EDMONTON — There is an oft-asked question one gets when they reside in the West, whenever some Canadian story emanates from Toronto.
“Do fans out there get behind a Blue Jays pennant run?”
“What about Denis Shapovalov? Has he captured the Canadian sports fan out West the way he has in the East?”
Why, of course.
The red Maple Leaf brings our country together, and as Canada’s only baseball team, the Blue Jays qualify for national adoration, logo and all. So does any Canadian who competes on the world stage on behalf of our country — whichever Canadian town they may call home.
Tennis is a low-profile sport in a winter nation, and likely lower when our finest tennis moments are happening on a doubles court. Daniel Nestor is a top-10 player in the history of doubles tennis, but could he walk down the street in any Canadian city — likely including his hometown of Toronto — and not be recognized? Likely.
Let’s face it: doubles tennis is a tough sell in a tennis country. That’s why Tennis Canada had to have some singles stars to truly make an impression.
To have one with the skill and style that Shapovalov exhibits — at such a young age, with such good looks and personality — is pure gold. His appearance at this week’s Davis Cup tie against India in Edmonton is an event-saver, with Milos Raonic injured and Team India devoid of any names that would sell a ticket on the Prairies.
Tennis Canada has stolen our eye with the arrival of Raonic, who was quickly followed by Eugenie Bouchard. We are ready to love tennis as a nation, if only we had one of ours playing consistently on a Saturday or Sunday.
Raonic has started well down that path, though injuries have slowed him of late. But through the door he opened has walked Shapovalov, who arrives in Edmonton fresh off his formal introduction to a sporting nation at the U.S. Open last month.
“My life has changed quite drastically in the last couple of months, shooting up the rankings. It’s been a crazy month for me,” said the 18-year-old, still so new to his fame that he is learning how best to handle it.
What’s the biggest change?
“Just getting recognized a lot more. It’s quite a change, just going around the streets and having people take pictures with you, in airports and stuff,” he said. “The best feeling is when you have little kids ask you for a picture, and they’re a little bit nervous. I was one of these kids, not too long ago, asking guys like Rafa (Nadal) and Roger (Federer) for their autographs.”
Shapovalov met Wayne Gretzky at the recent Rogers Cup. This week he’ll dress in the room where Gretzky dressed inside the old Northlands Coliseum, and play tennis in the House That Gretzky Built, his blonde locks reminiscent of No. 99’s looks when he first arrived on the scene.
“He’s definitely a huge role model of mine. He’s such a humble guy,” said Shapovalov, who launched into a story about how his manager had offered Gretzky a cart to get through the grounds at the Rogers Cup. “(Gretzky) told him he’d walk, and sign autographs. A champion like him — I mean, you don’t get a better athlete than him — being so relaxed and open to all the fans and everyone who admires him. It’s inspiring to see that, and if I can achieve anything in my career even close to what he’s achieved, I would love to be the same person. A personable guy.”
Nestor is one of the best doubles players ever to cross the lines of a tennis court. He’s seen the landscape shift, having been a member of this Davis Cup team since well before Shapovalov was born.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the other players, but obviously things have changed in Canadian tennis in the last five, eight years. We have a lot of stars … and it’s a tribute to what’s going on in Montreal (at Tennis Canada),” said Nestor, born on Sept. 4, 1972. (Just across town Team Canada was beating the USSR in Game 2 of the Summit Series by a 4-1 score at Maple Leaf Gardens.)
“We’re very capable of playing singles matches. In fact, I think that’s our strength now,” he said. “We’re a singles country now.”
And even though he really hasn’t accomplished much yet, Shapovalov is becoming the face of Canadian tennis — from coast to coast. (Sorry, Milos.)
Now, we just have to figure out how to say his name properly.
“A lot of people call me ‘Shapo,’” he said, completely unoffended with a question about his surname. “And when you say ‘Shapo’, that’s half the battle already.”