December 8, 2021

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Canadian in Cincy No. 3: Shapovalov makes quick work of Cilic

Shapovalov

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If Felix Auger-Aliassime was the first one to wrap up his first-round match in “Cincy” Saturday, his good friend Denis Shapovalov was the last.

Shapovalov had to wait for a marathon match between Dayana Yastremska and Venus Williams to finish before finally taking to the Grandstand for his opener against 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic.

The 21-year-old made surprisingly quick work of him, winning 6-3, 6-3 and anticipating a second-round clash with big-serving German Jan-Lennard Struff.

(The two have played before – far too often recently for Shapovalov’s taste. They met in Monte Carlo, Paris and Stuttgart last season – all within a two-month period. And Struff, who was playing the best tennis of his life in 2019 at age 29, won all three. Shapovalov prevailed in their first meeting, a 4-6, 7-6 (7) 6-4 comeback win in the quarterfinals of the hard-court tournament in Tokyo in 2018).

Youzhny, and a sports psychologist

Shapovalov kept a very low profile during the shutdown. He didn’t play any of the exhibition events. So to come out and play such crisp, disciplined, focus – clean tennis his first time out, against an opponent of considerable pedigree, was impressive.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov was sporting items from the “Challenge Court” homage collection – including a very “non-1990” crop top. (TennisTV)

On the plus side, the Canadian had some confidence-building precedents going in. He defeated Cilic just before the shutdown, indoors in Marseille. And he beat him in straight sets at Indian Wells last year.

While tennis stopped, Shapovalov was able to have coach Mikhail Youzhny (who was not on site Saturday) with him much of the time.

As well, as he had talked about doing after last year’s Wimbledon, when he seemed at a loss to process a straight-sets defeat at the hands of Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, he began to explore the internal.

“I was really lucky to be training these last couple months and throughout the whole pandemic. So I felt like I was ready. Of course the match play is tricky when you don’t have — I had no experience. I didn’t play any exhos. Of course I didn’t know how it was going to be out there. For me, it was just fun to be back and playing. So as soon as I kind of stepped on the court, just felt natural to me,” Shapovalov said.

“I have been working with a psychologist now with Mikhail (Youzhny), and I feel like that helped me a lot. I was just kind of concentrated on my own things and just focusing on the match really. So it didn’t really faze me that I hadn’t played in a while.”

Team Shapo watches on Saturday night. Mom Tessa, girlfriend Mirjam Bjorklund (a tennis player from Sweden), and physio/chiropractor Nick Martichenko. Also watching (and masked up) were doubles partner Rohan Bopanna and his coach, Scotty Davidoff (TennisTV).

Calming the inner Shapo beast

Shapovalov lost three times within two months to Jan-Lennard Struff a year ago. He’ll face him again in the second round of “Cincy”.

When you look at the angst during the match against Struff in Paris (above), it wasn’t out of the range for Shapovalov. He lays it out there on the court. You know what he’s thinking and feeling – not that this is a bad thing, especially for the fans. But there’s an excess amount of mental energy wasted, and it can get in the way.

Even with the work Shapovalov did on things like footwork and taking the net during the stoppage, this might have been the most important area to address.

Almost exactly a year ago, Shapovalov took on the recently retired former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny (seen here with mom Tessa and Youzhny’s longtime coach Boris Sobkin at the US Open last year). The two were able to spend significant time together during the pandemic shutdown. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

He was cool as a cucumber during the win over Cilic (of course, he was winning, too). On a day when the majority of the players had far more errors than winners in their first competitive match back, he was the opposite.

“Yeah, I don’t think I could have played much better. It was a really tough draw to play Marin first round. He’s such an amazing player, and he’s proven that time and time again,” Shapovalov said. “It was definitely not easy for both of us out there. So I’m really happy to get a win against him and start back really strong.”

Doubles with Bops

The biggest issue Shapovalov has had so far in the bubble was figuring out the bunking arrangements.

With each player limited to two rooms, he had his mother/coach Tessa, physical trainer Nick Martichenko, and girlfriend Mirjam Bjorkland to mix and match.

If it looked as though his mom and girlfriend would have to bunk together (girl-girl and boy-boy – but what young man wants THAT to be the scenario?), they were able to get a third hotel room to give everyone the privacy they need.

Shapovalov has doubles with partner Rohan Bopanna of India Tuesday. They’ll face No. 5 seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina.

The two have played occasionally over the last year. And they plan also to team up at the US Open next week.