Two years ago, Alexander Zverev stepped on court at the ATP Finals at London’s O2 Arena to receive his ‘Star of Tomorrow’ award, which is given to young talents with big prospects in the game.
It only took Zverev 24 months to return to the O2 Arena, but this time as the world No. 3 and an outright qualifier for the top-eight-only ATP Finals.
On Saturday, 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov took the same steps Zverev did in 2015, walking on centre court following David Goffin’s semi-final win over Roger Federerand to receive two awards, the ‘ATP Star of Tomorrow’ and the ‘Most Improved Player of the Year’.
In 2015: “This is a great goal for me, to be here one day”
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 12, 2017
Can he imagine himself rising as fast as the 20-year-old Zverev did?
“What Sascha did is ridiculous. He’s a freak for doing what he did. Being No. 3 in the world at his age, it’s incredible,” Shapovalov said during a roundtable interview in London on Saturday.
“He’s had such a great season, he’s such a good player, definitely look up to him, definitely want to be in his position, but everyone goes down their roads differently, sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower.
“For me it’s important not to rush, not to look at other players too much, just focus on my own path, focus on what I think needs to be done to improve. And I think if I do that I hope that I can have the same success as he had.”
— Sport360° (@Sport360) November 19, 2017
Shapovalov started the year ranked 250 in the world and ended it at 51 thanks to a heroic run to the semi-finals at the Masters 1000 in Canada, where he upset Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro en route, and a fourth round showing at the US Open, as a qualifier, shortly after.
The young lefty, who was born in Israel (left when he was nine months old) to Russian parents, sports a powerful one-handed backhand and is an excellent shot-maker with high entertainment value.
He began 2017 losing a qualifying match at a Challenger event, and ended it by playing ATP Tour events and competing at the Next Gen Finals, that featured the best eight 21-and-under players on the circuit.
Things must have felt like they were changing awfully fast for the Canadian teen.
“No, I mean I’ve caught up to it. At first year, it was going pretty fast after Rogers Cup and US Open, with all the media and stuff and change of schedules,” he explains.
“But now no, I’ve gotten used to it. I think with the last tournament, the Next Gen Finals, I started getting my game back and I was playing really well, despite my loss to (Andrey) Rublev, it was a great match. I thought I left the year off on a really good note and I’m motivated to work hard in the offseason.”
The difference between the Challenger Tour and ATP circuit is not a small one, and Shapovalov made the transition seem seamless at one point.
“The thing with tennis is it’s all very close, every match is tough. But when you go the ATP tournaments, everyone’s a lot more hungry it feels like,” he says. “Every match counts, it’s big points, big money, nobody’s going to give you anything for free and that’s what I feel the biggest difference is.”
Shapovalov is being touted by many of the top players, as a youngster to watch for the future, and he’s keen to live up to the expectations. But while the next generation has started to make small waves on the tennis circuit, Nadal and Federer are still the top two players in the world rankings, and have split the four Grand Slam titles between them in 2017.
“I just hope they don’t keep playing for too long because it’s going to be harder to make this tournament,” joked Shapovalov referring to the ATP Finals.
“I was just saying, hopefully maybe in three years I can make it here but I would need Roger and Rafa to slowly start packing it in. They’re been playing incredible.
“It just shows you why they are champions, they’re able to come back, at 31, 35, with the injuries they’ve had and they’re able to be No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. It’s unheard of, it’s absolutely mind-blowing. I think it’s really cool to see, but like I said, hopefully they pack it in.”
Besides his progress on the court, 2017 has also been a year where Shapovalov has made friends on the tour. Nick Kyrgios had described the talented teen as “shy” before Laver Cup started. But Shapovalov says that event in Prague, where he was on Team World alongside Kyrgios, John Isner, Frances Tiafoe, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock, gave him a chance to get better acquainted with other guys on the circuit.
“They’re definitely a crazy group of guys, Frances, Jack and Nick specifically. They’re all really cool, and it was fun to be a part of,” said Shapovalov.
“Probably the funnest week of the whole season I’ve had, just getting along with these guys. On court with them, celebrating, off court, locker room talks, just a really good vibe.
“I think me and Nick have become really good friends and same with me and Frances.”
John McEnroe was the team captain at Laver Cup, and he would show up to some of the press conferences with a beer in hand, and gave some expletive-ridden pep talks to the players during their matches.
“Yeah, that’s crazy. He’s a great captain,” Shapovalov says with a laugh when asked about what it was like hanging out with McEnroe in Prague. “He’s got such a crazy vision for the game, he sees everything so well, so it was really cool having him on the sidelines. Aside of that, he’s a hilarious guy, just adds to the locker room atmosphere, with guys like Nick and Jack. It was just a really fun week in general.”
Shapovalov is coached by Martin Laurendeau, and his mother Tessa Shapovalova, but as his star continues to rise, surely adding a celebrity coach to his team will be worth considering. Is hiring someone like McEnroe something he sees himself doing?
During Andrey Rublev’s lengthy blister timeout, some coffee talk with Denis Shapovalov and his coach Martin Laurendau in Milan. pic.twitter.com/vrtdREKx9P
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) November 9, 2017
“Me and Martin have been working really well together, definitely not going to change that,” said Shapovalov. “We haven’t thought about it yet. I don’t think I’m at that stage in my career. But definitely in the future I would consider it. I mean John’s a great coach, I like what I saw from him, and I don’t see why not? I just don’t think it’s the right time for me.”
