A case of quantity winning over quality. Denis Shapovalov achieved new career-high ranking 11 times in 2018, peaking at No. 23 on 11 June, became the No. 1 Canadian by passing Raonic on 21 May 2018 and avoided the dreaded second-year slump.
He made history in Madrid, where at 19 he became the youngest quarter-finalist and semi-finalist ever at ATP Masters 1000 Madrid (d. Raonic in the third-round, l. to A. Zverev), but at Grand Slam level he hasn't won more than two back-to-back matches.
“Denis the menace” advanced to a major third-round for the second time at US Open (d. Seppi in 5 sets, l. to Anderson in 5 sets) and fell in the second-round at Australian Open (l. to Tsonga in 5 sets), Roland Garros (l.
to Marterer) and Wimbledon (l. to Paire). This year, he also lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Tiafoe in Delray Beach and Medvedev in Tokyo, reached the quarterfinals in Eastbourne (l. to M. Zverev) and St.Petersburg (l.Klizan).
The Canadian advanced to the round 16at ATP Masters 1000 events in Miami (d. Troicki in the first-round after saving a match point, l. to Coric), Rome (l. to eventual champion Nadal), Toronto (l. to Haase) and Cincinnati (l. to Raonic), but in his last three tournaments before the Paris Masters he managed to win a single match.
He approached the final Masters 1000 of the season owning a 35-27 win-loss record, ranked No.29 and as a strong contender to again earn the ATP Star of Tomorrow, the award that goes to the youngest player inside the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings on 5 November.
“I think so far my season has been better than I expected. I've been playing unbelievably well throughout the season. I've really improved on clay courts. To be honest, my main goal this season was to improve my game...
I feel like I've improved so much in my game, mentally,” Shapovalov said. “I just feel like I belong out there this year. I'm able to compete with anyone out there. The main thing is to keep improving. Even if the results don't come now, I'm trying to improve my game for years to come.
It's not the biggest deal if I don't win a title this year”. His quick climb, Shapovalov confessed at the Roland Garros earlier this year in a press conference, surprised even himself. “I think it's just been a lot of hard work.
Obviously, it's tough to climb the way I did” he admitted. “I'm just trying to stay focused. Like I always say, doesn't matter the week, doesn't matter the result, I'm always trying to get back on the court and get better.
I'm only 19. I have a lot to improve, a lot to learn, so it's going to be a long career (…) So I think, you know, it doesn't matter if I'm having -- if I'm in a time of success or not. It's just important for me just to keep getting out there, keep getting motivated to improve my game”.
Channelling his explosive energy remains one the many details he could work on. He's been clearly trained according to a program aimed to give him enough strength to exploit his expressive tennis, to maximize his extroverted winners.
However, particularly when his opponents attacked him delivering massive, flat balls to his backhand, Shapovalov shows a tendency to move backwards returning a shorter ball that makes him more vulnerable into the open court.
The Serve & Return Tracker on the ATP website, that aggregates data from the 2011-2018 ATP World Tour Masters 1000s and Nitto ATP Finals and the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals only, clearly highlights that once every five out wide serves from the deuce side he hit a short return, the highest ratio from that side.
Another source of vulnerability came against body serves or first deliveries down the T from the Ad side, that leaves him less time and space to prepare his backhand: control his groundstrokes having a shorter time to react is evidently harder.
In Paris, he noted that “definitely the return can get more solid. My net play can get a lot better. Definitely, my first-serve percentage can go up, even though it's a weapon for me. Just things like this, the way I use the momentum switches during the matches.
Obviously, that comes with experience, but that's something, you know, me and Marty have also worked on. I still think mentally I can still improve. I still have lashes here and there where I could be mentally stronger or, as I said, use the momentum switches better”.
Although he has the joint second percentage of break points converted among the seven directly qualified for the Next Gen Finals, he owns the lowest first-serve percentage among the Next Gen ATP Finals contenders and the joint-lowest second serve return points ratio (49%).
Unsurprisingly, he's ranked 59th in the ATP Return Leaderboard, that measured the return rating through points clinched against first and second deliveries, return games won and break points converted. With 7.9 aces and 5.5 double-faults on average per match, he's ranked 42nd in the corresponding Serve Leaderboard.
Significantly, his highest rank came in the Under Pressure Rating, measuring break points saved and converted, the percentage of victories in deciding sets and tiebreaks, where he's ranked 34th. Using the data available from his Masters 1000 matches this season, an interesting pattern emerges.
He managed to win only three of those matches, to Sam Querrey in Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych in Rome and Frances Tiafoe in Cincinnati, winning fewer points in short rallies (1-4 strokes), and five clinching fewer points in mid-range rallies (5-9 strokes): to Benoit Paire in Madrid, Victor Troicki Damir Dzumhur and Querrey in Indian Wells, to Berdych in Rome.
However, his performances in mid-range rallies seem to have a lesser impact on his percentage of victory. On the contrary, a more effective performance in shorter rallies seems significantly increase his chances to win. The long road to the top, he said, could have a huge impact not only on his individual career.
“I feel like we've had Milos (Raonic), Vasek (Pospisil), who have paved the way. We have me and Felix (Auger-Aliassime) who are up-and-coming if we can, I don't know, take that, like you said, go to the top, go to the top 10, whatever.
I feel like Canadian tennis then will jump another level, and there will be so many kids playing. It's definitely a huge goal of mine and I'm sure it is for Felix, as well”.