Denis Shapovalov could not believe it when he was told he will officially become Canadian No. 1 when the new rankings are released next week.
The 19-year-old, who is making his top-30 debut this week in Rome, is enjoying an astonishing rise that began with a semi-final run at the Canada Masters last August, where he toppled Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro en route.
Shapovalov then made the fourth round at the US Open – his second-ever Grand Slam main draw – and has reached two semi-finals this season, in Delray Beach as well as last week in Madrid, where he became the youngest semi-finalist in the tournament’s history.
His battling 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over 15th-seeded Tomas Berdych on a rainy Tuesday on his Rome debut means Shapovalov will surpass Milos Raonic in the rankings to become the highest-ranked Canadian.
“Oh yeah? Wow. I had no idea. Well, that’s cool,” he said when told about the new milestone he just hit.
“That’s pretty crazy actually. It’s something I’ve wanted to work towards all my life. So to actually do it – I had no idea I was able to reach it. To be able to do that is pretty crazy. Hopefully I could lead the country to Davis Cup victory one day.”
This time last year, Shapovalov was ranked No. 188 in the world. Today he is at 29 and will rise to at least 26 next week.
“It’s definitely happening extremely quickly,” he said of his ascent to Canadian No. 1.
“I had no idea so I’m a little bit in shock. But I’ve worked hard to try to achieve this one time in my career. It’s crazy that it’s come so early but that’s exciting for me. It’s great news, it’s a reason to keep working, keep staying motivated and hopefully I can keep going this way.”
Shapovalov’s rapid progress hasn’t come without its challenges. This year is his first full season on the ATP tour and there are so many firsts he is experiencing.
“I’ve gained a lot of experience. It’s my first full year as a tour player so I’m going to all these new events. This is my first time in Rome. Every week it’s something new for me. It’s extremely fun,” he says.
“Last year at the end of the year when I started traveling to all these ATP events, I got a bit of homesick. First of all I felt like I didn’t belong with these guys. Felt like, yeah I had two good tournaments but I don’t know if my level is there yet.
“So I got homesick, it was a long trip, didn’t enjoy it at all. But after the offseason I sat down with my team and I kind of knew what to expect this season. And with that mindset, I started enjoying it, I started enjoying all the media, everything, going to different cities every week, and to be honest now I’m really enjoying the tour, I’m loving it, and hopefully I could do this for as long as possible.”
Shapovalov next takes on Dutchman Robin Haase in the Rome second round and even though he only ever had one clay-court tour-level match win, his run to the semis in Madrid last week and his success over Berdych on Tuesday is a good sign that he’s finding his footing on the red dirt.
The conditions are considerably different between Madrid and Rome, and the turnaround was quick for Shapovalov, who played the semis in Spain on Saturday and opened his campaign in Italy on Tuesday. He barely had time to practice and he had to share a court with Jelena Ostapenko on Monday.
“I wasn’t tired. I just couldn’t find my footing in the first set,” he explained. “The clay is so different here. I haven’t had really a chance to practice alone on a court so couldn’t really get my timing.
“I just kept fighting, kept competing and I’m really happy I got to turn the match around. I just told myself, ‘Look I had a great week last week, try to find that game that you played, that confidence you have in yourself. I did a good job at just staying positive and keep on fighting. I’m really happy I got the win.”
March 2017 – Reaches first Challenger final and wins the title in Drummondville
July 2017 – Wins Gatineau Challenger
August 2017 – Defeats Nadal and Del Potro en route to becoming the youngest Masters 1000 semi-finalist in history in Montreal
September 2017 – Reaches US Open fourth round as a qualifier
October 2017 – Cracks top-50 for the first time
May 2018 – Reaches second Masters semi-final and becomes youngest semi-finalist in Madrid history
May 2018 – Cracks top-30 for the first time
May 2018 – Becomes Canadian No. 1
Daria Kasatkina admits she’s feeling confident this clay season but isn’t burdening herself with expectations ahead of the French Open.
