Denis Shapovalov feeling bullish about 2019 season

Denis Shapovalov, of Canada, reacts after winning a game against Kevin Anderson, of South Africa, during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in New York. (Julio Cortez/AP)

TORONTO — Canada’s Denis Shapovalov started the tennis season feeling the pressure of heightened expectations. He ends the campaign feeling confident, comfortable and ready for the next step.

"For me the goal was just to stay inside the top 50," he said. "To be able to finish the year-end at (No.) 27, it’s huge for me. It’s pretty inspiring and motivating to keep going forward so that next year hopefully I can keep growing and keep improving my ranking."

There is plenty for the 19-year-old left-hander to be bullish about.

While still looking for his first ATP Tour title, Shapovalov avoided the sophomore slump in 2018 and cemented himself as one of the tour’s top young talents.

He reached the final four at the Madrid Masters to become the youngest semifinalist in the tournament’s history. It was one of three semifinal appearances on the season.

Shapovalov reached a career-high No. 23 in the world rankings last spring and was a key cog in Canada’s Davis Cup victory over the Netherlands last summer.

"Physically I’ve gotten stronger and mentally I’ve gotten better," he said. "My game in general has improved. I felt like last year to beat these guys, I had to play my best tennis. Now I feel like if I’m just playing good, if I’m playing my solid tennis game, I’m able to probably beat them and be tight with them.

"So it’s a huge confidence booster for me. But at the same time I definitely want to keep improving and keep going forward."

Armed with a powerful spin-heavy serve, steady ground strokes and incredible retrieving ability, Shapovalov has the range and talent to hang with anyone on court. His hunger, athleticism and strength make him a very tough opponent.

"He’s one of the strongest, fittest and fastest players on the tour, which is really something," said Canadian teammate Vasek Pospisil. "To be 19 and to already be at the level that’s he at is quite impressive."

Shapovalov’s breakthrough came in the summer of 2017 with deep runs at the Rogers Cup — highlighted by a stunning victory over Rafael Nadal — and the U.S. Open.

Other players and coaches told him how hard it would be to follow up on that breakout season, and Shapovalov admits it was on his mind at the start of the year.

However, he was determined to keep his expectations in check and was focused on making improvements.

"I think for the most part I’ve done a pretty good job," he said this week at a charity event for the Lights Foundation. "I made (three) semifinals, obviously I didn’t get to the finals or win tournaments. (But) for the second year on Tour, to do what I did, I’m pretty proud of myself."

Shapovalov, who recently started working with new coach Rob Steckley, has three main areas of his game that he’d like to polish: his serve, return game and net play.

"The good thing is I feel like there is a lot of room to improve," he said. "So I’m definitely excited to go to the off-season, working with Rob now, he looks like he really knows what to work on in my game. So I’m really pumped to start the off-season."

Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., also has his eye on Canada’s Davis Cup tie against Slovakia in early February. Under the tournament’s new format, a victory would send Canada into the Davis Cup Finals in November.

He’s expected to help anchor a squad that will likely include Pospisil, Milos Raonic and rising star Felix Auger-Aliassime.

"I think in the next couple years if everyone is healthy, we definitely have a shot of doing really well — I think even potentially winning the thing," Shapovalov said. "I don’t see why not with a team of Milos, Vasek, me and Felix, we definitely could have a chance to compete for a title."

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.