Denis Shapovalov’s inspiring Rogers Cup run won’t soon be forgotten

Denis Shapovalov spoke after he lost in the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup about crucial points and what this experience was like for him.

MONTREAL — Denis Shapovalov did not go gently into that good night.

The 18-year-old Richmond Hill, Ont., native, who came into the Rogers Cup as the 143rd ranked player in the world and vaulted his way up to No. 67 this week with wins over Rogerio Dutra Silva, Juan Martin del Potro, top-seed Rafael Nadal and Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, gave Germany’s Alexander Zverev a run for his money on Saturday.

But ultimately Shapovalov failed to become the youngest player in history to reach the final of a Masters 1000 event.

After he sailed a looping backhand into the doubles alley to drop the match 6-4, 7-5, he took to the border of centre court and put things in perspective in an interview with Sportsnet’s Arash Madani.

“It was an unbelievable week for me,” Shapovalov said.

It was also an unbelievable week for Canadian tennis fans, who rallied behind the blond-haired, blue-eyed wonder as he showed off his free-swinging style against two fierce challengers, two Grand Slam champions and one up-and-coming star in the 20-year-old Zverev — who now has a chance at winning his fifth title of the 2017 season.

This run didn’t end as Shapovalov hoped it would, but he can go to sleep knowing hundreds — if not thousands of Canadian kids — will take to their local courts in the coming days, flip their hats backwards, bounce the ball back and forth between their legs before service points, and do everything they can to emulate what they saw this week.

He inspired. He knows he did.

“It’s crazy how it is,” said Shapovalov. “I mean, I go from being not known to, you know, being so known in the tennis world, in Canada in general.”

This was the kid’s arrival on the world stage, right here on home soil, playing on a stadium court for all of his matches, and doing it in front of more than 11,000 fans who cheered him on like he was their own child.

What those people — and everyone who tuned in nationwide — learned about the young phenom is that he has the shots, he has the heart, and he has the potential to reach as high as any Canadian tennis player ever has before him.

Shapovalov showed it in each of his matches, and Saturday’s performance was no exception.

He was far from perfect. Double faults closed out all three service games he dropped in the match. He only managed to win six return points in the first set — three of which came on double faults from Zverev. And his forehand, which he pummelled for winners with regularity in his first four wins of the tournament, came undone on too many occasions.

But just as Shapovalov had done all week, he came up with some of his best stuff while his back was pinned firmly against the wall.

There was the break at 0-1 in the second set to tie up the score and seize the momentum away from Zverev; there were the four consecutive points he won to dig himself out of a love-30 deficit while the score was knotted at 4-4 in the frame; there were the two match points he saved moments later; and there was the near-miracle he pulled off, trying to win a break point to force a tiebreak by pulverizing an inside-out forehand that landed just half of a millimeter wide.

But it just wasn’t meant to be for Shapovalov.

“[Zverev] played too well on the big points,” he told Madani. “Credit to him: He stayed strong, he’s playing incredibly well, and he’s going to be a champion.”

There’s little doubt about that.

The six-foot-six German, who plays a near-infallible game, has emerged as a player most in and around the sport expect will one day ascend to No. 1. With a serve that clocks in regularly over 210 km/h, with one of the tour’s most consistent backhands, and with a killer instinct that’s made him a world leader in taking advantage of chances to serve out matches (he’s won 95 per cent of those games in 2017), he’s justified those expectations.

We’ll see how good Zverev can be when he takes to centre court on Sunday to face off against a legend of the sport in Roger Federer – a man who has won 19 Grand Slams and who has cruised through this tournament as part of the best start to a season he’s had in 11 years.

If he wins, he’ll be the talk of the tennis world, just two weeks out from the U.S. Open.

But we won’t soon forget what Shapovalov did this week, and this won’t be the last we hear of him, either.

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