MIAMI, Fla. – The nadir for Canadian Denis Shapovalov, on his way to an straight-sets loss to Ugo Humbert in his opener at Indian Wells two weeks ago, was when he asked his team to “please leave” the court.
They weren’t doing anything wrong. Shapovalov said he just wanted to save them – from himself.
“I just wanted them to leave because I just didn’t want to be disrespectful. And I felt like I needed to shut down emotionally because I was dreading, dreading how I was feeling. So I actually just wanted them to leave out of courtesy. They put in a lot of work and a lot of effort. So I didn’t feel like they need to sit through that,” Shapovalov told Open Court in Miami.
“I was too emotional and and yeah, I needed to shut down. And I knew if I shut down, then it’s not going to be pretty so. Yeah, that was that. Obviously don’t want to act the way that I do.”
They didn’t leave; coach Peter Polansky told Open Court there wasn’t any way they were going to abandon him. And nothing more was said about it.
But it’s been a roller-coaster ride lately for the 23-year-old Canadian, whose career ranking of No. 10 came in Sept. 2021.
Since then, there have been some great moments, and some ignominious early exits. His ranking is down to No. 30 although, with few points to defend until the summer and fall, he’s in no immediate danger of it falling much further.
But the head hasn’t been there. The social media opinionators are harsh on him, and on Polansky, with the prevailing wisdom being that a more experienced or better coach will somehow have the magic words that will suddenly change all this around. Words that will convince Shapovalov to put the ball in the court instead of going out too often in a firestorm of unforced errors.
There are lots of tennis experts and armchair psychologists on social media, and they’re not holding back.
As if Polansky or anyone around him isn’t already well aware that this is rule No. 1 of tennis: put the ball over the net and into the court. It is not rocket science.
The two had a conversation with Shapovalov fellow lefty (and former Canadian) Greg Rusedski in Indian Wells, willing to listen to input and see if there’s some sort of fit somewhere with someone who can make a difference.
Shapovalov confirmed the chat, but said it was nothing specific. “I’m happy with my team; I need to focus on myself, figure myself out before before making any changes or or adjustments,” he said.
Perhaps there is someone out there who might make a difference. But they haven’t found that person yet. They may not exist.
The answers must come from within
It’s the ultimate illustration of how tennis is a unique sport, in that the player is the one out there in the heat of competition having to make split-second decisions on the fly, control his emotions, decide what shot he’s going to hit and executing it.
No matter what anyone tells him, or tries to tell him.
“I’m playing great in practices so if I knew what it was, I would figure it out and change it,” Shapovalov said. “But for sure, I’m getting frustrated and getting pretty down on myself and it’s obviously affecting matches.”
Because here’s the thing about Shapovalov, which also applies to other players with a supreme level of talent that makes them confident to the point of near-cockiness that if a shot is a low-percentage play, it’s not low-percentage for them.
It’s a fine line between tennis genius and insanity. But you can’t convince a genius he’s not insane. When he’s out there on court, he thinks he can make that shot. And if he doesn’t make it that time, he’ll make it the next time.
As a player, you play who you are. If there’s a happy medium somewhere, it’s equally true that a flashy shotmaker is what he is; he’s not going to turn into a maker of balls. And if a player is a consistent maker of balls, it’s an equally tough task to try to get them to up the aggression level in any significant fashion.
It might work for brief spells. But eventually you regress to your mean.
Even when Shapovalov was around the top 10, he still had some great weeks and some when he lost earlier than he should have. The difference at the moment is only one of degree. And it’s entirely possible he might always be a peaks and valleys kind of player.
Taming the chaos
As Shapovalov grew up and grew away from having his mother Tessa as his main, lifelong coach, there seems to be a clear move away from a bit of a chaotic environment to one where he was clearly seeking more peace. The 23-year-old has chosen people that he likes personally to be around him, to work with him.
It’s hard to know from the outside whether they push back on him enough, because they’re not necessarily in a position to do that. But that’s true of most tennis players, who are very young and are in the odd position of paying people who are much older than are to … boss them around.
It’s challenging by definition.
But it’s also true that when his mom/coach and original manager Andresz Kepinski were around, there was a lot of noise. Open Court personally witnessed, on more than one occasion, both of them yelling at him on the practice court and the kid yelling right back.
That’s also not an unusual thing in tennis. The ying is that it might push a talented young kid to greater heights that might not happen without it. The yang is that it becomes a new normal, and not a particularly healthy one.
For whatever reason, Shapovalov thrived in that environment back then. But it’s also no surprise that, as an adult taking charge of his own career, he’d want to minimize that. Perhaps that’s a dilemma he’s grappling with, to find the right balance of push and pull in the face of an ever-tougher level of competition on the ATP Tour.
Lots of time to think since Indian Wells
We asked him if he was working with a sports psychologist, or looking for some sort of outside help in that way. But, just as it is with the tennis coaching voices, Shapovalov firmly believes that the answers lie within.
“Again, I just feel like nobody’s gonna really say something magical. You know, it has to come from myself. And I need to just keep working and just enjoy being out there. And just work on myself enjoying it right now,” he said.
Shapovalov said he’s had a lot of time to reflect since that loss to Humbert in the desert.
“I had a lot of thinking to do,” he said. “I think it’s just the approach that that I take that puts a lot of lot anxiety on me. So I just need to take a different approach.”
So it’s clear that until Shapovalov does the work he feels he needs to do on himself, he’s not going to be overly open to input coming from outside. That’s just who he is.
Shapovalov will test out that approach Friday at the Miami Open against Argentine lefty Guido Pella.