Denis Shapovalov isn’t yet 19 years old. By any reasonable measurement, his career is well ahead of schedule. Anyone with an ounce of common sense will give him a few years to understand the finer points of winning tennis. Moreover, in 2020 or 2021, the Big Four will be that much closer to exiting the stage. Only then will Shapo and the other members of his age cohort enter the prime period for picking off major titles. Anything which might arrive in the preceding years should be viewed as a bonus, not a necessity.
Shapovalov needs time to grow, which means individual matches can’t be used as a verdict on his career. One day’s victory doesn’t mean he has it all figured out, and another day’s loss doesn’t mean he has to go back to the drawing board and rethink his approach. Assessments of Shapovalov’s career are a lot like the career itself, at least in this specific respect: One must take the long view and not get too caught up in every present-moment detail.
Much as Shapovalov knows that his big game will produce mistakes, and that he therefore must live with mistakes as a natural extension of the way he needs to play, so it also is with any attempt to analyze his game: One must resist the easy impulse to view the youthful mistakes as unacceptable. Volatility shouldn’t be assumed to be a defect. It is not an ideal state of being, no, but it is not a problem the way it would be for other players with different playing styles. Shapovalov’s electric hitting makes him a unique creature. Whereas some athletes need to remove the ups and downs from their performances, Shapovalov — and anyone who attempts to analyze his tennis — must LIVE with the ups and downs, managing them more than trying to eradicate them.
Yes, when he is age 22, the tennis community should expect him to cut down on errors. He will have grown a few inches by then, making it easier to hit overheads and high volleys and handle high backhands which often trip him up.
That is more than three years away.
Right now, Shapovalov does not have to race toward the finish line of his teenage years, trying to expunge errors as soon as humanly possible. For the next two years, the Canadian can and should work on playing with more margin, trusting that his power and natural ability can do the work for him, but even as he attempts to make that evolutionary leap, he can’t become Gilles Simon or Roberto Bautista Agut. He is who and what he is, an ambitious offensive player. That is his identity, and that is his weapon against veteran opponents who have trouble parrying the thrusts of his groundstrokes. “Littering the stat sheet,” going for winners, invites the presence of errors. That approach is still Shapo’s friend, and it must continue to be in 2018 and 2019. Every athlete wants a smoother career path, but Shapo’s rapid ascendance last summer in Montreal and New York means that he might absorb a lot of punches on tour the next few years. Being at peace with losses and limitations will form an important part of Shapovalov’s growth process as a professional, which only reinforces the need to live with the errors he makes on court.
With all of this in mind, Shapovalov received a banquet table of blessings in his first-ever main-draw match at the Miami Open on Thursday. His victory over Viktor Troicki in a third-set tiebreak contained enough lessons to last a full year.
The match began just after 11 a.m., which meant that a teenager had to get out of bed early. Shapo hit a fault on each of his first five serve attempts. Right off the bat, he had to battle a sleepyhead start and get his teeth into the fray. He did, holding serve after the two double faults and a second ball at 0-30. The lessons kept flowing from there.
Shapovalov hit a barrage of winners to break Troicki in the first set and carry a lead into set two, but he then dealt with a problem all tennis players face: the early second-set lull after a routine first set. Down 2-0, Shapovalov could have faded away in the set. Instead, he gritted his teeth and broke back. He contested that second set on even terms, but then came the pressure cooker of a tiebreaker with a chance to close out a veteran player. Nervous errors crept into Shapovalov’s game while Troicki — playing his best tennis of the match, especially from his backhand side — did not allow his opponent to get too comfortable from the back of the court. Shapo didn’t give away the set by any means, but he realized that an easy first set is by no means a guarantee of safe passage through the second.
In set three, Shapovalov overcooked highly makeable shots in the second game, failing to break for a quick 2-0 lead and firm control of the proceedings. He was forced to regroup and not lose focus. He did exactly that with a love hold at 1-1, which shoved the pressure of the match back onto Troicki’s side. The Serbian veteran promptly faltered at 1-2, and in a heartbeat, Shapovalov raced to a 5-1 lead.
Then the 18-year-old — who lost a big lead to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open — was reminded once again of the difficulty of winning the last point in a match, something Roger Federer knows well after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final.
Five times — three of them in succession as part of a love-40 edge on Troicki’s serve at 4-5 — Shapovalov gained a match point. Five times he missed a shot to end the point and prolong the match. Shapovalov’s unraveling from a commanding position led him to the precipice of defeat at 6-5 for Troicki in the final-set tiebreak. Shapovalov’s penchant for losing leads carried into that breaker — he was up 3-0 and 4-2 before giving Troicki his first match point.
Yet, from the brink of disaster, Shapo played two very strong service points, featuring a tricky high volley on match point down at 5-6. He gave himself a sixth look at a match point at 7-6 and watched Troicki double fault.
This match was a short novel stuffed with plot twists and emotional challenges. No one needs to say anything about the satisfactions of winning this kind of match compared to the pain of losing it. The bigger takeaway is merely that Shapo continues to collect these journeys, which require any tennis player to calibrate not only his shots, but his emotions, to learn when to call forth something extra and when to rein in certain impulses.
There is no time clock for Shapovalov as he learns how to comport himself on the court — not now. Merely absorbing these kinds of matches — the more complicated, the better — with an understanding that failure will be part of the process will give this immensely talented ballstriker the intangible components which could create very tangible achievements in the fuller course of time.