Blame Canada, But Oh, Canada, What A Night You Gave Us

MONTREAL, August 11, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)

Oh, Canada! You’ve given the tennis world the greatest teen sensation in men’s professional tennis since … well, Germany gave us Sascha Zverev last year.

While Europe was asleep and it was nearing bedtime in North America, an 18-year-old Canadian wild card named Denis Shapovalov pulled the upset of the summer by knocking out top seed and World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in the third round of the ATP Masters 1000 Rogers Cup in Montréal, Quebec, on Thursday night.

It doesn’t make sense, but it made for a wonderful and exciting evening of prime-time TV viewing if you didn’t have a ticket to be there. Who could have predicted it? Nadal lost to the No. 143-ranked player in the world, and it ended the Spaniard’s much-anticipated bid to reach No. 1 this week.

“Rafael Nadal is out. Blame Canada,” quipped Mary Carillo, calling the match on TV for Tennis Channel across the United States.

Yes, blame Canada. If Milos Raonic left Canadian tennis fans feeling just a little bit miffed after his lethargic, straight-set loss against France’s Adrian Mannarino earlier this week, it gave Shapovalov, the upstart lefty with the one-fisted backhand, an opportunity to become a new national hero. And he didn’t blow it.

In describing what she had just seen, Carillo described Shapovalov’s achievement this way: “He played bigger, bolder, better than Rafa Nadal.”

It’s hard to fathom that Shapovalov, who hails from Richmond Hill, Ontario, needed a wild card just to get into this tournament. Yet, as the night wore on, the pro-Canadian crowd that filled Uniprix Stadium’s Court Central began chanting “Let’s Go, Denis!” as if they were watching a Montréal Canadiens hockey game instead of a pro tennis match. It seemed to energize Shapovalov, who endured a mini-drama of a 10-deuce hold that played out over 14 minutes and 33 seconds late in the third set, with the match still very much in doubt. Everyone, it seemed, kept waiting for Shapovalov to flinch and throw in the towel, but he never let up. He didn’t shy away. He kept matching Nadal shot for shot, kept winning most if not all of the important points. He out-Nadaled Nadal.

Soon, after two hours and 45 minutes of action-packed excitement for everyone there and at home watching on TV to savor, the kid in the sweat-soaked, bright red and blue Nike kit –accented by a white baseball cap he wore backwards – brashly beat Nadal with one last convincing forehand winner. Looking back at a replay of match point, it was arguably one of Shapovalov’s best returns of the entire night. He hit it with gusto.

With victory all his to enjoy, Shapovalov collapsed to the hard court, albeit briefly, and kissed it. Then, he picked himself up and began clapping his hands in celebration, followed by pirouetting waves to the crowd all while basking in its applause. Beaming a big smile, Shapovalov motioned to the fans appreciatively with his left hand while tapping his heart with his right one. Now, he gets to return to Court Central Friday night and face Mannarino in the quarterfinals.

Shapovalov’s stunning upset of Nadal set off lots of records. Here’s just a few of them: At 18 years, 3 months, he’s the youngest quarterfinalist in ATP Masters 1000 history; he is the youngest Rogers Cup quarterfinalist since Bjorn Borg in 1974; he is the lowest-ranked player to beat a Top 2 opponent since then-No. 144 Nick Kyrgios beat No. 1 Nadal in the 2014 Wimbledon fourth round; he is the lowest-ranked ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinalist since No. 239 Ivo Karlovic at the 2011 Indian Wells. Perhaps, overlooked is this: Shapovalov becomes the lowest-ranked Canadian quarterfinalist since No. 144 Harel Levy in 2000. We all remember Harel Levy, don’t we?

Seriously, an upset victory like what Shapovalov achieved last night is what make tennis an exciting sport and why it generates world-wide appeal. Nadal will be back next week at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, another Masters 1000 tournament, still chasing after the No.1 ranking. As New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg tweeted after the Shapovalov-Nadal match concluded: “Would be fitting for Nadal to regain #1 in Cincinnati: it’s where he first clinched the top spot back in 2008. Lots of great memories there.”

Afterward, Nadal gave Shapovalov plenty of props, during his post-match press conference. “He played well,” he said. “He has great potential.

“I wish him the best. He has everything to become a great player. He played with the right determination in the important moments.”

After his victory, Shapovalov said: “It’s what I dreamed of all my life growing up, playing guys like Rafa (Nadal), Roger (Federer), Andy (Murray). 

“You  know, my dream came true today.”

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.