Raonic, Shapovalov enter U.S. Open facing their own challenges
Duo among 6 Canadians competing in main draw of final Grand Slam
It's been a year of change for Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov as they enter this week's U.S. Open — beginning on Monday — along with four other Canadians in the main draw, including Eugenie Bouchard and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
For the first time in nearly eight years, Raonic was supplanted as the top-ranked Canadian men's tennis player by Shapovalov — a stint that lasted from May until a few weeks ago when Raonic reclaimed his familiar place.
Shapovalov is no longer anonymous and his rise with fellow teen Auger-Aliassime — the first player born in the year 2000 to reach a Grand Slam main draw — is a welcoming sight for Raonic.
Raonic says he enjoys having them around on the ATP World Tour, but not for a second does he think it's helped ease his load as one of the main faces of Canadian tennis.
"It's never been a burden. It's never been anything," Raonic says. "It's just been me personally trying to do the best I can in each situation that's ahead of me."
It's been another injury-riddled season for the big-serving Canadian, who missed the French Open with a knee injury and tore his quad in a quarter-final loss against John Isner at Wimbledon.
The Thornhill, Ont., native continues to look for answers, including customizing his training programs specifically to himself. Rather than having the normal two practices a day, Raonic sometimes has one long session to maximize his recovery bouts. He feels that treats him better both physically and mentally and gets the most out of himself.
Watch Raonic reflect on his career and dealing with injuries:
While each successive injury frustrates the 27-year-old, it's taught him how to properly reset mentally from its onset to his return to play.
"You try to give it the appropriate time to heal … but at the same time, you don't want to be waiting around too long doing nothing where you're falling behind and having to catch up more," Raonic says. "You just deal with it. You come out your first opportunity to play and try to emulate as much of a positive mental attitude as you can to try to get you through those moments that you wish you had more matches to simulate."
Keeping it simple
When Raonic has played, he's found success and shown glimpses of the player that was ranked No. 3 in the world at the end of 2016. Raonic has made the quarters in five different tournaments this season, most recently at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where he lost a tight three-set match against eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
Raonic seems to be rounding into form heading into Flushing Meadows, thanks to the guidance this season of new coach and former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic.
An aggressive, big-server during his playing days, Ivanisevic's style has rubbed off onto Raonic in the way the Canadian goes for it on both his first and second serves as opposed to just getting the ball in play.
Raonic is ranked third in the ATP in serve rating — which accounts for a player's efficiency — and it's a testament to their straightforward approach.
"He worked on really simplifying things. Just trying to get me to not sort of question or hesitate when I'm making decisions on court — to go out there, hit the ball with conviction," Raonic told reporters in Cincinnati. "Sometimes, I might be wrong or right. We can always analyze that after. But just in that moment, trust my instincts … you'll start consistently making the right decisions more naturally."
Like Raonic, Shapovalov has a new but familiar voice in his corner — his mother Tessa. Denis Shapovalov's regular coach, Martin Laurendeau, hasn't been travelling due to back issues and so Tessa — who runs her own tennis academy — has temporarily stepped in during the summer hard court season.
The choice was easy for Denis Shapovalov. He says she knows his game better than himself and together they've struck a balance between parent and coach.
"She does a really good job of being my mom off court — giving me my space and loving me. On the court, she's tough and keeps me disciplined — she's my coach," Shapovalov says. "She's not my mom on [the] court ... she's really been working on my game."
One of the points of emphasis has been Shapovalov's serve, where he ranks 76th in first serve percentage (57.4) and third in double faults per match (5.2).
While the 19-year-old has reached the third round in each tournament post-Wimbledon, he continues to struggle with his serve. In those eight matches, Shapovalov's first serve percentage is almost identical to his season's average but he's seen a slight uptick in double faults with an average of 6.4 per match.
It's all part of the learning process for Shapovalov as he continues to iron out all facets of his game.
"It was impossible for me to get into a rally when I was growing up. I would just serve and try to hit the line off the second ball," Shapovalov told reporters in Cincinnati. "So now, I have gone a long way. I'm trying to work the ball a lot more and play longer rallies … it's a good problem to have. [For] most of the players, it's the opposite. They're too scared to go in on the big points. For me, I go for it too much. It's just about toning it down."
A year ago, there was nothing quiet about Shapovalov's main draw Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Open as he roared through qualifying and into the round of 16. On Monday evening, he could very well see the second coming of himself across the court when he takes on his good friend Auger-Aliassime, who earned a main-draw berth through qualifying, just like Shapovalov did a year earlier.
"I've watched him play some [ATP] tour and challenger matches," said former world No.1 Jim Courier of Auger-Aliassime. "It looks like he enjoys playing the big moments — just sort of has that 'it' factor that Denis also seems to share."