PARIS – It tells you just how far Denis Shapovalov has risen in a year that his second-round loss to Maximilian Marterer was considered a monumental win for his opponent.
Even though Marterer is nearly four years older, he has far less experience at the top level. But on this day, in a match that could well pave the way for a round-of-16 matchup with 10-time champion Rafael Nadal, the German looked like the more experienced competitor.
Shapovalov did not keep his cool well enough, for long enough in the 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-4 defeat. And while he couldn’t have been more gracious at the net with his opponent, his disappointment was evident as he walked off the court.
It started well enough, with high quality of tennis for the first two sets.
But then, the racket flew a few times. Shapovalov threatened to send it flying a few more times. And the unforced errors just kept piling up.
“I struggled a bit the whole match, especially when there were new balls, the serve was flying really fast coming off his racquet well. But like I said, I mean, first of all, I’m not the best returner, so I definitely want to keep improving on that aspect. And I haven’t played against too many lefties, so it’s a different view, it’s a different ball. It was tricky a bit,” Shapovalov said.
“I don’t think I returned awful today. I think it was all right. Obviously I could do a better job, but I think the biggest difference today was definitely the serve of mine.”
Clay-court calm a work in progress
In the first-round win over John Millman, Shapovalov was distracted by the weather, the heavy, rain-soaked balls. He was able to gather himself in the latter half of the match when conditions improved.
Against Marterer, a tall lefty with a big serve, there was the wind, and some bad bounces, and a few other fates conspiring against him.
But at the base of it all is that Shapovalov’s game style is going to offer up matches like this at times. As he gets better and more mature, it will happen less often.
If he’s not serving well enough to dictate that second shot, he’s going to have more trouble on serve. If he’s firing at small targets and not making them on that day, the unforced error total is going to mount.
In the end, Marterer played at or near his current top level throughout the whole match. Shapovalov, on the other hand, can play a lot better than he did. If he were going to raise that level, late in the third set would have been the perfect time. But he couldn’t.
The Canadian gave his opponent full credit for his play, as well.
A more gradual rise for Marterer
As he turns 23 in a few weeks, this also was Marterer’s first career Roland Garros after losing in qualifying in his first appearance a year ago.
And, like Shapovalov, this is Marterer’s first year making main draws at majors, and playing a full ATP Tour schedule.
He qualified for six Tour events a year ago (and received three wild cards in his native Germany). But he lost in the first round each time.
Still, Marterer’s path would be considered somewhat more … would “normal” be the word? Typical? Slow and steady and very much under the radar with the rapid rise of his young countryman and Davis Cup teammate Alexander Zverev.
Marterer will find himself in the top 50 for the first time, if he can defeat lucky loser Jürgen Zopp in the third round.
He’s slightly older than the Shapovalov-Tsitsipas-Chung “Next Gen” group. But he’s catching up quickly. And he has a great opportunity in his next round.
Marterer acknowledged the challenge in facing the Canadian, whose typically strong first serve sets up the point in his favor. But he gave himself credit for making it tougher on Shapovalov’s serve by lifting the level of his own return game.
“Denis is one of the players that play really good first shot after his serve. So when he started already in, like, first two service games in the match, it was already pretty impressive what he was doing, like, so aggressive from the first shot with his forehand, especially, have a good angle in it,” he said.
“He’s playing a really heavy, heavy forehand. So I tried to keep him a little on his backhand, playing not too much on his forehand, because it’s pretty solid, good bounce in it. And, yeah, I think I managed it really good after losing first set, especially. And, yeah, it was good that I could raise the quality of my return that he had also some problems in his service games after this.”
Next – time for grass
Despite the early exit, Shapovalov didn’t expect to be able to get home for even a few days, before he attacks what he calls the “most fun” part of the season on the grass courts.
It’s a grind; Shapovalov will have been in Europe more than three months, when he finally gets a chance to go home after Wimbledon.
Again, it’s Shapovalov’s first true grass-court campaign. And it’s on his own ranking-based merits rather than his “potential”.
Last summer, he began the grass-court season with two Challenger events. But he lost in the first round in both.
But as the reigning Wimbledon junior boys’ champion, the teenager was given a wild card into Queen’s Club, and then a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw.
This year, he starts as early as can be – the week after the French Open in Stuttgart, Germany.
His plan seems to be the same as it was for clay. He’s entered in an event every single week of the short season on the turf.
After Stuttgart, he has Queen’s Club again. And then, Eastbourne. There, he could be seeded as high as No. 2, behind Kyle Edmund.
And then, of course, the big one.
Clay-court lessons learned
As Shapovalov leaves Paris for parts unknown (he expects to hit Stuttgart next Thursday), he can look back to a clay-court season that was as productive as it was instructive.
He reset his clay-court clock after first-round losses in Monte Carlo and Budapest. He learned he could play aggressive tennis on the dirt in Madrid, where the altitude only helped to hone that belief.
Shapovalov also learned that he could grind his way through to the latter stages of a big clay-court event, getting through long, tough matches as he did in Madrid and also in Rome.
To follow up the Madrid effort with two good wins in Rome was another step up the development ladder. It’s one many young players fail early on, as they have a great week – but have nothing left for the next week.
And the Canadian also learned that Roland Garros is at a different level than those events. It was only his fourth main draw at a major, his first in Paris. And he’ll come back in a year’s time the better for the experience.
And now, the fun begins
“Grass is going to be a big part of the season for me. I think, I always enjoyed playing on it. It really suits my game style. But, you know, you don’t always know with grass. You know, every year it’s kind of different. You have different sensation,” he said.
“I’m excited, you know? It’s a short part of the season, but for me it’s the funnest part.”
(Shapovalov screenshots from FranceTV-Sports)