Rewind to 12 months ago when Canada’s Denis Shapovalov was barely in the top 200 and playing lower-level Futures and Challenger tennis tournaments.
What a difference a year makes.
Shapovalov has emerged as one of the ATP World Tour’s top young stars and is showing that last season’s breakout was no fluke.
He has defeated some of the best players in the world over the past year and recently became the top-ranked Canadian on the circuit.
He’s a threat to beat anyone, at any time, on any surface. And he just turned 19 a month ago.
“I feel like I belong on the court with these guys and I can compete with all of them,” Shapovalov said Wednesday.
The Israeli-born teenager who grew up in Richmond Hill, Ont., has rocketed up the rankings thanks to his remarkable range on court, a powerful, spin-heavy left-handed serve and steady ground strokes.
His speed, tenacity and aggressiveness can leave opponents on their heels. Shapovalov doesn’t hide his passion and is loaded with confidence that’s growing by the day.
“Last year when I had these results, I started playing these ATP events but I didn’t feel like I belonged too much,” he told The Canadian Press from Paris. “I kind of felt like a fish out of water. There are so many good players. I had two good weeks [last summer] but it’s not like I’d been there for so long. But this season has been different.
“I’ve gotten to know almost all of the guys and I’m playing them almost every week and I’ve gotten used to it. I really feel I have that confidence in myself that I can beat any of these guys on any day. If I’m playing well, if I’m playing the right way, then I feel like I’m capable of beating them.”
Shapovalov broke out at the Rogers Cup last year in Montreal.
He captivated tennis fans across the country with an incredible run to the final four that included victories over Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal. Shapovalov eventually lost to Alexander Zverev, but the tournament served as a springboard.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kyle Edmund fell to the Canadian later that summer at the U.S. Open during his drive to the round of 16.
In 2018, Shapovalov fought through a so-so start before picking up some impressive wins on clay.
He beat compatriot Milos Raonic this month in Madrid and topped Edmund before falling to Zverev in the semi-finals. A strong performance followed at the next Masters 1000 event in Rome as Shapovalov defeated Tomas Berdych and Robin Haase before losing to Nadal.
With these deep runs, it can be easy to forget these are new events for the young southpaw.
Shapovalov had never played at Tour stops such as Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Budapest, Madrid and Rome until this season.
“Every week is a new experience for him,” said coach Martin Laurendeau. “So he’s just barely got his foot in the door and the kid is already 26th in the world.”
Shapovalov, who practised with Richard Gasquet on Wednesday in preparation for the French Open, is getting consistent reps against top players.
The on-court sessions are key but the building blocks are also coming from the invaluable interaction. Chats during changeovers and locker-room banter with experienced vets can be important for a youngster still finding his rhythm on tour.
“All of this is just him learning his trade,” Laurendeau said. “It’s still a learning process.”
Shapovalov fell in the first round of qualifying last year at Roland-Garros. He’ll be seeded this time around and can use this week to prepare for the main draw.
“One of my biggest goals this season is to win an ATP title,” Shapovalov said. “I’ve made a couple semi-finals, hopefully I can get one [title], that would be unbelievable for me to win my first. My ranking goal was to make top 25 at any point of the season and I’m really close to cracking that.
“If I do that, I’ll probably reassess after that. But honestly the biggest thing for me is still to keep improving, and to keep getting stronger. I mean I’m still so young. There is still so much room to improve.”
Shapovalov credits his support team and Laurendeau for the improved on-court play and mental focus during key points in matches.
“He’s really taught me how to be a warrior, how to fight out there for every point, even when things aren’t going your way,” Shapovalov said of his coach. “Obviously on the court he’s helped me tremendously with my serve and a bunch of things with my strokes.”
There are still many areas he can improve.
Shapovalov can be fiery at times and has made strides in keeping his frustration in check. He describes his 6-foot 165-pound frame as being “pretty wobbly” on court, and he’d like to see improvements with his net play and service returns.
“I feel like the work never stops,” he said. “There’s always something you can get better at. You look at Roger [Federer] and Rafa, they are still working every day out there, still improving, they’re getting better. It’s always a work in progress.”
Shapovalov was named the 2017 ATP Star of Tomorrow and was voted the tour’s most improved player last year by his fellow players.
He’ll take a 17-12 overall record from this season into the French Open.
“The guy is ambitious,” Laurendeau said from Paris. “He strives for excellence. He’s not perfect but he’s ahead of the pack for a guy his age. So he’s obviously got some great attributes and things he’s doing right.”
Shapovalov said while he’s excited about the future, he’s trying to focus on the present.
“It’s tough to predict what I’m capable of,” he said. “I still feel like my game is pretty erratic. At such a young age, some weeks I can play unbelievable, some weeks I don’t play so well.
“I guess that’s really the sport.”