Shapovalov: “I’m going to try to survive as long as possible and let the game shine”

Denis Shapovalov fully owns his flashy game style and the ups and downs that go with it, and he hopes it’ll carry him far this year again at Wimbledon.

Denis Shapovalov, Wimbledon 2022 Denis Shapovalov, Wimbledon 2022 – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic
Wimbledon •Round of 16 • completed
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Denis Shapovalov is back in the second week of Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam that always seemed tailor-made for him. The Canadian, semi-finalist in 2021, beaten by Novak Djokovic, lost in the second round last year and hadn’t seen a Grand Slam second week since the 2022 Australian Open where he lost in a fifth set against Rafael Nadal. For such a player, it’s not one year, it’s an eternity.

“It’s been since Australia last year so I’m happy to be in the second week of a Slam again!”, he said with, as often with Shapovalov, his eyes saying the bigger story first. “It’s been a while since I played a good match on a show court too so it was a great feeling”, he added after reminding us all that the last time, on the center court of Roland-Garros, he got “destroyed”.

Yet, his entire game has been built for the big time and it also suits his personality: “At the end of the day, I know it doesn’t really matter what court you’re on, you still need to win, but it’s what I dream of, what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid with a racquet watching guys like Rafa, Roger, and Novak playing the biggest matches. It’s always a dream come true to be on a big court.”

It’s easy to feel that Shapovalov, Top 10 in 2020, playing the second week of a Grand Slam should be business as usual: he’s one of the most gifted players of this generation, he got all the shots in the racquet and a natural way to lit up any court he walks on. Yet, he has been through enough struggles in his young career already to know it shouldn’t be taken for granted anymore.

Denis Shapovalov - (c) AI / Reuters / Panoramic
Denis Shapovalov – (c) AI / Reuters / Panoramic

“It’s a huge achievement for me, especially with the things that I’ve been through this year”

“It’s always a big achievement”, he confirmed. “It’s never easy to qualify for the second week of a Slam. Even though there’s a part of me that feels I’m back to my level and to where I should be, you never know the next time you’re going to be in the second week of a Slam. It’s a huge achievement for me, especially with the things that I’ve been through this year with the knee injury and dealing with some personal stuff.” 

Shapovalov might have an incredibly flashy game, but he’s a private person. You can forget any hope to see him on Netflix, contrary to other tennis stars: the Canadian doesn’t want to hear about it. “I’m not really into that”, he kind of whispers before explaining.

”I wasn’t offered but I would not be into that, I like to keep my personal life personal. It’s great to watch, I’m a big fan of the Formula 1 series but I just don’t think I would like to have a microphone and a camera follow me off court, follow me into the hotel room. It’s not my cup of tea.”

What would be his cup of tea right now would be to get back to, at least, the semi-finals here. Shapovalov is actually using his 2021 semi-final match against Novak Djokovic to prepare for the matches here. “I learnt a lot while being in that moment, but you’re going to have to get back to it again to see if you’ve really learnt from it. I look at clips of that year, just to see how I was playing and moving to try to remember those feelings and enforce them in practices.”

For now, it’s been working well as Shapovalov has more or less smoothly found his way through that first week. He’s also showed he could be once again clutch under pressure during his third round when he crawled all the way back from 5-2 down in the third set against Liam Broady.

“I started off very nervous through the whole first set but I was happy to be able to bounce back. I played with a lot of heart. I tried to stay solid and make him beat me. Then I rolled with the momentum. “I’ve been serving extremely well, picking my spots and mixing it up a lot which is key on grass. It frees me up on the returns too, to go for it and put pressure.”

Each time he sets his foot back on the Wimbledon grass, Shapovalov gets an extra boost of confidence. He – and everybody else – knows that if there’s one Grand Slam he can be put on the outsiders for the title every year whatever his ranking says, it’s here. As he chases his first Major, “Shapo” knows how strong a case he can make for himself here.

“I’ve been feeling great in practice, so I’m going to try to survive as long as possible and let the game shine. In this tournament, the first week is just about survival sometimes, especially with the rain delays. When I made the semi-finals, I was surviving and when the tournament goes on it gets more into the tennis.

Almost all Slams are like this but especially in Wimbledon with the rain delays or playing big servers on that grass, it’s about trying to get through the first couple of rounds, and when the confidence steps in it’s much easier to trust your shots and go for it.”, he explains. “The most important thing for me is that I’m moving well: when the movement is there, the game is there.” 

