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Denis Shapovalov: Are We There Yet?

By Giri Nathan

One of the hardest lessons for me to grasp, as a relatively green sportswriter, has been disentangling these two things: my hope that certain things would happen for narrative reasons, and my credence that those things would actually happen. No player wins a title because you think it would be interesting if they did so. Progress happens slowly, or in fits and starts, or—most often—not at all. You can pray for someone under the age of 47 to win a major on the men’s tour, because it makes the work of finding fresh angles for your next column far easier, but the trophy cannot be written into the infant’s hands. You can’t purple-prose your way into seven wins in best-of-five. The player actually has to go out there and beat the old goats. And beat the everyday journeymen. And it turns out it is very hard to do those things. And it turns out that it takes otherworldly consistency and focus to actually hold on to a spot at the top of the tour, and the game is deeper than it has ever been, and teenagers simply don’t do that anymore.

So there will always be false alarms. In retrospect, it looks quaint that I immediately slammed all my hopes on Denis Shapovalov the summer he made the fourth round at the US Open. But he was just 18, and the win over Rafael Nadal that same year in front of the home crowd at the Rogers Cup was genuinely heroic, and the shotmaking was delicious, and the hat was so big and so funny. So why not indulge, why not feed the little hype machine? I commissioned a piece from a writer who intimately knew the bland flavor of Canadian junior tennis, and appreciated just how anomalous Shapovalov’s game was. I embraced the fleeting nickname El Shapo, until better judgment prevailed and we all stopped casually associating a racquet-wielding teenager with a violent drug lord. I cast many small and ecstatic blog posts into the internet, attaching outsize significance to minor victories and crafting GIFs of jumping backhand winners. Every tournament was treated as a sign of unceasing monotonic progress. I spread the gospel to friends and family—look out for the kid with the hat!

But tennis, like anything hard, is slow going. Certainly it moves slower than the preferred pace of iterative sports blogging. Shapovalov would drift into and out of the top 30, lose matches that seemed eminently winnable, struggle to return serves with anything safer than a full-pace death blow. A slice would sure be nice, I thought to myself, as I toned down my projections for this career arc. I learned not to bang away at my keyboard at the first tremor of a good run, not to spin a decent result into A Definitive Case For The Next Big Thing In Tennis, as tempting (and as fun) as that is. And I internalized a secondary lesson: Just because something is fun to watch doesn’t mean it’s effective at winning matches. Once the charm of the highlight reel wore off, it was clear that all the jumping backhands—and whatever impulse led him to jump into all those backhands—might be holding him back, if anything. Then the temptation was to overcorrect, by anticipating more and more bad things.

Which would present an easy transition into his fledgling rap career, but…let’s stick to the positives. Despite the impatience of the fidgety sportswriter, by any reasonable measure, Shapovalov has delivered. At age 21, he broke into the top 10, and will end this season just outside of it. By making the US Open quarterfinal, he finally matched and surpassed the precocious fourth round of a major he hit three years ago. He made another semifinal of a Masters event on clay, like he did two years ago. Soon he’ll even go to London to play second alternate at the ATP Finals. Now that I am grown-up and mature, and immune to fits of undue optimism, I won’t extrapolate too much from solid results. Just like I won’t make too much of the fact that Shapovalov ended the season with four straight losses—to Andrey Rublev, but also to world No. 58 Gilles Simon, to world No. 153 Jurij Rodionov, and, finally, to world No. 93 Radu Albot this week in Sofia. To me, these are normal.

Neither cheerleader nor doomsayer, I will simply perch cross-legged upon a promontory and watch the scores roll in, maintaining perfect equanimity, issuing empirically sound commentary. And I definitely won’t repeat old mistakes by overanalyzing his friend and countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 20-year-old who will end this season just outside the top 20 after his own first-round loss in Sofia this week. Obviously I won’t make too much of the fact that Auger-Aliassime, who perhaps carries greater expectations than any other player over the next decade, fared 1–6 against top 20 players this season, 6–12 against top 50 players, and 18–18 against the top 100. I won’t. I won’t! Really. I won’t. What’s that about his record in finals? Back to my lotus pose.

Above: Denis Shapovalov (and hat) last month at the St. Petersburg Open. (Getty Images)

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