Not your typical Grade 12 student,” is one way Denis Shapovalov describes himself.
Well, ya, obviously. Shapovalov is one of the best teenaged tennis players in the world. He’s a Wimbledon junior champion, he’s sponsored by Nike, and he’s the owner of some chin-length Jeff Spicoli-like blonde locks. Life, in theory, should be good.
But it’s not, at least at this particular point in time. It’s mid-July and Shapovalov is in Granby, Que., for an ATP Challenger Tour event where rain all day Monday threw the tournament schedule for a loop. To make matters worse, the internet service in his motel is spotty at best. “The Wi-Fi cuts in and out, so it’s a little bit of a struggle,” Shapovalov says. “I couldn’t Skype my parents.”
He’s 300 kilometres away from Gatineau, where — on the weekend — he won another Challenger event. He’s also 650 kilometres from his hometown of Thornhill, Ont., and a world away from Wimbledon, where — just a couple weeks ago — he played his first ever Grand Slam match.
What does he miss about the Wimbledon experience? “Everything,” he says. “The atmosphere, all the players, the nice lounges, the nice hotels, the great food.” He stops his list, but you get the sense there’s more. “You go from playing Wimbledon, one of the classiest tournaments in the world, to playing — like, Gatineau is a good tournament, it’s run very well, but at the end of the day, it’s Gatineau.”
He says this with no apparent malice. Instead, the impression he gives off is that of a player with a deep appreciation for the tennis world’s biggest stages. “You kind of get depressed a little bit [at the smaller tournaments],” he says. “It’s tough to stay really focused and stay determined to do well.”
Shapovalov understands his place in the tennis world, and knows focus and determination are musts if he’s going to earn his way to the point where every match pits him against the sport’s elite. “It kind of motivates me to try to get out of these tournaments. When you’re [tied] five-all in the third set, I really try to push because I know I want to get to the next level so that, you know, eventually I can be at the nice lounges, and the nice hotels, and live a nice life,” he says, laughing.
What Shapovalov is highlighting is one of the secrets the sport hides from its casual fans. Tennis wraps itself in glamourous imagery, but it isn’t a glamourous sport. Despite what the champagne and luxury airline companies that sponsor events would have you believe, for the vast majority of players, tour life is a grind.
Shapovalov is the highest-ranked men’s tennis player in the world born in 1999. If he was the highest-rated hockey player in the world born that same year, his financial future would be nearly secure. His rookie season in the NHL would be spent flying on charter planes, staying in five-star hotels and, one can assume, enjoying impeccable Wi-Fi service. But instead, Shapovalov finds himself toiling in the meritocracy that is pro tennis.
It’s a world in which potential only pays so much, and only those at the very top cash in. A world that flings you to all corners of the globe, constantly seeking a big break — and paycheque — until you’re comfortably in the top 50. And yet, tantalizingly, players ranked just beyond that threshold are often exposed to the glamour tournaments as well — whether through the larger entry pool of Grand Slams, directly qualifying for events or earning a wild card berth. The end result is a dual existence: Fast food one week, fully catered players’ lounges the next. Masters events played in locales like Miami, Rome and Paris, and a July Challenger schedule that this year includes Astana, Kazakhstan; Binghamton, New York; Lexington, Kentucky; and Granby, among others.
Shapovalov’s manager, Andrzej Kepinski, is a long-time tennis event promoter (and casino developer) who understands both the nuances and finances of the sport. Now a burly man in his 60s, Kepinski was born in Poland and lived in the U.S. before moving to Toronto in 1979. In the late ’80s, he was promoting an exhibition match between John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. Eight hours before the match, Agassi cancelled and Kepinski had to fly in Jimmy Connors at the last minute. In a 1989 profile of Agassi, Sports Illustrated reported that, following the exhibition, Kepinski sent a private investigator to Florida to check on the veracity of Agassi’s claim he had bronchitis.
Kepinski financially supported Shapovalov’s development for years, something he’s done for many Canadian tennis players during the past three decades. He says Shapovalov stands out among all the players he’s been affiliated with because of his “incredible work ethic” and “steely determination to succeed.
“Denis accepted that he chose this life as a profession and to fulfill his dreams there is no comfortable path. He accepted and embraced the life of a professional athlete with all of its demands which is not easy for a teenager but Denis is mature beyond his years,” Kepinski says.
“It’s a lot of weeks on the road,” Shapovalov admits. “It’s fun, but at the same time, it’s pretty difficult. The weeks go by very quickly. I don’t even count them anymore.”
On rainy days in places like Granby, Shapovalov keeps occupied by “grinding the NHL” on his PlayStation with either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers (he and Connor McDavid are pitchmen for same sports drink company, Biosteel). Video games and hanging out with new friends on Tour are a couple of the ways Shapovalov deals with the stress of what he calls “a crazy ride” in his rookie season. He’s travelled the world while getting to know a new coach, and risen roughly 100 spots up the ATP rankings to 143rd. He’s also made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.
Down two sets and a break to Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the deciding fifth match of a Davis Cup tie back in February, Shapovalov fired a ball off his racquet and towards the crowd in a moment of frustration. It struck chair umpire Arnaud Gabas, fracturing his orbital bone. Shapovalov defaulted the match and was fined $7,000. The incident went viral on social media — one video of it currently has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube. “When something so drastic in your life happens, it really forces you to change quickly,” Shapovalov says. “I was 17, I didn’t even know what I was doing yet. It was my second month as a pro.
