautious. And then they somehow balance everything and still play at the highest level. If I were in their position, I don’t know if I could do it for as long as Roger or Rafa. I’ll probably retire earlier than...well, definitely earlier than Roger!”
Shapovalov is on the knife’s edge of a greater fame. Last week he saw his ranking rise to a career high of 26, making him the no. 1 Canadian player in the world.
He has the skill to climb much higher. But, of course, it’s possible that he won’t. For some, the pressures of success subsume their talent. If he continues his rise, his wins and losses will take on more weight. Others will watch him more closely.
But today, he greets fans like friends. For now he’s just a young guy, flying around the court, hitting the guts out of a ball, nothing to lose.