EDMONTON — This is why Denis Shapovalov is such a joy. Why a hockey nation increasingly sits down to watch this styling southpaw pound winners down the line, knowing that it could all shift on a dime, as it did Friday night in Edmonton.
Shapovalov, perhaps Canada’s hottest rising sports personality at the moment, won a three hour and 52 minute marathon to salvage a draw for Canada on Day 1 of this Davis Cup tie versus India, blowing a two sets to zero lead before overpowering Yuki Bhambri 6-1 in the final set to win 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 4-6, 6-1.
After beating Rafael Nadal at the recent Rogers Cup, it was just another day at the office for Shapovalov.
"It’s been a crazy two months," he said post-match. "I’ve had a lot of success, and been playing some great tennis. I have a lot of confidence under my belt, and it’s helping me win tough matches like today."
He is as confident right now as he is skilled and nimble, barely showing the physical effects of his first five-set match, just eight minutes shy of four hours of tennis. After Brayden Schmur’s four-set loss to Ramkumar Ramanathan in the opening rubber, Shapovalov made sure Canada went to sleep even in this best-of-five series.
"I believed in myself in the third (set) when I lost. I believed in myself in the fourth (set). I believed in myself in the fifth," Shapovalov said. "Just stayed tough. The chances came, and I took ‘em."
Shapovalov had a 4-3 lead in the third set, and a match point at 6-5 of the tie-breaker. Alas, he did it his way, dropping the third and fourth sets to stretch this one well past midnight Eastern, as a Northlands Coliseum crowd of around 6,000 dwindled by more than half by the time the final service ball was tossed.
Add this victory to the pile in what has become a signature year for tennis’ newest arrival. While some 18-year-olds might have shriveled at the thought of basically blowing the weekend for Canada, he shook it off and dominated the final set, looking like a veteran in what was all new territory for the kid from Richmond Hill, Ont..
"It’s quite uncommon," admitted Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau. "You see players do well here and there, you keep an eye on the young ones coming up. But what he has done this year … he’s really taken it to a new level this summer, and he’s been able to sustain it. I think that is what’s impressing a lot of the coaches and players on tour.
"From those wins in the challengers, then beating famous players and not letting up the next match — just keeping the level up, match after match — that’s what he’s been able to do."
— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) September 16, 2017
Today’s doubles match (3 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet) will swing this intriguing Davis Cup meeting between world ranked No. 16 Canada and No. 18 India. You might assume that Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil would be favoured based on their historic doubles success, but in fact Nestor has lost his last five matches and Pospisil is nursing a bad back here.
The Indian team of Rohan Bopanna (ranked No. 19) and Purav Raja will have every chance of notching the win and putting the pressure squarely back on Shapovalov, whose will open Day 3 with a singles match — the fourth of five matches here — at 3 p.m. Eastern Sunday versus Ramanathan, ranked at No. 155 in singles.
"It’s a new position for me to be in, for sure," said the 69th-ranked Shapovalov. "Just playing No. 1 (as the top ranked player) for Canada, it’s new, and I haven’t played too many Davis Cup ties. It’s all pretty new for me.
"But it’s fun. I’m learning something new every day getting new experiences, and I think we’ll have a really good chance in the doubles."
At his finest, Shapovalov punished opponent Yuki Bhambri with ground strokes down the line Friday, overpowering the veteran of 17 Davis Cup matches in only the third tie for the Canadian.
Up two sets and in total control, the 18-year-old would end up playing the first five set match of his career, a memory that will linger on account of his dominant form in the final set.
What did he learn by going five sets?
"I learned that I don’t want to go the limit ever again," he joked, after craftily taking some power off his strokes in the final set, in favour of increased English. "Just movin’ the ball better," he quipped.