It’s the greatest challenge of Denis Shapovalov’s career. It’s also one of immense opportunity.
The 22-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., will take centre stage Friday at the All England Club as he prepares to showdown with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Wimbledon.
On paper, it’s being viewed by the tennis world as a mismatch. There’s not just a gap between the two players in experience and pedigree – it’s undoubtedly a chasm.
Djokovic has won an astounding 84 career titles and 19 grand slams across his illustrious 18-year career. Shapovalov has one ATP title since going pro in 2017.
Djokovic is preparing to play his 41st career grand slam semifinal and 10th from the All England Club. Friday will be Shapovalov’s grand slam semifinal debut.
Djokovic is again chasing more tennis history, seeking a record-tying 20th grand slam title, which would put him in a dead heat with fellow greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
His march towards being deemed the undisputed greatest of all time has been a relentless charge on the tennis circuit the past few seasons, tallying crowns at four of the last six major titles while reigning as world No. 1 for a record 328 weeks.
Djokovic is a massive favourite to win this year’s edition of Wimbledon and add more hardware to his already overflowing trophy set.
So how does Shapovalov, who is 12th in the rankings and a first-time major semifinalist, counteract the challenge of being such a significant underdog?
He will not approach it with a defeatist attitude.
“When you walk out on that match, the score is 0-0,” Shapovalov said following his five-set victory over Karen Khachanov in the quarterfinals.
“It’s a tennis match. Anything can happen. I do believe I have the game to beat him and the game to win that match.”
That self belief has allowed Shapovalov to unleash the very best elements of his game through this tournament.
After navigating a difficult opening round five-set match against veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, he hit his stride.
The Canadian dismantled prohibitive fan-favourite and three-time major champion Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 on Centre Court in the third round, playing unflinchingly brilliant tennis against one of Britain’s most adored athletes.
He exhibited a ruthless brand of shot making and firepower in a 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 win over Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, an experienced and formidable counterpuncher who makes opponents earn every point.
Wednesday’s quarterfinal match against big-hitting Russian Khachanov demanded even more of Shapovalov, both physically and mentally, and he again provided the answers.
After 3 hours, 26 minutes, he was through to his first career grand slam semifinal with a rollercoaster 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4 victory.
It was a victory where Shapovalov played with freedom in the late stages, allowing his tennis abilities to take over in the critical moments.
“I just told myself in the fifth set that I got to play every single point as hard as I can and fight for every single point,” Shapovalov said afterwards.
“I think it was a real tough battle out there. It took a lot out of me, but super, super proud of myself.”
Shapovalov has always approached tennis with a certain fearless confidence and swagger that is at times irresistible to watch.
In fact, his breakout came four years ago when he played jaw-dropping tennis to shock Rafael Nadal at the Rogers Cup in front of a full house in Montreal. By the end of that season, he was a firmly established top-50 player, and he has progressed incrementally since.
In 2019, he captured his first career title at the Stockholm Open, reached his first Masters 1000 Final in Paris, and also teamed up with Vasek Pospisil to lead Team Canada to the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid.
Shapovalov displayed more top-tier tennis in 2020 as he debuted in the top 10, albeit briefly, and reached his first career grand slam quarterfinal at the US Open in the summer.
His progression and development have even left an impression on his upcoming opponent.
“It seems like he’s maturing, which is something that is normal, it’s logical,” Djokovic said after his straight sets win over Marton Fucsovics.
“You would expect that from a player like him who has an all-around game. Huge serve, lefty, which is always tricky to play. I think his movement has improved. I’m sure that that’s going to be the biggest test I will have so far in the tournament. It’s going to be a battle and I need to be at my best.”
While Djokovic knows he must play quality tennis to get through, the head-to-head between the two players has also been completely one-sided in his favour. Djokovic has won all six career meetings against Shapovalov, with the latest coming at the beginning of this season at the ATP Cup in Australia.
“Obviously, he’s gotten the better of me,” Shapovalov acknowledged. “But the last couple of times that we’ve played, it’s been really, really tight.”
The Canadian will have to rely on his consistent serving and punishing groundstrokes to pose the right type of test against Djokovic, who is the best returner the sport has ever seen.
Fortunately, Shapovalov has served formidably well throughout these championships, hitting 60 aces across four wins with 46 per cent of his first serves going unreturned.
His explosive ground game and strong net play lend itself to the quick grass-court surface, which often rewards the brave.
It was in 2016 that Shapovalov, a wide-eyed teenager with near shoulder-length blonde locks, realized a dream by winning the Wimbledon boys singles title, defeating a now well-established top-20 player, Alex De Minaur, in the finals.
Half a decade later, with a more well-rounded game and far more stylish haircut, a berth to the gentlemen’s singles final is on the line.
Shapovalov will seek to become the third player in Canadian tennis history to reach the Wimbledon singles final as he attempts to follow in the footsteps of Genie Bouchard (2014) and Milos Raonic (2016).
His attitude and demeanour are unquestionably in the right place.
“I’m going to fight for every point and believe in myself.”