Denis Shapovalov is embracing the spotlight
‘It’s cool to know that I’m motivating young kids,’ says Canadian tennis sensation
In just a few weeks, Denis Shapovalov has gone from virtual unknown to household name across the country.
"My life has definitely changed in the past month," the rising Canadian tennis star told reporters at a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, where he will walk the red carpet on opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I'm getting recognized in airports and malls and everything. For me it's inspiring to get recognized and see all these little kids getting excited when they see me."
The 18-year-old's big breakthrough came last month at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, where he defeated his idol, the top-seeded Rafael Nadal, en route to reaching the semifinals.
That win not only thrust Shapovalov into the spotlight, but also gave the the Richmond Hill, Ont., native the belief he could compete at the highest level.
"It's a huge confidence boost and made me feel like I belong on the court with these guys and have the nerve to hit those shot during the big points," he said.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, Shapovalov was ranked 250th in the world. He set what he considered to be a lofty goal of reaching No. 150 by the end of the year. Now, after his performance at the Rogers Cup and a strong showing at the U.S. Open, where he made the round of 16, Shapovalov is poised to crack the top 50.
"I think a lot of aspects of my tennis game have improved," Shapovalov said.
"My serve and returns are getting better. I'm coming to the net a lot more, but the biggest thing I've improved is my fighting spirit. Just staying calm and fighting for every point. My team and I have worked on that the entire year."
In the past month he's knocked off Kyle Edmund, Juan Martin del Potro, Adrian Mannarino, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nadal — all top-50 players.
Another memorable moment came after his improbable run at the U.S. Open ended with a defeat to 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta.
"After I lost, when I dropped off my bags to salute the crowd, I wasn't expecting that big of a roar from everyone," he said. "It's a moment I'll never forget. Just having all these people cheering me on. Then afterwards showing me their respect. It's such an awesome feeling. I hope to be back on that court for a long time to come."
What's in a name?
Shapovalov admits he's heard some odd pronunciations of his name over the last few weeks (as he's explained, it's chapeau — like the French word for hat — followed by VAHL-ov).
"It's been like that all my life. My parents told me people are never going to get my name right. It's pretty funny the different ways people pronounce it. It's intimidating on paper. There are a lot of Os and As," Shapovalov laughed.
"When referees see it on paper they panic. Once I was called Sharapova."
He's also heard a number of different nicknames.
"The nickname I probably prefer is Shapo," he said. "I hear a lot of fans call me that. It stands out and is simple."
As for the unusual-looking, backwards hat he wears on the court, Shapovalov says he's being recognized for it now too.
"I've always had a pretty small head. It's a regular-sized hat. I like it tight. I hate when my hat moves. I tighten it a little extra.
"It's kind of become my trademark and I see a lot of kids doing it."
Shapovalov admits he's still getting used to all the attention, but he hopes to use his star power to inspire the next generation of tennis players in Canada.
"My goal in life is to get a lot of kids picking up the racquet and look up to me and play tennis and see that it's possible for Canadians to do it," he said.
And when asked about how he's able to stay grounded, he pointed to his parents.
"My mom works extremely hard and has her [tennis] academy. She actually wasn't able to come out to the U.S. Open because she's so dedicated to her kids," Shapovalov said. "My dad is helping out at the club. They are both very humble people who didn't come from much."
Shapovalov will be at his mom's academy this week to spend time with her and hit the ball around with some students.
"My mom just brought me up this way to treat everyone with respect no matter who the person is," he said.
Shapovalov is heading to Edmonton next week to play for Canada in a Davis Cup tie alongside veterans Vasek Pospisil, Daniel Nestor and Brayden Schnur.
"I love playing at home. I feel like that's where I play my best tennis," he said.
This will be Shapovalov's third Davis Cup tie for Canada. His previous appearance, against Great Britain, ended in a default after he hit the chair umpire with an errant ball. Shapovalov was later fined $7,000 US for the incident, adding that he felt "ashamed for my unprofessional behaviour."
Canada currently holds the No. 16 position in the Davis Cup rankings, two spots ahead of India. This will be their first meeting in Davis Cup competition.
"To be back on the Davis Cup team is a huge privilege for me and I think we have a good chance of winning it," Shapovalov said.
Shapovalov knows it will take a lot of effort to maintain the level he's at now. But after his recent success he believes anything is possible, including cracking the top 20 in the world rankings next year.
"One day I would love to win a Slam. But I think I'm still really far from that and still have a lot of work to do," he said.
"At the end of the day, I'm still only 18."