MONTREAL – It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s more a matter of “when” everything is going to come together for Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.
If Tuesday’s win over Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva is any indication, that time could arrive much sooner than anyone could’ve predicted.
Not that a 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 win over the 64th best player in the world in his opening-round match at the Rogers Cup was a guarantee Shapovalov is ready to prevail over anyone and everyone on tennis’ top circuit. It’s going to take time – and much more experience – for the youngest player ranked in the top 150 in the world to climb his way up to the pinnacle of the sport.
But the will the 18-year-old displayed – saving four match points in the second set before earning a service break at 3-3 in the third and putting his foot on the gas pedal to close out the match – is a sign he has what it takes to one day become a champion.
Wayne Gretzky is a believer.
One of the greatest hockey players of all time brought his family to Montreal to spend some time with Shapovalov, and he stuck around to cheer him on in Tuesday’s match.
“I think he has ice in his veins,” Gretzky told the Sportsnet on-site panel. “I think he’s one of those guys who’s going to love the pressure and take on that responsibility.”
On centre court, in front of family, friends, the Gretzkys and a stadium full of Canadian tennis fans, Shapovalov showed it.
“It’s great to have guys like this around my matches watching me, keeping an eye out for me” he said.
Shapovalov took to the surface wearing a red shirt, blue shorts and white sneakers with blue laces, and it wasn’t long before he was striping the lines yellow with serves north of 200 km/h, top-spinning forehands and thunderous one-handed backhands.
If there was one thing the lefty made clear with his performance, it’s that he oozes talent. His 12 aces and 38 winners in Tuesday’s two-hour, 26-minute session were a testament to the fact.
However there were moments when Shapovalov’s inexperience got the better of him. For example, he broke Dutra Silva early in the first set but then he gifted the break right back in the very next game – at love, no less – with some curiously aggressive shots that found their way outside the lines.
Later on he had the advantage of serving to open the second-set tiebreak and blew the first point with a loose shot that landed beyond the opposing baseline. It was one of 47 unforced errors he made.
He then deepened the hole by netting two forehands to give Dutra Silva his first two match points.
But he contrasted those undisciplined moments with a confidence that bordered on arrogance, stepping into the court on nearly every shot and upping the pace on his groundstrokes in moments that might have summoned conservatism from someone else.
“I play as aggressive as possible,” Shapovalov said.
Gretzky outlined what’s behind that style of play.
“I think the biggest thing of all is, first of all, you have to have the confidence in yourself and I think you have to believe in yourself that you can be successful,” said the NHL’s all-time leading goal-scorer and point-getter.
None of that was lacking on Shapovalov’s side of the court, in spite of the fact that he served at 50 per cent for the match and admittedly struggled to find his best game throughout.
“I thought I could win the whole time,” he said. “I mean, I never lost faith.”
The Richmond Hill, Ont., native knows he’ll have to bring that confidence to the court on Wednesday, with a 2:30pm start scheduled against the world’s No. 31 player in Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro.
“I have to play really well,” said Shapovalov. “It’s going to be an extremely tough match. But I live for these moments. I live to be in these matches.”
There’s reason to believe it won’t be long before this kid is on the winning side of most of those matches.