After losing in the first round at Wimbledon two months ago, Denis Shapovalov gave one of those news conferences that put the fear in you.
He wasn’t upset. Instead, he was weirdly upbeat. Relieved, almost.
“Something sub-consciously is happening for sure, and it shows in the matches,” Shapovalov said. He brightly suggested that he might start seeing a psychologist.
A few minutes earlier, Eugenie Bouchard had given her own, far-less-attended presser after another of her lose-from-ahead matches. One player sounded very much like the other – beyond caring.
Few high-profile Canadian athletes have had a sophomore slump quite as exaggerated as Shapovalov, 20. First off, its extended into his junior year.
The high-water mark came in 2017 when he beat Rafael Nadal at the Rogers Cup. He went to the U.S. Open immediately thereafter and reached the fourth round.
People started talking about him as a future world No. 1. He had the on-court personality to fit a global star.
But just ask Bouchard. Once you start thinking about that idea, things tend to go sideways in a hurry. And it is awfully hard not to think about it once it is mentioned.
For two years, Canadian tennis’s shooting star turned into a commercial satellite. Shapovalov is often in the mix, but never at the top and never featuring in the only place it matters to a player of his pedigree – at a Grand Slam.
He was becoming one of those guys who make a lot of money at tennis, but never really matter. A sort of northern Roberto Bautista Agut. You know the name, but you’d be hard pressed to pick him out of a lineup.
Two things changed before the U.S. Open.
First, he brought former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny on as an ad hoc adviser and hired big brother.
Youzhny, who’s been retired only for a year, has a similar backstory to Shapovalov. Driven to success by his parents; a mercurial presence; a tendency to melt down every once in a while. The Russian was a technically gifted player who just didn’t have that special something. Now that it’s all over, maybe that gives him a unique perspective on what that special something is.
To hear Shapovalov tell it, Youzhny is the psychologist he went looking for after Wimbledon.
“He’s done a lot of talking to me and telling me what I should be focusing on in the matches and how to operate with myself,” Shapovalov said after his win on Thursday.
Another thing happened was that someone stole his place.
We’re not talking about Félix Auger-Aliassime, though that is true. The 19-year-old Quebecker has lapped Shapovalov as Canadian tennis’s golden boy.
But those two are direct competitors and good pals. As Gore Vidal put it, whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. That’s not a spur to performance.
The player who changed the calculus for Shapovalov is Bianca Andreescu. Unlike the others, Andreescu isn’t the next big thing. She’s already a big thing.
For one, she’s winning titles. No other Canadian tennis pro does that on the regular.
But, crucially, this is not someone Shapovalov will ever have to play. She’s over there doing her own thing, being great, taking all the homegrown pressure off. In a best-case scenario, she is a guiding light for someone such as Shapovalov. In the current scenario, she’s sucking up all the attention and giving him some room to breathe. Sometimes it’s good to be No. 2 or 3. That’s an advantageous position from which to launch a surprise attack.
Whatever the case, the result has been a very un-Shapovalov-like run at the U.S. Open. He’s into the third round against Gael Monfils, a match to be played Saturday. This is already his best result at a major in two years.
He has a different look about him, too. Twitchy and excited, rather than close to going off the rails. A lot of the swagger has bled off.
Swagger is a good thing. It suggests quiet confidence. But Shapovalov’s swagger was developing out of proportion to his achievements. He’d been reading his own clippings. When Shapovalov’s swagger fell too far out of synch with his play, he crashed. That’s how you get odd reactions such as the one after Wimbledon. Your self-image is cracking apart in public.
What’s yet to be seen is if failing to become the next big thing was a fortunate misstep. Were Shapovalov to succeed now, it would feel more like a comeback than an emergence.
What Canadian tennis players – to say nothing of Canadian tennis – need is for someone to finally win a big one. That eases the pressure on all the rest.
You’d bet big on Andreescu to do it, maybe in a week’s time. Her draw has magically opened up in New York. If Andreescu is at her best, she should fall backward into the semi-finals. Vegas has her at 7 to 1 to win it all. Only Serena Williams has better odds.
Were Andreescu to win here, that would be good for a lot of people. Obviously, the player herself. A major win pushes Andreescu to the tippy-top of the athletic Q rating. She becomes the Canadian face of next summer’s Tokyo Olympics. And she’s only 19 years old. There’s a conceivable world in which Andreescu is the next Williams. This could be the beginning of something we’ve never seen before.
But one suspects it would be nearly as good for Shapovalov and, by extension, Auger-Aliassime. Even poor Milos Raonic, with all his creaky levers, could benefit.
Because what’s become clear is that Canada’s men need some cover from Canada’s women (the same could be said of male and female tennis players from every other country on Earth).
What the Shapovalovs of the world need isn’t just hype-protection (though they need that badly), but an illustrative example. They need to be shown that it’s possible to topple the Three Kings of men’s tennis. They need to see a winner in action from close up.
Now that Canada has that potential first winner, maybe it’s possible that one champion begets others.