After the Queen’s Club issued Canadian Denis Shapovalov a wild card into the qualifying of its ATP Tour 500 event this week, the rest couldn’t have worked out any better.
Shapovalov, the 2016 Wimbledon junior champion, drew 2015 Wimbledon junior champion Reilly Opelka in the first round.
And Shapovalov, younger by nearly two years, prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6) after converting on his first match point in the third-set tiebreaker.
The two are very different players, in large part due to the huge disparity in height. Shapovalov, a lefty with a one-handed backhand, is about six feet tall and much more of a natural grass-courter with all-court skills.
Opelka is 6-foot-11, with your standard-issue two-handed backhand but blessed – no surprise – with a monster serve.
But Shapovalov stayed with Opelka on nearly every level. He had 11 aces to Opelka’s 13. He was within one percentage point on both first- and second-serve effectiveness. But his first-serve percentage was much higher – 68 per cent to Opelka’s 50 percent. And that likely made the difference.
Different paths for the rising stars
Let’s compare their paths. Opelka was almost 18 when he won the junior title; Shapovalov had just turned 17. That year is fairly significant at that age.
Leading into last year’s junior Wimbledon title, Shapovalov won the Roehampton leadup; Opelka reached the semis in 2015.
At Wimbledon, both reached the final of the doubles as well.
Opelka didn’t drop a set against his last two opponents at the All-England Club – Taylor Fritz in the semi-finals, and Elias Ymer in the final.
Shapovalov had to come back from a set down against both Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis, then Aussie Alex de Minaur in the finals.
Both basically ended their junior careers after winning the big one although Opelka, an American, did play the US Open juniors. He lost in the third round.
At this time in 2016, a year after winning the juniors, Opelka’s ATP Tour ranking still stood at just No. 868. He struggled with some injuries and was a little slow to get going.
Meanwhile, the American’s last two opponents in the Wimbledon juniors had meteoric rises, then struggled.
Fritz’s ranking (currently at No. 135) was at No. 63 a year ago. Ymer’s ranking stood at No. 145; he has dropped more than a hundred spots since them.
Opelka has passed both of them; his ranking right now is at a career-best No. 130.
Shapovalov’s rise was much quicker than Opelka’s. But it still has been more of a steady climb. Barely 18, he currently stands just inside the top 200 at No. 195 and played in his first Grand Slam qualifying in the pro ranks at the French Open a few weeks ago. His last two Wimbledon juniors opponents also have risen steadily, if less spectacularly than Fritz and Ymer: Tsitsipas is at No. 192, de Minaur at No. 243
The Canadian hit a career best ranking of No. 172 in early April. But after reaching the final of a Challenger in Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of Match, he failed to win a main-draw match in six tournaments.
But he did win three in qualifying on grass in Surbiton last week. And he won this one against Opelka, who was the No. 7 seed while Shapovalov needed a wild card to get in.
This was Shapovalov’s first official match with a new racquet sponsor, having made the official switch from Wilson to Yonex this week.
Saturday was not a great day overall for the American young guns at Queen’s Club.
Top qualifying seed Frances Tiafoe was defeated by British wild card Liam Broady in the first round. And No. 2 seed Jared Donaldson lost in straight sets to German veteran Tobias Kamke. Stefan Kozlov did squeak through against big French lefty Kenny de Schepper.
Next for Shapovalov
Next up for Shapovalov is Broady. The winner of that matches makes the main draw and will face either Steve Johnson, Brits James Ward or Kyle Edmund, or another qualifier.
You never know; if Shapovalov (who currently is entered in the Wimbledon qualifying) can get on a roll, he might get consideration for a wild card into the main draw at the All-England Club as the reigning junior champion.
The tournament used to do that more regularly, but it hasn’t happened since 2009 (Grigor Dimitrov) and 2010 (Andrey Kuznetsov). Most often, the previous year’s junior champion doesn’t have any kind of a ranking that would justify it – just look at Opelka a year ago. But Shapovalov may have an ace in the hole.
The wild-card announcements will be made June 20. As it happens, the chief of the British Lawn Tennis Association, one Michael Downey, will still be the boss there at that time.
By the time the tournament begins July 3, Downey will have left the LTA and returned to his old gig as head of … Tennis Canada. As a final act, he might be able to persuade the powers-that-be to help him do a solid for his fellow Canadian.