Yesterday I predicted that Rafael Nadal would easily defeat his fellow lefty, Denis Shapovalov, in straight sets. It was the safest bet. Shapovalov had stirred up a ripple within the ATP by recording his biggest victory – at the time – over former U.S Open champion, Juan Martin Del Potro.
As impressive as this victory was, Del Potro is no Nadal. Despite what has now become his customary blip in Wimbledon, Nadal was coming into Montreal on the back of a start to the season so fantastic that he was within touching distance of the world number one ranking. All he had to do was make the semifinals. As gifted as Shapovalov is, this was supposed to be an interesting hurdle on the way, not a screeching halter.
However, as the match progressed, even with the Spaniard taking the first set 6 – 3, you had this uneasy feeling that the supremely gifted Canadian, who had gotten a taste of high profile victory against Del Potro, wasn’t going to stop now… not without a fight. Throughout the second set and the third, Shapovalov put together his full repertoire in a gritty way I haven’t seen from an eighteen year old since… well… since Rafael Nadal. He went big on his serves, but also mixed in monster kickers out wide as well as body bombs that jammed one of the games most phenomenal movers. His forehand – particularly his running forehand – was an automatic rally changer. He hit it with depth, pace, angle and most importantly, variety. He can hook that shot cross-court on the dead run or slam it down the line so flat, it skids.
Like all great champions, Nadal is adept at problem solving and he tried to do that today as well. He played inside out forehands to Shapovalov’s one handed lefty backhand, but that held up under the barrage of spin and pace. Shapovalov has a wonderful flowing motion through that shot and in some ways, it looks more natural than his forehand. He can hit it leaning forward or falling back. He can pull it cross-court with pace or send a looping dive bomb down the line with it. His control over that shot is phenomenal and it left Nadal with very few options with regards to a weakness he could exploit.
Shapovalov’s movement was exemplary and his hustle throughout the match should be shown to other up and comers. It turned the tide of so many rallies and won him over a dozen points he had no business winning. In Rafa’s post match conference, he would call this match “his worst of the year” and gave Shapovalov’s low ranking as one of the reasons for pegging this loss so low. However, I beg to differ. If anything, because Shapovalov’s skill is currently at top 20 level for me. Nadal can play better, but it’s not like he was terrible throughout this match. He was just… out-Rafa’d by a fellow lefty and young, rising star.
Maybe most impressive of all, was Shapovalov’s mentality. He appears to gravitate towards the big stage, but has a certain restraint that naturally necessitates discipline. The qualities of a champion. In his post match interview, Shapovalov said the belief that he could win against Rafa came after he broke the Spaniard in the second set, even though he was broken back later on. He felt that as long as he could break the champion’s serve, he was in with a shot. That automatically shed light on how much confidence the Canadian had in holding serve despite being broken.
Suddenly there’s an electric feeling in the air. The tennis world has been disappointed before, so maybe it will be good to adopt a wait and see approach with Shapovalov. For now though, he has earned his moment in the sun. How long he stays in it, is entirely up to him.