Denis Shapovalov: The Playmaker
The young Canadian reveals the story behind his trademark shot
Denis Shapovalov is already making his mark on the tennis world at the age of 17. Heading into the Rogers Cup, the 2016 Wimbledon junior champion is the second-best under-18 year old in the Emirates ATP Rankings and put up a good fight against Top-100 player Lukas Lacko on his ATP World Tour debut at last week's Citi Open. In the first-round match, the wild card Shapovalov served for the first set before succumbing 6-4 in the deciding set.
The Richmond Hill resident is sure to attract Toronto tennis fans scanning the practice courts at the Aviva Centre with his flowing one-handed backhand. Shapovalov’s trademark shot, which he can rip with topspin or carve with slice from any position on the court, was the legacy of his first coach.
“My mom was coaching my brother and I would watch them play,” said Shapovalov, whose tennis-coach mother, Tessa, introduced him to the sport at the age of five. “At that age, I wanted to be like my brother so I begged my mom to let me play. Eventually she started working with me. I’ve had my one-handed backhand from a very young age. Growing up, many coaches were telling my mom that I was too young to be hitting a one-hander, but it always felt natural to me so my mom never tried to change it.”
Any aspiring pro hitting a one-handed backhand invariably draws comparisons to former Rogers Cup champion Roger Federer. Shapovalov, who happened to be one of the few who’s had the chance to measure his skills against the Swiss maestro in Toronto, embraces the parallel.
“Roger Federer was the player I modeled myself after," Shapovalov said. "I was always looking to play aggressively and come forward, but also to act like him on the court. To be professional. I’ve seen many of his matches. His 2009 Roland Garros win was one that sticks out for me. But I’ve watched him lose many matches too, whether it’s at Wimbledon or in the 2005 Australian Open against Marat Safin. I admire the way he handles himself on the court. Even after tough losses he managed to stay in control of himself.
"I had a chance to hit with him once. He was playing in the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup and I was a hitting partner here. He needed a lefty with a one-hander to practice with because he was playing Feliciano Lopez, and he called me and I warmed him up.”
As his career develops, Shapovalov will be able to draw inspiration from several prominent countrymen.
“I look up to [Edmonton Oilers forward] Connor McDavid a lot. He’s a young guy like I am, so I see some similarities in our situations,” said Shapovalov of the budding NHL star, whom he lined up against during the Roger Cup’s annual ball hockey game. “Right now, he’s more famous than me, but in a couple of years perhaps we’ll be in the same spot. He’s a role model for me. As a hockey player, I’d have a similar style as him. Aggressive, going for my shots, trying to make skilled plays and to create offence.
“[NHL legend] Wayne Gretzky and [NBA All-Star] Steve Nash are also inspirational athletes. As a Canadian, I try to follow their example and hopefully in the future I’ll be in that position.”
Shapovalov and fellow Canadian juniors Felix Auger Aliassime and Benjamin Sigouin are developing a healthy rivalry.
“Felix is like a brother to me, said Shapovalov. "Him, Ben and I are very close. We push each other. Felix made the final of the Roland Garros juniors and almost won it, so that inspired me to do well at the next Grand Slam. I’m sure watching me win Wimbledon is motivating him to push harder. It’s a healthy rivalry we have. We try to help each other."
Canadian Milos Raonic, a Top 10 player and Wimbledon finalist, remains Shapovalov's main role model on the ATP World Tour.
“Milos and I talked a lot at Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago," said Shapovalov. " I’ve been following his results for a long time now. It’s incredible what he’s been doing for Canadian tennis. Professional players are a lot smarter on the court. In the juniors, we’re not quite as used to dealing with momentum changes in a match or changing tactics. Pros find ways to break down your game even when you’re winning against them. They can turn the tables even when you grab the momentum.
"Hopefully I will be in a Wimbledon final one day, just like Milos."