“For sure, it’s in a way the Slam that I look forward to the most so sometimes I could get a little bit of pressure”

The other side of the coin of the situation is obvious: each time he sets foot in Wimbledon, he also gets an extra boost of pressure. “For sure! Grass is always a bit more pressure for me just because I do feel so good on it and the season is so short so you have to be sharp from the get-go.

If there is a Slam that I’m going to play well at, it’s not gonna be the French Open, it’s going to be hard court or grass. For sure, it’s in a way the Slam that I look forward to the most so sometimes I could get a little bit of pressure like ‘This is it, it’s the moment’. But there are so many great players and it’s a tricky surface even if I love it for that reason as it’s like no other surface in tennis and it’s so much fun.”

With all those rain delays, Shapovalov didn’t have time to do the one thing that can sink his game sometimes: overthink. He played his first three matches back to back, so had zero time to get overwhelmed by how much he wanted to do well here. His coach has also found ways to keep his player’s mind off tennis: trivia.

That’s what they’ve been doing during the rain delays and various breaks: any type of trivia possible, like the animal trivia party he shared with his team and Milos Raonic the day no play could start. It makes him laugh to no end so that seems a great coach trick.

Denis Shapovalov Wimbledon 2023 (Fotoarena/Panoramic)
Denis Shapovalov Wimbledon 2023 (Fotoarena/Panoramic)

Rain delays have helped his left knee, for now

Those delays have also helped the one thing that could derail him at any moment here: his left knee injury. Shapovalov has been playing with this recurring pain for months, like his compatriot Felix Auger-Aliassime. So every day he basically hopes that the knee will stay quiet. 

“It’s a little bit up and down but it’s feeling better now, but I was struggling a little bit in Halle with it. I’ve been doing a lot of work on it and it’s been feeling better this week so hopefully that stays that way and I can play healthy through this event. And maybe after Wimbledon, I will have more time to do more rehab again. Just being honest, sometimes it’s good but sometimes it’s not. Luckily with the rain delays, I’ve had a lot of rest on it! Sometimes with the grass, it’s not easy because you slip and it’s not an even surface. The week before Wimbledon, I was struggling a lot with it and couldn’t practice due to the pain. The courts are getting slower and it’s just wearing and tearing on the body so it’s super difficult.”

Even more for a player whose entire game is about putting maximum intensity on each shot and going for all the risks. That’s why the crowds love Shapovalov and why on any given day he can beat anyone. It’s the left paw, the serve that goes flying, the forehand that can find every angle known to tennis, and that backhand down the line that makes jaws drop all around the world. Shapovalov is a showman: he will succeed or fail by it.

“I like to go for my shots, I’ve always been that way: playing aggressively, not holding back”

“I like to go for my shots, I’ve always been that way: playing aggressively, not holding back, not afraid to get into it on the court with the opponent”, he confirms. And then he laughs: “Off the court, I’m the complete opposite: I always want to have a good mood in the room, I don’t like conflicts, I just try to joke around a lot.”

Of course, people sometimes wish he would play it safer but Shapovalov just cannot and actually doesn’t want to. He did it in that third round while down 5-2 but he was quick to notice that it was surely also why he was down in the first place in that set and also that, when back on the wall, he’s not stupid: he knows what not to do.

“It’s definitely not my daily tactics”, he said with sarcasm in that eye roll. “It just happened in that moment because, at 5-2 down, I’m going to try to make the other player beat me. But my coach wants me to play my game: go for it, play aggressive.

That’s what got me here in the first place. It doesn’t mean just blasting winners left and right or trying to.” That’s also what makes Shapovalov’s charm on the court: you never really know what he’s going to pull out of that tennis box. It could be genius, it could be disaster but for sure it’s going to be all the emotions in-between. 

That’s why nobody will write that facing Roman Safiullin for a spot in the quarter-finals is a great opportunity that Shapovalov will seize. It’s, as often, all in his racquet, but his racquet has moods. “Roman is playing great tennis, he has nothing to lose and has a good game that suits grass. He’s not an easy match for sure even if doesn’t appear that way on paper. I’m going to take it very seriously.” Shapovalov, now 24, knows that it’s never a given for him to stay on track and so nowadays he pays extra attention. 

But he is never going to try to change that game identity, as he told us in Paris during Roland-Garros. “It’s a little bit tricky because I feel like I can play different styles and I can play differently. I need to always kind of find my way back into my identity and to the way that has been the best for me to play well. It’s not something I have mastered. It’s something I’m trying to get better at. For sure it’s a little bit tricky. Hopefully, I can figure myself out and really understand my game, also understand where I win matches and try to solidify that so that it’s easier for me”. What better place for him to put that plan in motion than through a second week in Wimbledon?

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