Among the endangered species in elite men’s tennis these days — aside from the serve-and-volley style, lobs and one-handed backhands — are teenaged Grand Slam champions. The likelihood that an under-20 lad will reverse that trend at this U.S. Open is a long shot, but it wouldn’t hurt to consider the recent exploits of 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
At the early-August Open tuneup event in Montreal, Shapovalov upset former Open champions Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in succession. Shapovalov’s ranking — though currently 69th and rising fast — wasn’t high enough at the mid-July deadline to facilitate automatic Open entry, but he sailed through three qualifying matches to shoulder his way into the mix.
On Friday, his snowballing momentum was further assisted when 22-year-old Brit Kyle Edmund’s upper back seized up midway through the third set. Despite repeated changeover therapy sessions, Edmund eventually was forced to surrender with Shapovalov leading, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 1-0, in the third-round match.
“Horrible way to go out,” Edmund said, “but I knew I wasn’t going to win two more sets feeling like that.”
That leaves Shapovalov as the youngest male still alive in the Open’s singles draw, the youngest to reach the tournament’s fourth round since Michael Chang in 1989 and the youngest to progress so far in any major since Marat Safin at the 1998 French Open.
With former Open champ Marin Cilic, the fifth seed this year, upset yesterday by 25-year-old Argentine Diego Schwartzman in four sets, Shapovalov’s quarter of the bracket is left with no player seeded higher that No. 12 Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain. That, and the absence of perennial title contenders Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka because of injuries, “definitely opens up the draw,” Shapovalov said.
“It’s kind of a transition time for the [men’s tour],” he said. “I think a lot of young talent is coming up. My goal was to be inside the 150 by the end of the year and, you know, now top 50 seems doable.”
Just for context, Chang remains the youngest Slam winner ever; he was 17 years, three months and two days when he hoisted the French trophy in ’89. That was one of eight times in the 1970s and ’80s that an under-20 fellow won a major — twice apiece by Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker, and once by Stefan Edberg.
Pete Sampras was 19 when he won the 1990 Open but, since then, the only teenaged major champion was Nadal, who took the 2005 French at 19. Et Tu, Shapovalov?
He is the son of immigrants from the Soviet Union who settled for a time in Tel Aviv, where he was born, then moved to Toronto when he still was an infant. He began hitting tennis balls when he was 5, won the U.S. Open junior title in 2015 and the Wimbledon junior tournament last year shortly before turning pro.
He wears an oversized cap over flowing blond locks, what “a couple of people are calling the Shapo fashion,” he said. He’s not counting his chickens, but his attitude is, “Why not? I think everyone is beatable. The month of August has been absolutely life-changing for me.”
Another thing: He uses the endangered one-handed backhand. And, asked to dispel the rumor that 18-year-olds never get tired, he said, “No. It’s true. We don’t.”