What’s next for … Denis Shapovalov?

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Hopefully Canadian Denis Shapovalov is kicking back, Nikes off, at his Toronto-area home and processing just how much his life has changed in the wake of a star-making week at the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

(Ed: Barely. After a couple of days, Shapovalov was on his way back to Montreal Wednesday morning to get ready for the US Open qualifying)

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The big splash mercifully has forever veered the focus away from the unfortunate Davis Cup incident last February, and back to the 18-year-old’s talent, pizazz and potential as he prepares to take it to the next level.

The first decision in the wake of a career-making moment was to pull out of a $100,000 Challenger this week across the country in Vancouver.

Shapovalov had made a firm commitment to be there. And his coach/Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau reiterated as late as Friday that he would.

But it was the right move. There’s a lot to take in. And there is the not-insignificant toll of five matches at the top ATP Tour level to recover from. That’s something he had never done before.

With the US Open qualifying beginning in a week, the teenager has to gear down, reload and rev up again in short order.

In other words, he has to do it all over again.

Shapovalov did apologize on national television in Canada about missing Vancouver.

He told the fans that he would be back. Given his current ranking, and the expectation that it will rise even further, that would be considered an all-star guest appearance going forward.

Shapovalov added he hoped the fans in Western Canada would come see him in Edmonton in mid-September, for the Davis Cup World Group playoff tie against India. Of course, the Canadian squad hasn’t been named yet. But with Shapovalov’s results, and his coach being the captain of the team, and top Canadian Milos Raonic’s spotty attendance record in recent years, that’s pretty much a given.

The US Open – the hard way

There was a lot of instantaneous reaction that Shapovalov should get a wild card into the US Open singles draw. But that’s not how wild cards are given at Grand Slams.

Tennis.Life looked at all the men’s and women’s US Open singles draws since 2007 to see how often the US Tennis Association had gone outside its mandate of developing homegrown talent.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov is going to have to get onto Arthur Ashe Stadium the old-fashioned way. He’ll have to earn it. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Had it given out free passes to players other than Americans, or the beneficiaries of the reciprocal agreements the USTA has with the French and Australian federations?

In other words, has pre-US Open buzz ever factored in?

No.

And it’s hard to find an instance at any Grand Slam where this has been the case. Perhaps you could argue giving Marcus Willis a singles qualifying and doubles wild card into Wimbledon this year was because of his notoriety. But Willis is a Brit.

In all cases, the “exception” wild cards went to past champions of the event. Those included Juan Martin del Potro last year, Kim Clijsters in 2009 and … Maria Sharapova. That was announced on Tuesday.

So it wasn’t realistic. Shapovalov will have to earn his main draw spot the old-fashioned way. 

Not top dog

In fact, when the US Open men’s singles qualifying tournament gets under way Tuesday, Shapovalov (despite jumping from No. 143 to No. 67 in the rankings Monday), won’t even be the top seed.

That likely will be Leonardo Mayer. The 30-year-old Argentine, who has played the US Open eight times and has been seeded in the main draw, was at No. 152 at the entry deadline July 3. But Mayer currently is ranked No. 53.

The players in qualifying range from just outside the top 100 to about 250 in the world. In other words, the type of opposition Shapovalov has faced, for the most part, this season. 

Challenger-level losses

 Shapovalov has played just three ATP-level events this year. And he’s done well at two of them.

On the Challenger side over the last four months, he was beaten by such players as countryman Peter Polansky (No. 118), Thomas Fabbiano (No. 103), Marco Cecchinato (No. 105), James McGee (No. 219) and Vincent Millot (No. 156).

Does one magical week instantly raise his level to the point where he would never lose to players of that calibre again? Maybe. But it would be very unusual.

“It’s been an exceptional week but the reality is there’s still lots of tennis to be played this year. It’s tough to produce weeks like that every week, unless he becomes a top-10 player before the end of the year. But at least it’s a reference for him to know at what kind of level he’s capable of playing,” coach and Davis Cup captain Laurendeau told the Tennis Canada website. “We all saw it and it will be good for him to have it as a reference – to know he can beat top-10 players, he can beat top-50, top-30 players. It’ll help him keep working hard to improve his game.”

Back to the grind

Shapovalov maximized on the biggest tennis stage in his country, before a packed stadium, on national television in both official languages, with just about every supporter in the stands on his side.

It’s a textbook example of seizing the day. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, and it was cumulative. But Shapovalov won’t be stepping into a similar situation until … a year from now in his hometown of Toronto, when the Rogers Cup comes around again.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov smiles and signs autographs after his career Grand Slam debut, a first-round loss to Marius Copil at the French Open in late May. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The teenager played his first Grand Slam qualifying tournament a couple of months ago in Paris at the French Open.

After suffering le bagel in the first set, he lost in three sets to Marius Copil of Romania (No. 94).

The match was on Court 6 – a nice court, but one that seats a few hundred fans.

He made his Grand Slam main-draw debut a month later at Wimbledon, after receiving a wild card based on his ranking and his status as last year’s junior champion.

The court, No. 7, was even smaller. The opponent, Jerzy Janowicz (No. 143), was a player he had faced a few months before, and so he knew what to expect.

He lost in four sets in a competitive match.

It was the first time in his life that Shapovalov had played more than three sets. And, so far, the only time. As any player will tell you, best-of-five sets is a completely different animal.

