PARIS — Denis Shapovalov was gifted a spot in his first Masters 1000 final on Saturday when opponent Rafael Nadal withdrew with an abdominal injury before their semifinal match at the Paris Masters.
While the Canadian didn't envision reaching that career milestone via walkover, he's planning to take full advantage of the free pass when he faces world No. 1 Novak Djokovic for the title on Sunday.
"I'm not one to cut down risk, so I'm going to go for it. It's a match where I have nothing to lose," the 20-year-old said. "It's awesome to be in my first finals and it's just kind of a bonus for me.
"Honestly, I'm just going to go for it, see what I can do and just enjoy my time out there."
Djokovic reached his sixth Paris Masters final earlier Saturday with a 7-6 (5), 6-4 win against Grigor Dimitrov, beating him for the ninth time in their 10 career matches.
Shapovalov, of Richmond Hill, Ont., won his first ATP title at the 250-level Stockholm Open last month. He had reached the semis of a Masters four times but had never advanced to a final before Saturday.
Sunday's match could be coming at the right time.
Ranked No. 28 heading into the tournament, Shapovalov has played some of the best tennis of his career this week. He dispatched higher-ranked opponents in three consecutive matches to reach the semifinals, including an upset win over No. 6-seed Alexander Zverev of Germany in the round of 16.
"I feel like my game has been there almost all season. I've been pushing these guys, just haven't been able to get through the finish line," Shapovalov said. "And something in the last couple weeks has clicked for me.
"So I feel like, yeah, I'm really happy with the way things are turning out."
Shapovalov's walkover victory puts him at a career high No. 15. He would jump to No. 11 with a win Sunday.
The Canadian is 0-3 against Djokovic in his career. All three of those losses have come this season — two in Masters 1000 tournaments and the other at the Australian Open.
Djokovic said he's seen improvements from Shapovalov since then.
"Denis has reduced his unforced errors. His game has always been there, and especially this year he's improved even more," said Djokovic, who is aiming for a 77th career title. "He has played some impressive tennis, yesterday especially against (Gael) Monfils."
Nadal said he felt something in his abdominal while practising before the semifinal on Saturday and got checked out by medical staff.
"We saw something on the image, probably a small strain," Nadal said. "I tried to come back on court to practise again and to see how things are going with my serve but I was still feeling the pain there."
Shapovalov learned of Nadal's withdrawal while in the locker room right before the match.
The Canadian said he had been looking forward to his third career match against Nadal, having beaten him once before at the Rogers Cup in 2017.
"Of course it's not the way I want to reach my finals. ... but nonetheless it's a great opportunity for me to be in the finals of a 1000," he said. "In terms of Rafa ... I felt like on hard courts I could really, really kind of be aggressive against him and really play my game and take it to him.
"So I felt pretty comfortable, pretty excited to be going out against him. Of course it was going to be a really interesting and fun match for me to play."
Last year, Nadal missed the season-ending ATP Finals in London because of the abdominal injury, but hopes he can recover in time for this year's finals starting on Nov. 10.
"I hope to be ready for London, that's the biggest goal now," he said. "I will do all what's possible to recover for it."
In a tight opening set where neither faced a break point, Dimitrov cracked in the tiebreaker faced with the defensive resilience of Djokovic.
With Dimitrov up 5-4 and controlling the exchanges, a 32-stroke rally ended when he advanced to the net and tried an extravagant forehand volley to the left. He could have played an easier shot with a controlled backhand to the vacant right side of the court.
The ball landed out and Djokovic punched the air, roaring in relief.
Then, on set point, a 35-stroke rally ended when Dimitrov chopped a backhand long.
"He was probably the better player in the tiebreak. I managed to get returns into play and just make him play an extra shot," Djokovic said. "We both really understood the importance of clinching the first set so we could feel a bit more relaxed in the second and start swinging through."
Djokovic broke Dimitrov in the fifth game of the second set when the unseeded Bulgarian swatted a forehand long.
Serving for the match, Djokovic held to love.
Djokovic won his first title here 10 years ago and three straight from 2013-15. He lost his only final last year to Karen Khachanov.
He is bidding to finish the year as No. 1 for the sixth time, which would move him one ahead of Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors, and into a tie with all-time leader Pete Sampras.
Nadal is looking to seal the year-end top ranking for the fifth time.
His injury last year ensured Djokovic ended as No. 1.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2019.
— With files from The Associated Press