Despite growing up in Toronto, the Canadian speaks Russian fluently, “except when I’m nervous”, he adds, and he’s grateful his parents insisted he learn the language, because it helps him communicate better with some of his Next Gen peers like Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev.
After the Next Gen Finals in Milan, Shapovalov sat with his team to reflect on his breakthrough season. But it’s clear they’re not interested in dwelling on the past as they set much higher targets for the new year.
“Just kind of took everything in and moved on pretty much. The tennis world keeps going, life keeps going. I had an amazing year, but I’m motivated to get even better, try to go even further next year,” he assures. “We discussed offseason at IMG, bring my physio and fitness coach, and just pushing myself physically, getting stronger, getting my footwork better. And working on a couple of specifics that I feel will help me for the next years.”
The Belgian No. 7 seed, who defeated Nadal in his opening match last Monday, put together a confident display in the semi-finals to claim a first career victory over Federer in seven meetings, with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph.
The reward for his history-making efforts is a place in the final at the O2 Arena, where he awaits either Grigor Dimitrov or Jack Sock.
A moment @David__Goffin will never forget…
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 18, 2017
Goffin improved to a tour-leading 22-5 in decisive sets this season and is one win away from claiming the biggest title of his career.
“It’s always tough when you start to play against Roger. For the first time I played my best tennis, and I played always a little bit more relaxed after the first set. I started to feel the ball really well for the first time, and continued to serve and played my best tennis today,” said the 26-year-old, who entered the match with a 0-6 losing record against Federer.
In a final four line-up that includes three first-time semi-finalists, Federer, a six-time champion at the tournament was the obvious favourite. But Goffin had other thoughts in mind and managed to pull off one of the least expected upsets of the season.
Federer entered the contest having won 14 of the previous 16 sets against the Belgian, including the last eight.
The Swiss raced to a 5-1 lead and claimed the opening set in 33 minutes, perhaps implying this was going to be a routine win for the No. 2 seed. But Goffin got the break he needed in the second, and served out the set at love to draw level.
The Belgain then drew first blood in the decider, putting away an overhead for a 2-1 lead.
Goffin dug deep to stave off Federer in the next game, saving a break point to consolidate the break for 3-1.
The 26-year-old stood his ground and maintained his advantage, rarely getting troubled on his own serve and pressuring Federer with some great returns.
Serving for the match at 5-4, an ice-cold Goffin started the game with back-to-back aces and moments later he wrapped up a memorable victory.
“It was good there was a screen on the changeover,” explained Goffin. “I was more relaxed so I didn’t think about the first point or the game I have to play.
“I was watching the highlights of the previous game. I was a little bit more relaxed. As soon as the chair umpire said, Time, I was ready with the ball. I didn’t have time to think about what I have to do. I served an ace. When you start the game with an ace, it’s always better.”
Against Nadal, Goffin had struck 14 aces, and in the Federer match, the Belgian slammed down seven aces and saved 9 of 11 break points he faced.
Federer was asked what he thought Goffin did differently this time to finally get the win against him.
“He played better. That was a good plan,” Federer replied sarcastically.
“He struggled for the first set and a bit anyways. So I just think he was able to raise his game. Maybe I helped him doing it, maybe not. But, look, I just think the better returner won over the better server today.
“It’s a bit disappointing for me because it’s indoors, it’s a court I like to play on. But I had my chances and missed them. When he had them, he was very committed. I think that was the difference today.”
Federer knows Goffin well off the court and they are regular practice partners. The 36-year-old says he’s seen Goffin perform so well during training and knew he had this kind of level in him.
Can Goffin go all the way and lift the trophy?
“Of course. Otherwise he wouldn’t be in the finals. I hope he didn’t just beat me for fun and then to roll over in the finals,” said Federer.
“Clearly I believe he’s got a chance. Again, totally different match. It’s really difficult to back it up after you beat someone like Rafa. We saw it in the next match (in Goffin’s defeat to Dimitrov). Somebody like me, it’s the same situation. It’s just a different match, a different atmosphere. But he’s crushed me too many times in practice not to do it also once in a match situation.
“No, look, I’m very happy for him. He’s a great guy. I like him a lot. I think today he played so nice that he deserves to be in the finals. That’s what I told him at the net, as well. I hope he can play a good finals tomorrow.”
After defeating Nadal earlier in the week, Goffin was crushed 6-0, 6-2 by Dimitrov in the following match. That experience might help him though this time around when he comes out for the final following his big success over Federer.
“I don’t know. Yeah, I will try to use this experience. It was not easy to play after Rafa. But tomorrow it’s a final, so it is something different. There will be a lot of emotion. It is a final,” said Goffin.
“If I play Grigor or Jack, it doesn’t matter. A final is a final. You have to go for it, to go for the trophy. I will try to do like today, to be really aggressive and try to win the match.
“But, yeah, try to relax, to do the same as yesterday, to prepare my body like always. I hope to be ready and to play a good match.”
What is behind Dimitrov’s transformation? And how big of a threat is Sock?
In the video above, Sport360‘s Reem Abulleil and Spanish tennis journalist Marta Mateo sit down to preview the semi-finals at the O2 Arena in London.
Who do you think will make the final?