It’s May at the Foro Italico and Denis Shapovalov is locked in an epic quarter-final battle with Rafael Nadal, the 10-time champion at the ATP Masters 1000 clay-court event in Rome. After being handed a breadstick in the opening set, the Canadian keeps faith in his fearless brand of tennis to take the second 7-5.
The 23-year-old had held two match points against Nadal at the same venue one year prior and had pushed the Spaniard to five sets at January’s Australian Open. He had also famously beaten him as an 18-year-old on home soil in Canada in 2017.
Although Nadal was increasingly impeded by a foot injury in the third, there was no diminishing the worthiness of Shapovalov’s 1-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory. He produced breathtaking tennis and was a deserved winner.
Rising to No. 15 in the Pepperstone Rankings after his semi-final run, Shapovalov was full of confidence and looking at good times ahead. Earlier in the year he had made a remarkable recovery from Covid-19 to steer Canada to victory in the ATP Cup alongside close friend Felix Auger-Aliassime, before his deep run at the Australian Open, where he dismissed World No. 3 Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the fourth round.
But tennis can be a fickle sport.
After victory over Nadal in Rome, the former World No. 10 embarked on a six-match losing streak, the longest of his career. He enters this week’s Citi Open having dropped seven of his past eight matches, a five-set win over Arthur Rinderknech in the Wimbledon first round his only recent success.
Leading into the ATP 500 in Washington, D.C., the 2021 Wimbledon semi-finalist spent a two-week training block with his team in the Bahamas. Forehands and backhands were only part of the focus. Navigating the down times mentally can be even more important.
“That’s what tennis is. It’s a lot of ups and downs,” Shapovalov told ATPTour.com. “There are very few players who can be super consistent; that’s just the nature of the game. You just have to be patient with it, get used to it, stay positive, keep working and keep believing in yourself.”
The swashbuckling left-hander, who describes his game style as ‘super aggressive’, prefers to double down on Plan A rather than switch to Plan B when things aren’t going his way. It’s a high-risk/high-reward strategy that pays healthy dividends in good times.
Team Canada celebrates winning the 2022 ATP Cup
But Shapovalov now finds himself trying to rebound from a bear market. He says that he has the stomach to weather choppy waters and that the way back can be found in focussing on the long game rather than the ‘noise’ of day-to-day results. “You want the wins to come, but if they don’t you just need to believe that the work will pay off,” he said. “Having a good team around you keeps you looking at the big picture and keeps you motivated to keep working.
“Often people will panic when a couple of things don’t go their way,” he said. “You try to think about the future and not dwell on the past. You want to think how you’re going to play the game moving forward, what we need to clean up and keep working on the plan we have.”
Shapovalov is aware that fortunes can change fast. Two weeks ago at the ATP 500 in Hamburg, Lorenzo Musetti came into the event on his own six-match losing streak, without his racquets that were in his lost luggage and expecting to play qualifying. He ended the week by taking out Top-5 star Carlos Alcaraz to win his first ATP Tour title.
“It’s great to see him doing well. Obviously a great talent,” Shapovalov said. “To see him come out of a difficult period to win a big title isn’t a big surprise. It’s a totally normal part of the game and I knew that he would eventually pull through. It doesn’t change anything for me.”
As he looks to recapture form, Shapovalov said that he would continue to play doubles, having already partnered Rohan Bopanna in seven events this year. (In Washington Shapovalov is teaming with Denis Kudla.)
“I definitely think it helps with my game so I’ll continue to play. I see myself as a super-aggressive tennis player who wants to get to the net a lot, so doubles helps to work on the serve and volley and the returning coming in. It’s also super fun.
“It’s been a great partnership with Rohan. First and foremost he’s been a mentor to me who has helped me quite a lot on the court. We’re also really good friends, so that’s why it works. For him it’s great to have a young guy who is really powerful who can create a lot, and he does his ‘doubles thing’. It just works.”
Sixth-seeded Shapovalov, who took out now-World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the first round of the Citi Open in his last appearance in the U.S. capital in 2018, faces American World No. 99 wild card J.J. Wolf in his opening match.