“It really forced me to mature a lot quicker than most players probably have to. But I think, in a sense, it was a good thing to happen to me,” Shapovalov continues. “It was unfortunate, but I’ve matured so much from it. I’ve accepted what’s come from it and I’m ready to move on.”
That event is where, according to Shapovalov’s team, Denis and Canada’s Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau really got to know each other. Laurendeau had already been Shapovalov’s full-time coach for a few months, but their relationship was strengthened during the tumult of that event. These days, the 53-year old likely spends more time with Shapovalov than anyone.
On Tuesday, with yesterday’s storm cleared, Laurendeau is the one to pick up Shapovalov from his Granby motel in the morning and take him to practice. Afterwards, they drive to a supermarket for lunch. Laurendeau helps Shapovalov manage the language divide with the staff. “Le recu, s’il vous plait.” Shapovalov says, slowly, to the cashier. She hands him the receipt.
As he eats a baguette, quinoa salad and vegetable soup (following everything with an espresso), Shapovalov takes a call from Kepinski. He answers quietly and in short sentences. “He’s pretty humble, actually a bit shy,” Laurendeau says of Shapovalov later that day. “A typical teenager trying to transition into being a man.”
That quiet off-court demeanour is part of what makes his game so surprising. Shapovalov has an aggressive, unconventional style — one taught to him by his mother, Tessa, a pro player for the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Canada with her husband, Viktor, and oldest son, Evgeniy in 1999, shortly after Denis was born. “Lefty. That’s the start,” Laurendeau says. “Very loose, very limber, seems like he’s made of rubber. All of that creates a big range of motion in his movements. He’s got some strokes that are kind of eye-catching. He’s very flashy.”
Shapovalov’s own appraisal of his style contains at least one bold claim, coming from an 18-year-old who weighs in at 150 pounds. “It’s very unorthodox,” he says. “You know, having a one-hander [backhand], pretty powerful, big shots from both wings. I feel like my whole game throws people off. I just feel like there’s not many players on tour that can really hit bigger than me. For the most part, I’m neck-and-neck with most of the guys, so to me that’s a huge confidence boost.”
This rookie year has exposed Shapovalov to some of the best players on Tour. In the off-season, he trained with Dominic Thiem, the highest-ranked player in the world under the age of 25. And at Wimbledon, he got the chance to hit with both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. The session with Djokovic came about after Laurendeau noticed Djokovic had a first-round match against Martin Klizan, also a left-hander. Laurendeau reached out to the Djokovic camp to see if a hit with Shapovalov could help their preparations, and it came together quickly. Shapovalov called it an eye-opening experience. “[Djokovic] went for a water break, and I was, like, barely catching my breath. I looked at Marty [Laurendeau] and I said, ‘I’ve got some work to do to get to this guy’s level.’”
That may be the case, but Shapovalov’s development has already impressed one of the bigger hitters on tour, at least from afar. On an off-day at Wimbledon, Milos Raonic watched Shapovalov play and noted that Canada’s two teenaged prodigies on the men’s side seem to be on the right path. (Felix Auger-Aliassime is the highest-ranked player in the world born in 2000, but is injured and won’t be able to use the Rogers Cup wild card granted to him earlier this summer.) “[Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime] are much further than I ever was at that point in my career, by far. Now it’s up to them to really make it count,” Raonic says. “Now it gets more difficult, but I think that they have it within them.”
Yesterday’s rain saw Shapovalov’s first match in Granby postponed, and after lunch he and Laurendeau prepare for their second hit of the day. As his student warms up with a trainer on a children’s playground beside the Granby courts, Laurendeau opens up about his main point of emphasis for Shapovalov in 2017: Making his unique groundstrokes slightly more conventional. The coach says the fast indoor court in Davis Cup play against Great Britain was revealing. “That’s been the No. 1 theme in my books. I guess maybe in juniors you have more time to swing and wind up,” Laurendeau says. “We’ve been working on that really on a daily basis trying to shave [down] the range of movement that can get things complicated at a higher level.”
As warm-up ends, Laurendeau and Shapovalov hit the court, and the lesson of this session seems to hew to the coach’s No. 1 theme. “Don’t go for the line unless you have to!” Laurendeau yells. “If you hit it here 10 times out of 10,” he says, pointing to an area a foot inside both the baseline and sideline, “you’ll win more than 50 per cent of the points.”
It’s unclear if Laurendeau’s cold, conservative logic on the practice court is having an effect or not. No matter how quiet Shapovalov is off the court, quieting his game just might not be possible. “I would rather go for it and miss it than hesitate, not go for it, and regret it later,” Shapovalov says after practice. “I grew up watching Roger [Federer], and he never held back. I always looked up to him and I always try to kind of play like him.”
“I’d rather this way than the other way around,” Laurendeau admits. “I’d rather slow a horse than whip it to death.”
Shy in social situations; gets home sick; plays video games; trying to prove he’s moved on from a bad, split-second decision; philosophical differences with his teachers — maybe Shapovalov is just a typical Grade 12 student after all.
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