The U.S. Open has gotten so weird that Denis Shapovalov is now in a position to give advice to Novak Djokovic.
By now, everyone has seen video of an irritated Djokovic half-heartedly hitting a ball toward the backboard and accidentally hitting an official in the throat.
Tennis, being tennis, has a rule for this. In this case, it falls under the heading of a “singularly egregious” instance of “physical abuse.”
This didn’t stop Djokovic from wheedling with officials for several minutes while the woman he’d hit lay supine on the court. There are cameras on the court, buddy. Just take the L.
I don’t know if you’d call what he did a fit of pique, exactly. This was more like generic disgust. Whatever it was, it cost Djokovic – who had been cutting through 2020 like an icebreaker – US$3-million plus expenses. No wonder he’s upset.
Shapovalov did something similar early in his pro career. Except he hit the ball like he was trying to get it into the parking lot, and the poor guy he nailed needed surgery to repair the damage. Same situation, different outcomes.
Shapovalov would almost certainly have played Djokovic in the quarter-finals. Meaning the quarter-finals was as far as Shapovalov would have gotten.
But now Djokovic is out, Shapovalov is in with a shot and people are asking him how the most successful tennis player of the era can sort himself out.
“Hopefully, Novak can shake it off and move on,” Shapovalov said after his fourth-round victory. “Of course, he needs to grow and learn from this.”
(Parenthetically, when did “grow” become a synonym for “not do something stupid.” If you turn your car into the garage door because it hasn’t opened quickly enough, that is not a “growth” experience. You just need to stop being stupid.)
Shapovalov has plainly learned a few things – actual useful, tennis things – since last he was catching a lot of notice.
At Wimbledon last year, he lost in the first round, blamed his poor showing on a “mental issue,” then mused about taking the rest of the year off. Just prior to this U.S. Open he released a rap record that is (I’m going to try to be kind here) terrible.
This did not look or sound like an elite athlete with his head in the right spot. But then he began to play, and the skies opened up.
During his lengthy sophomore dip, Shapovalov had a tendency to get down early and then give up, often spectacularly.
During the last week, he’s turned his come-from-behind tendencies into a strategy. Who knows what he could manage if he ever won a first set?
And if only this trend was contagious. Both of Canada’s other round-of-16 entries – Vasek Pospisil and Félix Auger-Aliassime – tried the same thing on Monday. Both fell on their faces, losing easily.
A couple of bright spots for Auger-Aliassime. American broadcasters have given him a nickname – “Eff-eh-eh.” And the guy who beat him, world No. 3 Dominic Thiem, talked about him afterwards like Boris Becker 2.0: “I was really nervous before the match. … I just beat an amazing opponent, a future superstar.”
Let’s pause for a moment to take stock. The greatest accomplishment in Canadian tennis history is Bianca Andreescu’s win at Flushing Meadows last year. The greatest run is Daniel Nestor retiring with 91 men’s doubles titles, including eight grand slams. With three locals into the round of 16 and one still in with a chance, this is already the greatest tournament in Canadian history.
You will notice all those things have happened at functionally the same time. That golden age of Canadian tennis everyone started talking about 10 years ago? It’s no longer coming. We’re in the middle of it.
For just a moment in New York, Canada stood looking down on the tennis powers. The poster child for this shift is the United States.
On Jan. 1, 1990, six of the top 10 men’s players in the world were Americans. Right now, the highest-ranked American male is John Isner – who’s never won anything important – at 22.
Canada got more men into the second week (3) than anyone else. The United States managed one.
America now has two players people talk about – Serena Williams and Coco Gauff. One is on her way out, and the other may still have years to go before she figures it out.
There is not a satisfying story of institutional collapse. Instead, it’s one of incremental improvement. Other countries got serious about tennis and the U.S. lost the advantage of its infrastructure and population.
If you are a young, talented girl, tennis is a no-brainer. It’s the only sport in which you can make ridiculous money even if you aren’t among the very best.
On the men’s side, there is no such thing as a tennis power any more. The top 10 men’s players by ranking come from 10 different countries.
We like to talk about parity in sports, but tennis is the first global game to achieve it. Until a certain Roger came along, the best Swiss men’s player of all time was Marc Rosset. If that name is familiar to you, you may watch too much tennis.
Once Federer is done, all those appearances of the Swiss flag on the second Saturday of a major tournament will be done as well. Federer wasn’t the tip of a Swiss wave. He just happened to be a once-in-a-generation tennis player born in Basel.
This is why Canada ought not waste time getting greedy. You’d like to think that between Andreescu, Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime, Canada has multiple grand slam titles in its future. And it may. Which would be a blast.
But tennis is constantly throwing up new talent from all over the place. There doesn’t appear to be a Federer or a Williams in the next gen or next-next gen. The future could very well be a chaotic mix of multiple stars from multiple continents taking their turn for a few days or weeks and then being replaced.
All that to say, enjoy the present. Canada is having a well-earned moment. It won’t – and maybe it shouldn’t – always be this way.