In tennis, a match can change on a whim. It can look like it's going one way, with one player in a position to win. Then, it shifts in another direction to the other player, changing the entire outcome of the match.
Canadian Denis Shapovalov looked to be in control in the final set, searching for his second ATP Tour title and back-to-back wins in Stockholm. Shapovalov was the experienced player taking on 24-year-old Tommy Paul, who was in his first ATP Tour final.
In the end, Paul conquered Shapovalov in three sets 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, capturing his maiden ATP Tour title at the Stockholm Open. A disappointing end for Shapovalov to an otherwise stellar week for the Canadian.
"It took my best tennis to beat Denis," Paul said.
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar week for Shapovalov, who reinforced his love for the tournament and playing in Sweden after the match.
"It’s always an honour playing here," Shapovalov said in the post-match interview. "I have great feelings coming to Stockholm. I always enjoy the tournament and this country. Unfortunately couldn’t get the title. Tommy's a helluva player. I’m happy you saw some great tennis today.”
Shapovalov opened the match losing a point after slipping on a court. In the first game of the match, Shapovalov had to stave off a break point. However, it was Paul who recorded the first break of serve in the match. Coupled with Shapovalov's unforced errors on his groundstrokes, Paul cruised to a 6-4 opening set win.
In the second set, Shapovalov recorded the early break on Paul's serve. But in every service game for the Canadian in the second set, he was pushed to the brink. The most notable occurred when Shapovalov was up 3-1 and down 0-40. Shapovalov raised the pace and efficiency on his serve, resulting in aces or unreturnable serves.
When Shapovalov got his first serve in, it threw off Paul's timing on the return, which allowed the Canadian to dictate the point. Shapovalov came back to hold serve to go up 4-1, en route to winning the second set 6-2. Five break points saved in the second set, a part of his total of 10 for the match, demonstrated Shapovalov's tenacity in the match's biggest moments.
In the third set, Shapovalov experienced comfortable holds of serve, along with having to stave off break points. Again, the Canadian relied on his serve, mixing up the pace and getting Paul on the run. Shapovalov also raised the efficiency of his groundstrokes, displaying tremendous power and angles on his forehand and backhand.
The turning point of the match came at Shapovalov up 4-3 in the final set, facing two break point opportunities of his own against Paul. The American served it out, holding serve, before subsequently breaking Shapovalov at love to go up 5-4. Paul held serve one last time to capture the Stockholm Open title.
"I didn't take my opportunities at 15-40, 4-3," Shapovalov said. "He gave me a lot of mistakes and I had a good opportunity to step in and take it. I didn't take it. That's tennis, if you don't take it, the other guy is going to take it from you."
Shapovalov’s week in Stockholm caps off a solid 2021 season for the Canadian. Entering this year, Shapovalov came off a shortened 2020 pandemic season, achieving a career-high ranking of No. 10.
The 22-year-old wanted more.
However, at the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season, Shapovalov only made it to the third round, losing to fellow countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets. After coming off the 2020 US Open where Shapovalov made his first quarterfinal at a Grand Slam, the result was disappointing.
The Canadian never gave up. He knew it was a part of the development process into becoming one of the top young players on the ATP Tour. Whenever Shapovalov felt he underachieved at a tournament in 2021, he followed it up with a better result. After the Australian Open, Shapovalov made the semifinals at the Dubai Tennis Championships, before losing in a tight three-set semifinal against South African Lloyd Harris.
Once the season transitioned to clay, a surface where Shapovalov struggled in the past soon became a place of comfort. While Shapovalov didn’t play Roland Garros due to injury, he did make the Round of 16 at the Italian Open, giving 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal a challenging test, losing in three close sets 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
Shapovalov’s landmark result of 2021 was making the Wimbledon semifinal. From defeating three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray to recording victories over seeded players Roberto Bautista Agut and Karen Khachanov in five sets, Shapovalov played his best tennis in the highest-pressure moments. This propelled the Canadian to his first career Grand Slam semifinal, where he gave eventual Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic his toughest match of the tournament.
Shapovalov, who may be known for his rapping abilities away from the court, is showing why he belongs among the game’s best players. The aggressive groundstrokes, the flashy shots, the energy he exudes all make fans excited to watch Shapovalov play. His 2021 season appears to be finished; Shapovalov announced after the match that he will not be playing for Team Canada during the Davis Cup Final in Madrid.
In 2019, the last time the Davis Cup took place, Shapovalov and the Canadian squad made it all the way to the final before losing to Team Spain. With the Australian swing approaching in two months, Shapovalov is prioritizing recovery from a busy 2021 season so he can be fresh and healthy for 2022.
But the Canadian didn't mince words about the disappointment of losing a match in the Stockholm Open Final that he believed he should've won.
"Sometimes you need to find certain things that motivate you," Shapovalov said. "I'll get over it pretty quick. Definitely looking forward to the next season. Going to take some time off, have a little break and focus on the offseason. There's a lot of areas where I can get better and improve before the New Year. Hopefully, I can make the most out of that."
It’s becoming commonplace for Shapovalov to appear deep in tournaments on tennis’ biggest stages. Achieving consistent results is something Shapovalov spends tons of time honing with his coach and former ATP Tour player Mikhail Youzhny.
Shapovalov has room to grow. Despite not winning his second title in Stockholm, the Richmond Hill, Ont. native is on a trajectory to becoming a regular in the winner's circle on the ATP Tour.