There’s a wholly innocent beauty in being 18, all puppy-dog eager and fresh-faced, with your entire life and career ahead of you.
For young, promising athletes, there is everything to gain on the playing field. And there is nothing more to lose than a tennis match.
At that age, you feel immortal. You know in your soul that even if you lose, you will have plenty more opportunities. Because the future seems endless at 18, full of limitless possibilities.
Nothing really bad has happened yet. You probably haven’t lost a parent. Perhaps you haven’t even yet had your first true love or suffered your first broken heart. It’s an incredible time.
In that context, 18-year-old ATP Tour rookie Denis Shapovalov had the time of his young life Thursday night in Montreal.
Fresh off an impressive over Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina the previous day, the kid went out and defeated his childhood idol Rafael Nadal.
He did so in dramatic fashion, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in front of a packed house full of fellow Canadians who cheered every mighty, lefty, fearless swat of his new Yonex racquet.
“It’s so tough. A lot of the times he just hits a shot that’s way too good. I was managing to get a lot back when I could. But, you know, he’s honestly the best player I’ve ever played in my life. Yeah, you could tell why he’s won so many Grand Slams. His ball was just so heavy. He’s such a warrior out there. So it’s honestly, like, a dream come true for me to beat a player like that,” Shapovalov said.
A life completely changes, in 12 hours
Thursday morning, the Toronto resident was just a teenager crashing in his buddy Félix Auger-Aliassime’s Montreal basement. When he woke up, the first thing he saw was a poster of Nadal on the wall. He asked Auger-Aliassime, who turned 17 Tuesday and though currently injured, is every bit the prospect Shapovalov is, to take it down.
That same night, he took down the real thing.
“The whole day I was, like, ‘There’s no chance. I’ll go and have fun but I’m not beating this guy.’ ” a stunned Shapovalov said during an on-court interview with Sportsnet after the match. “I just kept fighting. I knew it was going to be really tough. But I went for my shots in the big moments, and caught a couple of lines, got a little bit lucky. But at the end of the day, that’s what tennis is.”
All of a sudden, the Internet lit up. A star was born. Let the hype begin.
And Shapovalov will never truly be 18 again.
The kid was impressive Thursday. Fearless, at times. He went after Nadal with every offensive tool in his arsenal and, often, was able to break through the Spaniard’s legendary defence – just enough.
“Yeah, it just felt really surreal, you know. I mean, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. It’s tough to explain the emotions that were going through my head at that moment. But it was just pure happiness,” Shapovalov told Sportsnet. “Just a roar of the crowd. I mean, yeah, it was just really loud. Honestly, yeah, I think I might have blacked out.”
But, as with just about every tennis match – every story – there is another side.
For Nadal, déja vu
Not so long ago, Nadal was that fresh-faced teenager.
Back in 2004, when Shapovalov was just four years old, the Spaniard was a fresh-faced kid of 17 facing world No. 1 Roger Federer for the first time, in the third round of the Masters 1000 tournament in Miami.
Nadal was already ranked No. 34, more than 100 spots ahead of where Shapovalov is now. He defeated Federer in straight sets.
A star was born.
Shapovalov is the youngest since then to defeat a top-two player in a match that didn’t end in an injury retirement.
At 31, Nadal is having a renaissance season. But he’s far more conscious now of the passage of time. He plays with more urgency because, as dizzying as his heights have been, he has had his fair share of valleys during a brilliant career. He knows he’s closer to the end, and he’s not ready for it to end.
In the big picture, a tennis career comes and goes in the blink of an eye.
Shapovalov may toil on Tour for perhaps 15 more years before his blink is done. But some day, regardless of where the future takes him, he will be where Nadal is now.
“Worst match of the year”
Nadal was mad. A couple of people who have been around a long time even remarked Thursday that they have never seen him this angry after a loss.
He knows he could have won it – should have won it. He said he wasn’t surprised that Shapovalov didn’t flinch in the end.
“That’s normal, no? I have been in that situation. If I don’t remember back with 18 years old, I win Roland Garros. Is something that I don’t know why should happen, when you (are) 18, to (not) hold the nerves. In my opinion, is much more easy when you have 18 than when you have 30,” he said.