The Russian No. 15 seed was unfazed by the rain and heavy conditions that struck Rome on Tuesday and was ruthless in her 6-0, 6-4 opening round victory over Australian-Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic.
“After years, three years on tour, you get used to this,” Kasatkina told Sport360 after her win, laughing at the idea of feeling already experienced on tour at the age of 21.
“I was ready, the forecast was expected since three days so I was ready, I was expecting the rain and I was sitting and relaxing before the match and trying to focus on the things that were important.”
Kasatkina, who made back-to-back finals in Dubai and Indian Wells, is having a stellar 2018 campaign and will be one of the ones to watch at Roland Garros this month.
She says that the secret to her good form against Tomljanovic on Tuesday was feeling freedom in her variety of shots in a way that reminded her of her junior days.
“Today I felt a little bit like when I was a junior, the way I was playing, like spin, drop shot, slice… because it was pretty slow today so I had a little bit more time. I didn’t have a warm-up before the match but I felt pretty good,” said Kasatkina.
Asked if she feels she can go deep at the French Open, she added: “When you think about these things it’s not really good. Of course I’m confident and I want to go further and further especially at such big tournaments like the French Open but I’m also not expecting from myself huge, huge things because then I’m under pressure.
“I’m just trying to go on court and enjoy every second. Like today, it was a little bit like juniors, because that’s the way I play. When I was a junior I didn’t have a good backhand, so I was slicing and drop-shotting, playing lobs, so I had to use my brain now. And now it’s even better because sometimes I can even hit the backhand, so I have more options.”
When I spoke to Naomi Osaka in Dubai three months ago about taking part in Kei Nishikori’s exhibition end of last year in Japan and whether she felt her popularity was rising there, she laughed.
“Well I mean it’s Kei, like come on, everyone is there for Kei. I feel like background character number one,” Osaka said in typical self-deprecating, sarcastic fashion.
The world No. 21 often describes herself as shy but she’s been slowly coming out of her shell, making friends on tour and interacting with more tennis players.
Recently, she had dinner with Nishikori – who is a superstar back home – and fellow Japanese player Miyu Kato.
“I had dinner with Kei and Miyu Kato. And basically, it was them trying to talk to me. And I’m just giving like the one-word replies,” said the 21-year-old Osaka.
“But, to be fair, okay, in Madrid, the dinner starts really late. And I’m an early sleeper, so I was like sleepy halfway through the dinner. And so I was like (demonstrating falling asleep), and they were trying to talk.
“I went with my physio, and she was like poking me and was like, ‘Wake up!’
“I think Kei probably has like a really weird impression of me.”
Does she feel she is friends with Nishikori now?
“I want to feel like I’m friends with Kei. I’m not really sure if he thinks I’m his friend,” she responded. “He’s a really, really nice guy. It really surprises me how nice he is.”
The physios of Osaka and Nishikori set up the dinner but sadly she doesn’t think there’s be a repeat hang-out.
“It’s probably never going to happen again. Because that was just so embarrassing,” she concluded.
— Miyu Kato / 加藤 未唯 (@miyukato1121) May 4, 2018
Things continued to get hilarious in the press conference room when Dominic Thiem walked in on Tuesday.
The No. 6 seed, who is currently dating French WTA player Kristina Mladenovic (nicknamed Kiki), has been friends with Latvian Ernests Gulbis for years, as they both spend a significant time training at the same place in Austria.
The following conversation took place in Thiem’s pre-tournament press conference:
Question: Your relationship with Gulbis, is it still open? You still have connection with him?
Thiem: I’m in relationship now with Kiki. I finished with Gulbis and signed with Kiki.
No, it’s – yeah, he’s in Vienna practicing. So, when I’m there and he’s there, we see each other every day. Actually, before clay court season, we practiced together for two weeks. And he’s playing well in practice, playing good.
For him, as well, there was a lot of change. He’s a father now so that’s, for sure, a big change for him. But in general, we still have a good relationship. And I hope that he still can come back.
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