MONTREAL—Just like that, a star is born.
Denis Shapovalov came into the Rogers Cup as the 143rd-ranked player in the world, and with his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) win against one of the all-time greats in Rafael Nadal moved up to No. 100.
The Richmond Hill, Ont., native did it in front of 11,000 screaming fans, who packed Stade Uniprix to the brim and rose to their feet with every passing shot he managed.
To know that Shapovalov dictated play for the majority of the two hours and 46 minutes he was on centre court for, notching 49 winners to Nadal’s 18, is to know that this 18-year-old kid is more than just a flash in the pan.
On Wednesday, Roger Federer, the most dominant athlete tennis has ever seen, shared his thoughts on what it takes for a young up-and-comer to become a champion.
“You have to like being at the centre of attention,” the world No. 3 and owner of 19 Grand Slams said in French. “You have to think it’s not a bad thing to have people talking about you. You have to welcome being on centre court, to play against the best players and prove yourself. You can’t be scared of those moments.”
It was clear right from the start of Thursday’s match that Shapovalov was anything but overwhelmed by the situation. He wasn’t just there to participate against one of his childhood idols. He was there to win.
Shapovalov stood toe-to-toe with one of tennis’ biggest sluggers, absorbed every blow, and he kept moving forward.
When he was asked how he felt after the match, he smiled and said, “I feel tired. I want to go to sleep.”
Consider it rest well-earned.
Shapovalov established himself early on in the match, opening up the court with his crossing backhand, finishing off points with forehands down the line. There was no sign of intimidation; no doubt he could handle this situation.
But his serve, which zinged in regularly at over 200 km/h, was broken in the fifth game of the match, and his spirit could’ve easily followed when the first set went to Nadal.
But in the 38th minute of play, Shapovalov stepped to the baseline and started the comeback that could very well change the trajectory of his career. He held serve easily and wound up a windmill fist pump after breaking Nadal to go up 2-0, en route to taking the second set in roughly 40 minutes.
What followed in the third and deciding set was one of the greatest displays of will a Canadian has ever shown at this event.
Serving at 1-1, Shapovalov fought through 10 deuce points, saved four consecutive break points, and prevailed in a 26-point, 14-and-a-half-minute marathon of a game.
At 2-2 he saved another three break points and held on to take the lead.
Service holds were exchanged until Shapovalov kicked off the first point of the tiebreak.
Nadal took the first three points. A nervous hush filled the stadium.
But Shapovalov battled back to 3-3, and at 4-4 the blond-haired, blue-eyed wonder smashed a serve 216 km/h down the centre line and picked up his ninth ace of the match.
Two points later he became the lowest-ranked player to beat the Spaniard since Nick Kyrgios (ranked 144th at the time) took him at Wimbledon in 2014.
“I’m not happy to be part of this story,” said Nadal, just minutes after leaving the court. “Probably the worst loss of the year, without a doubt, for me.”
The 31-year-old was two wins away from recapturing No. 1 in the world—a ranking he’s owned on three separate occasions, but one he hasn’t had since 2014. It was unimaginable he’d be stopped in his tracks by a player who had just 10 matches of experience on the ATP World Tour prior to this tournament.
“It’s what I dreamed of all my life growing up, playing guys like Rafa, Roger, Andy [Murray],” said Shapovalov. “My dream came true today.”
A new pursuit begins Friday, when Shapovalov faces France’s Andrian Mannarino in the quarter-final.
Regardless of how he fares, his arrival on tennis’ biggest stage has been noted.