PARIS – Denis Shapovalov arrived at his first official French Open on a cloud.
So even if the rain clouds threatened to undo him at the start of his first-round match against solid Aussie John Millman, they couldn’t keep him down for long.
After a slow, angst-filled start, the 19-year-old Canadian found his zen amidst the raindrops and rolled to a 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
And his road to a potential fourth-round clash with 10-time champion Rafael Nadal was cleared of a couple of potentially dangerous American obstacles Tuesday.
Both Ryan Harrison (a doubles champion here a year ago) and struggling No. 14 seed Jack Sock were eliminated.
Shapovalov will play another youngster, Germany’s Maximilian Marterer, in the second round.
Another young gun, and a couple of lucky losers
Marterer, although three years older at 22, is at a near-identical stage of his progress. He, too, lost in the first round of qualifying in Paris a year ago. He, too, qualified and made his Slam debut at last summer’s US Open and played the Australian Open for the first time, in on his own ranking.
If his ascension has not been as rapid as that of Shapovalov, ranked near his career high at No. 74, he remains a player on the rise.
The winner of that match will take on one of a pair of lucky losers in the third round.
It will be either Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium or Jurgen Zopp of Estonia. Zopp eliminated Sock in a five-set thrilled Tuesday in which Sock led 4-1 in the fourth set, and 4-1 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, before going down in five.
Rain, rain go away
Shapovalov was given a Court Suzanne-Lenglen assignment for his debut, first up at 11 a.m.. But while quite an honour, the day’s openers were the only matches to be undone by the weather.
Shapovalov and Millman played in steady drizzle for a significant portion of the early going. The umbrellas were already up as the first point was played. And the Canadian grew increasingly agitated as the officials wouldn’t stop play.
The fact that he quickly fell behind 4-1 only exacerbated his incredulity while Millman – who was leading – remained placid and unperturbed. To protect his racket from the rain, the Aussie just covered it with a towel.
Shapovalov dropped some profanity, bemoaned his fate to anyone who would listen. He looked up at the skies, shaking his head.
“Why are we OUT HERE?” he bellowed.
“We’re playing in the pouring rain … How can we be playing in this kind of weather? What has to happen? Does there have to be a lightning strike on the court for us to stop?” he asked. “I mean, it’s pouring. There’s no decision.”
Finally, after about 20 minutes, supervisor Wayne McEwen took the court.
“It’s pouring. I don’t know how we can play right now,” Shapovalov said to him.
“I know it’s not ideal conditions, but the court’s fine,” McEwen told him.
“It’s DEFINITELY not ideal conditions!” was Shapovalov’s reply.
“I was a little bit surprised they didn’t stop it before. Obviously, I mean, it’s tough for them, first couple days there are so many matches. The court was still fine. So they had a point, you know, that we can keep playing on,” Shapovalov said.
“But honestly, like I said, I tried to use the new balls to kind of help myself reset and take advantage of it. Yeah, but it was tricky out there with these tough conditions. It’s a little bit annoying, as the rain gets in your face, you get soaked. At the same time, I’m playing a guy that’s really solid, with heavy balls.”
They sat for a few minutes, to see if the rain would lessen. It did, slightly. But they played on.
Down 2-5 in the set, Shapovalov managed to hold serve. And after the new balls came in – lighter, not as soaked with rain – he managed to turn it around and win five games in a row.
There was an exchange of breaks in the second set. Each gifted his opponent with a double fault on break point; in Shapovalov’s case, two in a row.
Finally, after just over an hour of play, they stopped.
When they returned, slightly less than an hour later, Shapovalov was a different player.
Not incidentally, the weather was a lot better, too.
“After we came back from the rain delay, there was no more rain and the balls weren’t as heavy. I felt really good out there,” he said, “I felt like the third set we played really high quality tennis. It was fun for me.”
On the upward learning curve
Shapovalov had a big group for his press conference, which was in the main room even after he was scheduled on the second-biggest court at the event.
These are privileges accorded to the greats of the game. But Shapovalov knows he’s a long way from that, even if he had a rock-star sized entourage supporting him in his player’s box Tuesday.
It’s a perk of his rapid rise, and all the attention he’s been getting.
But he’s staying focused, and looking at the long term.
“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) for me,” he said. “You know, guys like Roger and Rafa, they are improving at 36, 32. I’m 19. You know, I have a long way to go to get to where they are or even close to what they have achieved.”
First on the bucket list? Upgrading his service return, along with improving his net play and upping his first-serve percentage.
He doesn’t feel the pressure to do what some of the top players in the game did at his age. He mentioned Nadal winning Grand Slams at 19, Federer with 20 majors. (And Shapovalov could have added Novak Djokovic to that list, as well).
Shapovalov understands they are rarities. And on a men’s tour filled with players who seem to be hitting their peak later than was the case in the previous generation, he knows he’s way ahead of the curve.
Even the best are still improving at their age, he said. And that just underscores how much time he still has.
“For me it’s kind of calming, in a way. You know, I feel even if I don’t have the results right now, you know, this year, next year, I feel like I have such a long way, so much time to improve and to get to where they are right now,” he said.
“So for me, there is not much pressure. I’m 19. I’m playing freely every tournament. Everything is new for me. So it’s just fun for me to go out there, first of all, in the matches and play at tournaments like this and big courts like Suzanne Lenglen. But at the same time, it’s fun for me to know that I can get better, and to actually see myself improving.”