MONTREAL—Maybe this is destiny.
At 18 years old, Denis Shapovalov has become one of the youngest players to ever reach the semifinals of a Masters 1000 event. And when you consider how that came to be, you have to think some higher power is in his corner.
On Tuesday, the youngest player in the draw at the Rogers Cup staved off four match points and pushed himself into the second round with a resilient win over Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva. On Wednesday, he was on the court asking to be pinched by TVA’s Frederique Guay after beating one of his childhood idols, Juan Martin Del Potro, in straight sets. On Thursday, he was the author of one of the most iconic moments in Canadian tennis history, beating one of the best players of all time and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
But what Shapovalov did on Friday night, under the lights at Stade Uniprix, beating France’s Andrian Mannarino 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, was enough to make you believe in fate.
It looked like a train wreck out of the gate for the Richmond Hill, Ont., native. He was broken in both of his first two service games, he flubbed seven of eight volleys, and he airmailed more than his share of forehands into the crowd, en route to dropping the first set.
Momentum was firmly on Mannarino’s side when the skies opened up and light rain fell at centre court, causing a near 13-minute delay.
Call it luck, or divine intervention, but that pause, at 2-2 in the second set, changed the complexion of the match entirely.
“I kind of told myself, ‘This could be a really good turning point. It’s giving him a little bit of time to think about his game.’ He got a little bit cold. It’s always tough to come out and serve after having 11, 12 minutes off,” Shapovalov said afterwards.
The blustery wind that had, at least in part, caused Shapovalov to commit 16 unforced errors in the first set had all but died out when play resumed. His nerves calmed, his timing came together, and his opponent—who had appeared unflappable to that point of the match—booted his service game to give Shapovalov the lead and the momentum he wouldn’t surrender until his hands were in the air in celebration of the win.
In reality—though Shapovalov had shown his resilience in each of the previous rounds leading up to Friday’s quarter-final—the odds were stacked against him from the start.
He was the one who began the tournament as the 143rd-ranked player in the world, and beating anyone here—including Mannarino (ranked 42)—was going to be a crapshoot.
And yet Shapovalov had come into the end-of-week session with external expectations heaped upon him for the first time all week. Within the span of 15 minutes, as Shapovalov fell down 4-0, the free-swinging, nothing-to-lose approach that had propelled him to orchestrate the two biggest upsets of his career had seemingly abandoned him upon the pre-match realization that this was his to win.
Shapovalov’s coach, Martin Laurendeau, could see it coming. He attempted to ease the pressure on his player when he met with the media on Friday morning.
“Mannarino has been at this level for a number of years now, so it’s going to be difficult for Denis,” he said. “You have to be aware that he’s only 18 years old, and it’s difficult mentally and physically to stay at that level.”
And it proved to be particularly difficult for Shapovalov against Mannarino, who tossed him a changeup after he had smashed fastballs from Del Potro and Nadal out of the ballpark.
The kid struggled against the Frenchman’s counterpunching style. Seemingly every ball he striped found its way back to him, forcing him to push the envelope to win points. Impatience—and his imprecision—got the best of him. It looked like it was going to put his run in Montreal to an end.
But once again Shapovalov summoned something magical to dig his way out of the hole.
In the third and deciding set, after Mannarino held easily to start things off, Shapovalov had to stave off three break points to tie things up.
More adversity came when he surrendered a break directly after breaking Mannarino for a 3-2 lead.
But at 4-4, with Mannarino serving, Shapovalov returned to the well, won some gruellingly long rallies with the groundstrokes that have carried him to this point, earned two break points, and never looked back.
He served out the match with ease.
No matter what Shapovalov does on Saturday, this has already been the most successful week of his professional tennis career.
But if destiny has something to say about it, the kid who’s moved up to No. 66 in the ATP rankings will have his crack at becoming the first Canadian champion at this event since 1958.