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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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After breaking ​into the top 10 in the ATP rankings for the first time last week, Denis Shapovalov took a few days to reflect on the accomplishment. 

"I was talking to ​my team and my family and it's just amazing," he said. "I never thought for a second growing up that at 21-years-old I could be top 10. It's great to have a co​uple days to just take it in and look back at all the work I did, especially during the pandemic, but also the last couple years and see how far I've come to reach a milestone like that. It's amazing for my confidence."

Shapovalov will play his 1st round French Open match on Tuesday at approximately 10:30 a.m. ET on TSN4.

Shapovalov is the 170th man to make it to the top 10 in singles since the rankings were established in 1973. He joins Milos Raonic as the only other Canadian man to make it to this level. Raonic reached the mark after making the semifinals in Montreal in 2013 at the age of 22.

"It means a lot," Raonic recalled. "It's something very special ... For Denis, the way he played in Rome was some very positive and inspiring tennis. It's also got to be exciting that it leads right into another big event. I'm sure he's looking to build off it."

Shapovalov has been among the most impressive players since the tour resumed making the quarter-finals at the US Open, his best ever major result, and then backing that up with a run to the semifinals in Rome, a Masters 1,000 event.

Shapovalov has highlighted a couple reasons for his surge, including working with a sports psychologist. ​At the US Open, his mental strength was on display as Shapovalov came from behind in three of his four wins.

"Something I personally didn't see before in him that I really see now is his competitiveness and how much he wants it," observed Patrick Mouratoglou, who coaches Serena Williams and runs an academy in France. "​I remember his [US Open third round] match against [Taylor] Fritz, he was down two sets to one and 5-2 and he ended up really fighting and winning that match. That competitiveness is the mark of champions and I think he's showing that more and more." 

Shapovalov has handled all the curveballs associated with pandemic play – bubble life and no fans at most matches – extremely well. After the breakthrough in New York, he jumped on a plane and headed to Europe to play on a new surface – clay – and didn't miss a beat.

"It was tough both mentally and physically," he said. "I was struggling early on with the jet lag, but I just kept fighting ... I feel like every week is forcing us to adapt to the new environments that we live in today."

Shapovalov, whose aggressive game translates really well on faster surfaces, spent a lot of time training with coach Mikhail Youzhny on clay during the season pause.

"We were definitely putting a lot of work in on that surface so definitely gotten more comfortable on it," he said. "I feel like if I'm playing my good tennis, if I'm playing at a really high level, then I feel like I can play on all surfaces. It's definitely a huge confidence booster for me to see that I can also play on the dirt and do well."

Youzhny has helped Shapovalov become a smarter player, teaching him how to build points and when to employ his array of weapons.

"He plays incredible tennis so that's not new," noted Mouratoglou. "He can hit a winner from any part of the court at any time and he's very unpredictable, which makes him even more dangerous. He has an all-court game. He comes to the net. He does everything possible. Lately, he's shown much more consistency so that was one of the things missing in his game."

Shapovalov is also looking much more comfortable at the net thanks in part to playing more doubles. He's teamed up with Rohan Bopanna since Indian Wells last year and the pair made it to the US Open quarter-finals.

"He's anticipating the ball," noted Bopanna. "He's moving better towards it. So, that helps the positioning in singles as well. The ball is coming at a much faster speed [at the net] when you're playing doubles."

Bopanna points out that Shapovalov has a high tennis IQ, which has allowed him to make such a big leap up the rankings despite being early in his career.

"We started in March last year and by the time we got to October, November, he was definitely a lot different as a player," the 40-year-old said. "His ability to learn so fast, to pick up on things, that makes him a champion there itself ...  I truly believe he's got a fantastic career ahead and he's going to win a few [singles] Grand Slams, for sure."

Bopanna on Shapovalov: 'He's going to win a few Grand Slams'

Rohan Bopanna asked Denis Shapovalov to be his doubles partner at Indian Wells last year, which was the start of an "honest friendship" between the 40-year-old from India and the 21-year-old from Canada. Bopanna believes playing doubles has helped Shapovalov elevate his singles game. "I truly believe he's got a fantastic career ahead," Bopanna told TSN. "He's going to win a few Grand Slams for sure."

Shapovalov's progress is impressive and the tennis world is taking note. Jon Wertheim, a reporter with Tennis Channel and Sports Illustrated, is picking Shapovalov to reach the semifinals at the French Open.

"Denis' stock has really gone up these last three weeks," Wertheim noted. "He's turning heads. He's someone you hear other players mentioning now a lot more than they used to. You know, when they say, 'After the Big Three, who's in the Next Generation?’

His name is coming up more and more often. He's ready for a major breakthrough and this could be it."

Wertheim points out that Shapovalov landed in a good part of the Roland Garros draw. The top seed in his quarter is No. 4 Daniil Medvedev, who has no track record of success in Paris.

But, for now, Shapovalov is focused on his first-round opponent, veteran Frenchman Gilles Simon, who is ranked No. 53.

"He's very crafty player, super solid so I definitely have to keep playing the way I've been playing," Shapovalov said, "being aggressive, but trying to stay patient at the same time and work my points and really wait for those openings to look to come in."