Denis Shapovalov walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium last year and felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the court, the brightness of the lights, and the rousing cheers of the crowd.
Then he started playing. And those outside distractions seemed to fade away.
The young Canadian tennis star won’t be frazzled when he takes the court next week in his second US Open. But the memories of his debut at the Grand Slam aren’t far from his mind.
“It’s probably one of the greatest memories of my career so far, playing under those lights,” Shapovalov told The Canadian Press from New York on Thursday. "I just remember how insanely big the court was and how it wasn’t so easy to concentrate at the beginning because there was so much going on, so many people there.
"But I always wanted to play on the big court. So when I got the chance last year, instead of getting afraid I got inspired and motivated to go out there and show how well I could play.”
Shapovalov burst on the tennis scene last summer when he followed up a semifinal run at the Rogers Cup in Montreal with a Round of 16 appearance at the US Open.
The Richmond Hill, Ont., product started that Rogers Cup ranked 143rd in the world and rose to No. 51, beating Daniil Medvedev, Kyle Edmund and No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (after three qualifying victories) in New York.
Shapovalov, who enters this year’s US Open at No. 28, said he’s matured and grown as a person since last year, gaining the confidence that comes with upset wins in big tournaments. And his tennis game has improved, too.
"I’m physically stronger, mentally stronger, everything’s gotten better,” he said.
But the biggest difference between the lead-up to the last US Open and this one?
"I feel a lot more relaxed,” Shapovalov said. "Last year was about me backing up my results at the Rogers Cup and I had to qualify so there was a lot of pressure.
"This year I’m keeping the same routine: staying at the same hotel, eating at the same places, so I’m more familiar with everything. I feel that sense of calmness and experience and I’m very comfortable right now.”
While the 2017 Rogers Cup endeared Shapovalov to Canadian tennis fans, he feels the US Open helped put him on the map in a more global sense.
It also proved he could continue the success he’d enjoyed in Montreal.
"It was one thing to play well one week at the Rogers Cup and make the semifinals but the US Open was really a chance to back it up and show it wasn’t a fluke,” the 19-year-old said. "I feel like I did such an unbelievable job with that. ... I kept my level up and beat some great players along the way to make the Round of 16, so definitely I feel like it kind of secured what people were saying about me and the hype around me.
"After that I was pretty comfortable with myself and pretty confident that I could go out there and compete with anyone.”
Shapovalov, one of three Canadian men with direct entries into the US Open main draw, heads into the major on back-to-back third-round losses at the Toronto Rogers Cup and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where he fell to No. 25, Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont.
Shapovalov will play a qualifier in the first round while Raonic opens against American Jared Donaldson. No. 88 Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver matches up against Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko.
Shapovalov will again be without coach Martin Laurendeau – the former Montreal tennis pro hasn’t travelled since dislocating a disc in his back in June. But his mother Tessa, also a former pro who owns a tennis club in Vaughan, Ont., has taken over the coaching reigns in her son’s five tournaments since.
Shapovalov will have another familiar face, albeit a furry one, in his coaching box in New York. Storm, an arctic wolf stuffed animal, has been seen propped up in front of Tessa all year since Shapovalov bought him at an Australian airport before the season-opening Brisbane International in January.
“I like to call my team the wolf pack, and on the court I like to think of myself kind of as an arctic wolf,” Shapovalov explained. “You’re out there by yourself, you’re hunting against your opponent, you’re trying to get the better of him.
“I feel like I’m pretty fierce, like an arctic wolf in that way.”