Denis Shapovalov captured the attention of a lot of people in 2017, but he's now showing that his recent success isn't fleeting. He is gradually asserting his position on the ATP Tour.
Ranked world No. 253 this time last year, he keeps gaining ground, so much so that he is currently ranked No. 44 ahead of Indian Wells. Such a progression can be a whirlwind, and not only for the fans. The 18-year-old Canadian has even surprised Louis Borfiga, vice president of high performance athlete development, because of his rapid ascent in professional tennis.
"Let's be honest, I would be lying if I said we anticipated that kind of progression when he was 14 or 15, said Borfiga during an interview with RDS.ca. We knew he would become a really good player, but we didn't expect him to make such a breakthrough this young and this quickly."
It all started on March 5th of 2017, when he won the Gatineau Futures title, sanctioned by the ITF. Shapovalov had just cracked the top-200 and already, in June, he was awarded a wildcard for the Rogers Cup in Montreal, where the fairy tale began.
After he fought off four match points against Brazilian Rogerio Dutra Silva in the opening round, the Canadian then defeated 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro from Argentina.
The best was yet to come. In the next round, at his third match, the No. 134 in the world thrilled the crowd at Uniprix Stadium when he knocked off top seed and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in three sets after multiple spectacular rallies and help from his one-handed backhand.
"He is a very determined and ambitious kid. He likes to play on the biggest stage, which is a great quality. I must say that I was impressed with the way he approached the games on central court in Montreal and at the US Open against the elite. He played with the heart of a conqueror, so it was a great surprise", told Borfiga.
"He's a complete player who has few flaws in his game. I would say he is confident on the court because he is confident in his technical abilities. It's probably why he is able to produce shots that seem to come from another planet in crucial moments", he added.
Shapovalov's run finally came to an end in the semifinals where he lost to eventual winner Alexander Zverev, another young rising star. He had already impressed with his skills on the tennis court, but the 18-year-old athlete impressed even more with the way he handles the pressure and the expectations placed upon him.
"To get carried away was a risk, admitted Borfiga. But it's true that he impresses on that aspect. He seems bulletproof. He has surprised me yet again with the way he can deal with the pressure and the way he keeps progressing."
We didn't have to wait long to see proof of his strength of character. Shapovalov maintained the momentum during the next tournament, in Flushing Meadows. Because he had to go through qualifications at the last major tournament of the season, he played a total of seven matches there.
In a best-of-five contest, he proceeded to add to his tally by defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, world No. 12 at the time, in only three sets. Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta stopped the Canadian in the fourth round after going to tie-break three times. Still, Shapovalov left New York with a sense of accomplishment by proving he ought to be taken seriously from now on.
"The fact that he repeated in New York what he had first demonstrated in Montreal proves that the quality of his game is extremely high. If it wasn't the case, he never would have been able to perform like that."
New year, same challenge
Shapovalov, who participated in the Next Gen Finals at the end of last season, started the year 2018 at No. 51 in the ATP rankings. But the goal remained the same. Just like he did at the US Open, he has to prove that he belongs there.
Tsonga got revenge on Shapovalov at the first Grand Slam of the campaign, in Australia, at the end a five-set battle. The Canadian also reached the semis in Delray Beach in late February. Austria's Dominic Thiem (No. 6) showed him the door in Acapulco, but only after Shapovalov did the same to Japan's Kei Nishikori in the first round. Despite a 7-6 record, Borfiga is satisfied with Shapovalov's start to the season.
"Coming off a strong end of season, I expected it to be a bit more difficult this time. He started well, with solid performances at the Australian Open. He almost beat Jo-Wilfried during a superb match and he did beat Nishikori in Delray Beach. He is confirming his place."
"I'd say he has established himself amongst the 50 best players in the world."
Guiding him throughout this journey is Martin Laurendeau, who quit his job as captain of Canada's Davis Cup team to coach the youngster full-time. Borfiga is confident that this association will benefit Shapovalov's career.
"He has the opportunity of working with Martin, who has tons of experience. I know he's in good hands."
Staying in the top-50
After such a fast climb in the rankings last season, it is important to be cautious when it comes to setting goals this season, because Shapovalov is still developing. If he stays on track, Borfiga wouldn't be surprised to see the Ontarian's name on the fringe of top-30.
"We must not put pressure on him. Finishing the year in the top-50 would still be excellent. Most of all, he needs to keep refining his game and growing in every aspect, it's also very important."
"Let's not forget that he's still young, which means that he will for sure keep developing physically. As he bulks up, he will become more fit to last in long matches. He still needs to perfect some of his shots, but he will improve as he trains and gains match experience."
Shapovalov will indeed acquire some more experience at his fifth Masters 1000 tournament appearance next week, in Indian Wells.