Stockholm Open 2019: Denis Shapovalov serves a reminder that he's still among NextGen’s brightest stars with title
With a game that's a little more refined, a little less rash, Denis Shapovalov serves a reminder that he's still among NextGen’s brightest stars.
Shapovalov has always shown a flair for the spectacular, right from the time he first announced himself by upsetting Rafael Nadal at the 2017 Rogers Cup.
The jumping backhand is just one of the magic tricks the 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov regularly pulls out of his bag.
The game of Denis Shapovalov almost seems like a collection of stunning moments rather than a methodical means to victory.
If you had to choose between watching a regular backhand winner or a jumping, acrobatic, gravity-defying backhand winner, which would you pick? It’s an easy answer: you pick the jumping backhand every single time.
That is probably why Denis Shapovalov, he of the flowing blonde locks and smooth-as-silk groundstrokes, has developed such a legion of fans despite being just 20 years old. The Canadian has always shown a flair for the spectacular, right from the time he first announced himself by upsetting Rafael Nadal at the 2017 Rogers Cup, and his matches are almost invariably Marvel-grade visual delights.
The jumping backhand is just one of the magic tricks he regularly pulls out of his bag. There’s also the no-look backhand pass, the flat-as-a-pancake running forehand winner, and the blink-and-you-miss-it delicate drop volley. Shapovalov’s game almost seems like a collection of stunning moments rather than a methodical means to victory; making our jaws drop seems to be the only purpose of his tennis.
Is that why it took him so long to win a tour title? The focus on putting up a show seemed to be costing Shapovalov his big-match gumption. He was being made to find out the hard way that you win matches with the extra ball you make, however ugly, rather than the beautiful stone-cold winner.
Despite making such a big breakthrough with that Nadal win in 2017, Shapovalov hadn’t reached a single tournament final until this week in Stockholm; he had played seven semi-finals in the last two years and lost all of them in straight sets. In the meantime, pretty much everyone from his NextGen group of players had won a title (or more), and lately even younger players like Felix Auger-Aliassime (18) and Jannik Sinner (17) had been threatening to beat him to the punch.
In the modern era of quick expectations and quicker dismissals, the pressure on Shapovalov had been steadily mounting. Today’s next big thing is tomorrow’s also-ran if you don’t produce results week in week out, even if you haven’t yet gone past 21. In this particular case, 2017’s teenage Canadian phenom was in danger of being replaced by a newer, seemingly better Canadian prospect — Auger-Aliassime.
Against that background, Shapovalov’s win over Filip Krajinovic in the Stockholm final on Sunday probably inspired as much relief in his camp as it did joy. It was a fine exhibition of attacking tennis by Shapovalov, but for the first time in his career he had that fine exhibition come in a match that really mattered.
After winning his first ever tour semi-final over Yuichi Sugita, Shapovalov spoke effusively about the pressure of not making a final. “I’ve played a lot of semis it feels like, so it’s really exciting to be into my first final,” he said. “I’ve had some bad luck, some tough matches in the semis…to be honest, I’m just happy to be through to the final. The rest, I just get to enjoy. Obviously I’d love to win the match and win my first title, but if not, it’s a big step to make the final this week, so I’m really happy with where I stand.”
Shapovalov’s joy at getting the monkey off his back probably helped him against Krajinovic. He looked utterly at ease throughout the final, essaying the role of favorite like he was born for it. In the semi-final he was tentative at the start, going down an early break and then working his way back into the match; in the final, he was authoritative from start to finish.
Krajinovic did his best to delay the inevitable, as is his wont. He repeatedly got out of jams on his own serve by keeping the ball in play and goading Shapovalov into errors. The Serb saved three break points in each set, pumping his fist vociferously after each.
But one area where he couldn’t make a smidgen of an impression was Shapovalov’s serve. The Canadian faced just one break point all match, and won a staggering 93 percent (28 out of 30) of his first serve points.
The serve has arguably been the most improved aspect of Shapovalov’s game since he appointed Mikhail Youzhny as his coach a couple of months ago. The 20-year-old has started cranking up the speed on his first delivery, regularly crossing the 135 mph barrier the last few tournaments. The full effect of his increased emphasis on getting a good first strike in was finally seen this week; his four matches in Stockholm saw him lose a grand total of nine first-serve points.
Shapovalov has always had a good serve, with his swerving lefty angle capable of taking any right-hander out of their comfort zone. But it is only after getting Youzhny on board that Shapovalov’s first serve has started looking like a massive weapon; he is going big on it now, and with consistency. When you add that to his already formidable ground game, you have a recipe for success on any quick court.
Of course, the Canadian has repeatedly shown over the last couple of years that his errant forehand is capable of undoing any good work put in by the rest of his game. Youzhny seems to have helped in that regard too; all through last week Shapovalov seemed intent on generating depth with his forehand rather than going for broke, and on using his backhand instead to open up the court with wicked angles. The forehand continues to be a more reliable put-away shot for him, but if you saw his last two matches you’d be forgiven for thinking he had two forehands instead of one.
When I first heard that Youzhny was going to be coaching Shapovalov, I didn’t quite see the connection. The only thing similar between Youzhny and Shapovalov is the single-handed backhand; in just about every other aspect they are as different as chalk and cheese. Youzhny was patient and workmanlike when he played on the tour, while Shapovalov is impatient and flashy. Youzhny was a moderately talented lightweight who always punched above his weight, and Shapovalov is an outrageously gifted powerhouse who frequently throws matches away through unforced errors.
In hindsight, the difference in mindset is exactly what Shapovalov needed to take the next step in his evolution. We’ve always known he has the talent, but having Youzhny by his side is helping him maximise that talent through patience and patterns. Youzhny was nothing if not a patient constructor of points who diligently got the best out of his strengths; if Shapovalov can do the same thing on a regular basis, there’s really no telling how high he can soar.
The Russian had singled out Shapovalov’s gifts — and their uniqueness — as early as last year, when he was bidding farewell to his playing career. “I like Denis Shapovalov’s game style most of all,” Youzhny had said last September when asked for his opinion on today’s NextGen stars. “It is a far cry from all the others whom I have mentioned. They (Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Khachanov and Rublev) play pretty much the same game — someone serves better, another one does fewer unforced errors. But Denis’ game is more interesting.”
A year later, Youzhny is getting to witness that ‘interesting’ game from the closest quarters possible. And he is probably liking what he is seeing even more than he used to.
The most encouraging aspect of Shapovalov’s title run is that it hasn’t been stripped of any of its daredevilry or pizzazz. The glorious winners from impossible positions still make appearances, but just a little less frequently. Even the flaws — the routine misses and untimely double faults — still rear their ugly head every once in a while. The package is essentially the same; it’s just a little more refined, and a little less rash, than it used to be.
The Stockholm title has brought Shapovalov back into the top 30, but more importantly it has brought him back on course for the bigger battles ahead. The prevailing thought has always been that the Canadian’s game is built for short spurts of brilliance rather than sustained dominance — not unlike Petra Kvitova, another lefty slugger who can manufacture both winners and errors out of thin air. Shapovalov’s struggles in big matches the last two years had started making us doubt if he’d ever even convert those spurts into something substantial, but this title — even if it is just a 250 — is reassuring.
Shapovalov will likely never give up his tendency to hit those spectacular jumping backhands. But do we want him to? Hell no! And we’ll always have Stockholm to remind us that he doesn’t need to either.
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