“He has nothing to lose. Is win-to-win for him. If he loses playing a good match, was good for him. Or if he loses in straight sets, already he played a good tournament. If he wins, he’s amazing,” Nadal added. “He won. Is amazing for him. Just well done for him. Is a great story. And I am not happy to be part of this story. That’s it, no?”
That Nadal managed to win the first set with a 45 per cent first-serve effort and just two winners was luck and timing; his younger opponent cracked a bit at the end of that set.
He was way down in the second set, came back, and lost the set on a return that Shapovalov completely shanked. It ended up inside the sideline, in a spot on the court a surprised Nadal couldn’t get to in time to make a winner routine. He missed a forehand down the line long, and they went the distance.
The third game of the third set was the pivotal one. It took more than 14 minutes for Shapovalov to hold his serve. The Canadian double-faulted three times in that game, and Nadal still couldn’t take advantage. There was one moment towards the end, when Nadal had a short ball he needed to drill down the line with his forehand, with everything he had.
He had set it all up, all he needed to do was finish with panache.
Nadal hiccuped. He blinked. He bailed out with a meek drop-shot attempt that never got over the net. And Shapovalov held.
No. 1 on the line
In retrospect, and though it took a long time to actually get to the finish line, that was the telling moment. Nadal had not been serving well. He had not been hitting his forehand particularly well. At times, it looked like the tight stroke of 2016 vintage – the one that too often landed short and gave his opponent opportunities to attack.
He knew he was just two wins away from getting the No. 1 ranking back; Nadal’s math, when it comes to tennis, is impeccable. And he flinched.
In the ultimate tiebreak, Nadal jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Suddenly, it was 4-5 and Nadal was fighting to stay in it. The man who has made huge bank on eternally long points dumped a forehand into the net, on the second shot of the rally.
On match point, Shapovalov hit a huge lefty forehand of his own down an open sideline, and fell to the court in disbelief.
“All the time I was waiting for his shot. I didn’t went for the shots. I didn’t feel the ball tonight. That’s it, no? I tried to fight until the end. I had a lot of chances in the third. Probably I played bad, but at the same time playing like this, I could win the match,” Nadal said. “I don’t know how many breakpoints I had in the third. But he played well in the break points. He hit some lines. … A couple of ones (were) well played for him. But even all these kind of things, I make too many mistakes in important points. In all terms, I cannot be happy about the things that I did.”
Shapovalov has had big moments before. Not just winning the Wimbledon juniors a year ago, although that was big. But a few weeks later, just 17, he dismantled Nick Kyrgios on his home court at the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
“I said I’d never forget the roar in Toronto but this was about five times louder. Every time there was a big point, my ears just popped,” he said.
No stopping the hype
The hype around this likeable, talented kid is about to get just as loud.
You hope Canadian tennis fans have learned a thing or two from the Genie Bouchard experience. But you know they haven’t.
That’s normal. It’s human nature. If you’re a spectator, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering a rising new talent. And it’s a blessing to be able to watch them at this age, when they’re potentially on the cusp of exciting things and the sky is the limit.
But the road to the top in tennis is filled with bumps and potholes. The weight of expectations grows. The commitments and responsibilities multiply. The attention gets overwhelming. This is as easy as it’s going to get for Shapovalov, who will rise to about No. 100 in the world with the victory and, if he wins again Friday, could get as high as No. 65 in the world.
As indelicately as Bouchard put it after her first-round defeat in Toronto a few days ago, it is a load to carry. And there’s no school to learn how to carry it. You learn on the job, with the whole world watching.
Nadal has been through all that. And at this stage, the losses hurt far more. Especially losses like this one.
For Shapovalov, another match awaits. He likely won’t sleep much Thursday night as he prepares to face tricky lefthander Adrian Mannarino Friday evening. He won’t be feeling all that great; after a three-set match against Nadal, the body barks.
Shapovalov, who had started to cramp, stood up during his post-match press conference.
Mostly, he’ll expect far more from himself than he did just 24 hours before, when he walked on the court with his childhood idol expecting to lose.
Everyone else will be expecting more, as well.