WASHINGTON, May 16, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
As he raised his hands in triumph and acknowledged the applause of the cheering fans circling the Centrale at Foro Italico Tuesday afternoon, Denis Shapovalov celebrated a milestone win in his young, upstart career.
The 19-year-old Canadian’s victory over the experienced 32-year-old Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, seeded 15th, in three sets to reach the second round of the ATP Masters 1000 Internazionali BNL d’Italia meant that the 29th-ranked Shapovalov will become the Canadian No. 1 next Monday, when he passes Milos Raonic in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
The news came as a surprise to the left-handed hitting Shapovalov, who reached the semifinals of last week’s Mutua Madrid Open, another ATP Masters 1000 clay-court event, and beat Raonic in the round of 16, 6-4, 6-4. Next, he faces veteran pro Robin Haase of the Netherlands, ranked 44th, Wednesday afternoon on the Next Gen Arena, the second largest show court at Foro Italico. Shapovalov enters the second round in Rome with a 16-11 win-loss record this season, including 6-4 on clay.
“I’m a little in shock,” Shapovalov told the ATP World Tour’s website, after coming from behind to beat the 17th-ranked Berdych, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), in two hours and four minutes. “It’s definitely happened extremely quickly. I’ve worked hard to try to achieve this a long time in my career. It’s crazy that it’s come so early… It’s a reason to keep working, keep staying motivated and hopefully I can keep going.”
Against Berdych, Shapovalov started slow and seemed to have trouble getting his timing down. “I just couldn’t find my footing the first set,” he admitted. But, boy, did he keep fighting and competing – both admirable qualities. “I did a good job of just staying positive.”
In a year full of positives, last week Shapovalov became the youngest quarterfinalist and semifinalist at the Mutua Madrid Open before losing to the eventual champion, World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany, in the semifinals. He’s reached one other semifinal this year, on a hard court at Delray Beach, Florida, back in February. Also, the Canadian is the youngest player in the Top 30 since Richard Gasquet of France in July 2005. Finally, Shapovalov has achieved a career-high ranking eight times this year – eight times! – peaking at No. 29 this week. It’s all pretty remarkable considering the 6-foot, 165-pound Shapovalov was ranked No. 250 when he turned pro in 2017 and started 2018 ranked No. 51.
Last August, Shapovalov became the youngest quarterfinalist and semifinalist in ATP Masters 1000 history at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, his favorite tournament. Now, he’s part of an elite group of fellow #NextGenATP players who have ascended to become the No. 1 player from his respective country. He joins No. 3 Zverev (Germany), No. 32 Andrey Rublev (Russia), No. 43 Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece), No. 154 Casper Ruud (Norway) and No. 180 Hubert Hurkacz (Poland).
Shapovalov is a super-fun player to watch, whether in person or on TV. He’s passionate about his sport and shows a lot of confidence on court, regardless of the surface or whether he’s playing ahead or behind. “Shapo” reminds me a lot of a younger Roger Federer, who happens to be his idol. Like the World No. 1, Shapovalov’s aggressive shot-making style, featuring a one-fisted backhand that truly is a thing of beauty, means he’s capable of hitting a lot of winners as well as committing a lot of unforced errors. One thing’s certain about this young Canadian: He enjoys the fight.