We have seen the future of tennis and his name is Denis Shapovalov.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But the emergence of the 18-year-old player on the national consciousness over a few steamy nights in August was enough to get the imaginations of Canadians racing.
To tennis people, Shapovalov is no mystery. He’s been on the radar for a few years, winning the boys’ title at Wimbledon in 2016 and notching important victories in other venues. He’d played well going into the Rogers Cup in Montreal. His pedigree suggests that he should – injuries withstanding – be a force to be reckoned with for some time.
He’s got game and athleticism, plus charisma and more than a little fire in his belly. The Israeli-born Canadian displayed plenty in dispatching world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, plus Juan Martin del Potro in Montreal.
But he needs to get stronger to be able to play without his A game and to be hardened to the rigours of international travel that is competitive tennis.
It would also help if Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nadal retired soon to clear the decks for him. But don’t hold your breath on that.
Naturally, the hyperbole machine went full throttle after the win over Nadal. Excitable types called it the greatest win in Canadian tennis history, one of the greatest wins by an individual Canadian male athlete, etc. Perspective please, ladies and gentlemen.
Milos Raonic’s 2016 semifinal victory at Wimbledon over Federer is the single greatest win by a Canadian tennis player, male or female. Raonic probably has half a dozen wins in other Grand Slam events that rank higher as well – including wins over Nadal, Murray, Federer and a bunch of other top 10 players. Genie Bouchard’s unrepeated march to the 2014 Wimbledon final included several epic wins.
For now, Shapo’s win ranks with the exciting-but-unrepeated win by Daniel Nestor over world No 1 Stefan Edberg in the 1992 Davis Cup. Nestor has been one of the greatest doubles players in tennis history (he still plays), but he was never able to repeat that glorious tease as a singles player. Shapovalov must prove he’s not a one-hit wonder.
You had to feel sorry for Raonic as people dropped him like a hot potato to board the Shapo Train. The hard-serving Raonic is a fixture in the world’s top 10, even if his form the past year has been hampered by injury and coaching changes. He has yet to add the final wrinkles to his booming serve game to propel him into the group of men who win Grand Slam titles.
Where Shapo is all dynamism, Raonic is a steady, meticulous – some would say bloodless – performer. The tall right-hander is never going to be a magnetic player on the court. But that’s how he needs to go about his business. Perhaps the Shapo emergence will be good for Raonic, taking the hot spotlight off him in Canada. Perhaps then Raonic will function better with less attention in his native land.
For now, it will be fun to see how fast and how high Denis Shapovalov flies.
His dynamic performance was needed by Canadian fans, who waited with anticipation of medal performances at the world track and field championships in London. Instead, the team that performed so well at the Rio Olympics last year was blanked for medals this year – a distinct letdown. This after Canada won 10 medals at the previous world championship. Damian Warner’s fifth in the decathlon was about as good as it got.
The problems began when sprinter André De Grasse – a candidate to win three medals – hurt his hamstring before the event and had to withdraw. Then a stomach virus felled other performers who were thought to have a shot at success. Former world champion pole vaulter Shawn Barber fell to eighth and defending high jump gold medalist Derek Drouin wasn’t able to compete because of an ankle injury. The list went on.
None of this is uncorrectable. There are still good stories to come – 12 new performers made the top eight. De Grasse will be back. But London was a sobering reminder that, like Shapovalov, Canadians track athletes will have to learn to follow a big performance with another.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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