Target on his back

The day after a big tournament result is factored in and a big rankings leap is achieved is the day a player start working towards having to defend those points in a year’s time.

In Shapovalov’s case, he played little from this point to the end of the 2016 season – just three Challengers as he dealt with an ankle injury. And he earned zero ranking points at those. So anything he does the rest of the season will only cause his ranking to rise.

This is bonus time. He can do nothing but go up, with no pressure on his ranking. It’s a great opportunity to put some points in the bank to forestall the likely damage of not repeating his Rogers Cup effort in 2018.

But Shapovalov is the man to beat now. He’s the kid with the target on his back (Ask Genie Bouchard – politely – what that feels like).

Going into the qualifying at Flushing Meadows, before a small crowd of diehards in warm temperatures with plenty of humidity, the aspirants all will be wanting to take him down.

If the majority of them will never have a chance to defeat Juan Martin del Potro or Rafael Nadal during their careers, the next best thing is to beat the guy who did defeat them.

You know they were watching attentively.

On the plus side, Shapovalov will go in with his confidence through the roof, and with the more familiar best-of-three set format. 

And, in a new twist this year, he can have coach Laurendeau, or his mom/coach Tessa, yell advice to him from the stands.

Davis Cup pressure

After the US Open? There’s Davis Cup.

Shapovalov’s first official Davis Cup experience was one to forget. The next time around, he could be carrying a country on his back.

Canada hosts India on what will be a skating-rink speed court in Edmonton, Alberta in mid-September.

India doesn’t have any rock stars. But it does have a couple of singles players in the top 200 who are playing well at the moment in Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan. Ramanathan is into the second round this week in Cincinnati. Bhambri qualified and reached the quarter-finals in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

Shapovalov currently is the No. 2 ranked male player in Canada. And top gun Milos Raonic (who withdrew from Cincinnati with a wrist issue) has not been a faithful Davis Cup attendee in recent years.

So the teenager could conceivably be playing No. 1 singles, with his country’s hopes of remaining in the prestigious World Group on his slender shoulders.

His debut in Ottawa in February didn’t go well even before the incident with the chair umpire. 

That’s a lot to handle.

Chasing rainbows, or slow and steady?

Shapovalov can benefit from his new ranking in any tournament that begins Sept. 28 or later.

He has yet to enter any of the fall tournaments. The first of them, Beijing and Tokyo the first week of October, are 500-level tournaments with tough fields. The deadline is Monday; based on last year’s cutoffs, in the low 50s, the Canadian wouldn’t make it in. He has yet to enter any Challengers during that week, either.

The wild-card offers surely will come. As the new “it” player in tennis, the temptations will be major to try to cash in financially while he’s a hot commodity. As it was, Shapovalov did a lot of off-court promotional stuff last week in Montreal. 

Maximizing the opportunity

It will be interesting to see how the members of Team Shapovalov handle their charge’s newfound circumstances.

Will they take it slowly and steadily? Or will it be pedal to the medal, putting the youngster in situations that might be too much for him, too soon?

Shapovalov

Shapovalov’s learning curve was shortened considerably in Montreal last week. But the game development and the maturity necessarily will lag behind the confidence. Those are elements for which the journey cannot be shortened. 

Rafael Nadal alluded to it after his loss to Shapovalov, musing on how much easier it it so play freely when you’re 18, compared to when you’re 30.

Roger Federer, too, had some wisdom on the subject. At Shapovalov’s age, his ranking was similar although he had spent significantly more time at the ATP Tour level. But he remembers being that fearless.

“I guess, let’s say, the first three years on tour – first two maybe –  just because opponents don’t quite know your patterns yet. They don’t know what you’re going to do. You don’t know yourself what you’reShapovalov going to do on the break point. Are you going to take it and then go for it?

“Are you going to say, ‘Let me close my eyes for one second’ and go for it? Maybe you shank one, then the next you belt it. You’re like, ‘Hmm, let’s do that next time around.’ It works. It works again. You just fuel your confidence like that,” Federer said.

Patience, Shapovalov fans

The 36-year-old watched Shapovalov hit his way out of trouble in his junior Wimbledon semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas last year. He couldn’t believe it, but posited that perhaps for Shapovalov, it was normal.

“Obviously it’s risky. Doesn’t always play off. Playing forward, doing that on Court 4 against a journeyman is a different story than doing it on center court,” Federer said. “We all know that. But not everybody can go up to that level. It seems that Denis has an extra gear.”

As Rogers Cup champion Alexander Zverev put it, with all of his 20 years, after defeating Shapovalov in that Next-Gen semifinal, it’s a process.

“I felt like the crowd and the tournament, the whole city of Montreal, was really supporting him all the way. It was an amazing story. I think this is just the beginning of a very long story. Hopefully he can continue doing what he’s doing,” Zverev said.

Shapovalov
Zverev sees off his future rival, after defeating him in the Rogers Cup semifinal Saturday in Montreal (TennisTV.com)

“But on the other hand I will say don’t expect him to win (the) US Open in the next few months coming up. He still needs some time. This is I think the best tennis he played in his life. For him to play this level consistently, it might take him, you know, another two to three years,” he added. “But the other hand he has shown what level he has in himself and what talent that he is. It’s going to be amazing watching him and playing against him.”

Hopefully, the Canadian fans, and new admirers around the tennis world, can be patient enough to see Shapovalov through the inevitable growing pains.

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