Denis Shapovalov overcomes taste of adversity to clinch for Canada

EDMONTON — Denis Shapovalov had played in a couple of Davis Cup ties in his tennis career, but had never starred in one before. In Davis Cup parlance, he had never been a No. 1, the highest ranked player on Team Canada.

But on a Canadian team that was missing an injured Milos Raonic, Shapovalov arrived here in Edmonton as “The Show.” So, he put one on, winning both of his singles matches, including the tie-clinching victory in straight sets Sunday (6-3, 7-6, 6-3).

“I grew up wanting to represent my country, to play Davis Cup … always wanted to be part of the team,” he said. “To be able to clinch today, honestly, it’s the best feeling.”

After his rise to stardom in the past six months, it is fascinating to watch an 18-year-old athlete come to terms with his ability. It’s like he is growing into his own skin right before the eyes of Canadians.

Shapovalov opened the match against India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan with an ace, then ripped off 11 straight points. The stage was his immediately — he was just allowing Ramanathan to occupy it as an opponent.

“Marty (Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau) told me, ‘Walk out there like you own the court. Show a little bit of confidence from the beginning,’” Shapovalov said. “I am improving every day — and I still need to improve a lot of things — but I’m playing with a lot of confidence, I’m playing some great tennis. Today, I was feeling so great out on the court.”

Young players need adversity, for two reasons: Either they can’t conquer it, and we learn what kind of person/player they really are; or, they deal with it effectively, then have that experience to draw on the next time, and the time after that.

Shapovalov’s adversity in this match was largely self-inflicted, as he blew a couple of easy closing shots on rallies during the final game of the second set, while trailing Ramanathan 5-6. Suddenly it was 0-40 in the 5-6 game, and his opponent awaited Shapovalov’s serve on a triple-break point.

“Love-40, there isn’t much I can do except fight. Chances are he’s going to break me at that point, with three consecutive break points,” he said.

From being down 0-40, Shapovalov would win 13 of the next 15 points, taking the tiebreaker 7-1. That is how one deals with adversity.

How did he pull it off?

“Just the confidence I’ve had in the past little while has helped me,” admitted the Richmond Hill, Ont., native, who has risen to from No. 250 to No. 51 in the world rankings this season. “This is one of things I’ve gotten better at when things aren’t going my way, to refocus and regroup. I stayed in my bubble on those couple of points, and I really used it to my advantage to flip the momentum after I won that game and continue it into the tiebreaker.”

There are moments in every match, in every game that can go either way. It is why we love sports, right?

Maybe Ramanathan wins that set, and has some wind blown into his sails. Perhaps the mistakes made by the Canadian are exacerbated by the fact he has blown a set, and he makes even more of them. Maybe pressure sets in, and as an old hockey coach once said, we find ourselves in “a choking situation.”

But Canadian doubles star Daniel Nestor labelled Canada “a singles country now” for a reason. Along with Raonic, we now have a kid who has the intangibles needed to perform under lights this bright. A player to whom adversity has become a challenge, not something to shy away from.

A young man who made the biggest mistake of his tennis life when he hit a ball that struck an umpire in the face back in February, but is mature enough to have unequivocally moved past that moment to better times ahead.

“I’ve apologized in the past and I will continue to, but I’ve moved on from that,” he said when the topic came up at his post-match press conference. “I didn’t think of it once in these past couple of days.”

The win by No. 14 Canada over No. 16 India ensures that Canada remains in the World Group in 2018 Davis Cup play, a group that consists of the top 16 ranked tennis nations in the world. A loss to India and Canada would have been sent to Zonal Group I, hoping to compete for a spot in the 2019 World Group.

But with the tie in Shapovalov’s hands Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t one of the 4,974 fans at rundown old Northlands Coliseum who even considered the possibility that the kid they call Shapo might lose.

He won, not because the fans expected him to. But because he did.