September 26, 2023

Open Court


Shapovalov’s RG road: beat the “unknown” opponent to get to the No. 1

After a gruelling five-set win over American Brandon Nakashima in his first round at Roland Garros Monday, Denis Shapovalov was asked what he knew of his next opponent, Italy’s Matteo Arnaldi.

“Absolutely nothing. I’ll do some scouting tonight, tomorrow. Yeah, I’ll get my information,” he said after spending three hours and 47 minutes giving the recent rehab work done on a painful knee that has been an issue since last October its first significant test.

(We did have our hand up at the press conference to ask WHICH knee, and what the issue was since that question hadn’t been asked. Time … ran out. Or something).

Shapovalov did say that the problem goes all the way back to the final in Vienna last October, when he won the first set but ended up going down in three to Daniil Medvedev after beating Taylor Fritz, Dan Evans and Borna Coric en route.

“Paris was like a write-off for me. I played a couple of matches there, but it was really painful. Yeah, I wasn’t able to recover. It was brutal,” he said. (Shapovalov beat Francisco Cerundolo in three sets, then lost to Pablo Carreño Busta in three sets).

“Then I was hoping, you know, just it was a lot of matches so I figured maybe it’s gonna go away. Maybe hopefully I get a little bit stronger in the offseason and it just kind of disappears,” he added.

But that didn’t happen.

That may well have had an effect on his effort in the Davis Cup finals, which took place nearly a month later and after Shapovalov took a quick off-season holiday. He didn’t play poorly – far from it. But he lost tough ones to Jan-Lennard Struff (he must see that fellow in his nightmares) in a third-set tiebreak, and to Lorenzo Sonego (two tiebreaks, and 6-4 in the third set).

After barely a month’s break, things began fairly well in Australia. But after that, it’s been a struggle – he’s 3-7 since then. It wasn’t pain during the matches as much as it was how the knee rocked up the day after. Too often, it didn’t rock up well.

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Madrid the kicker

After rehabbing the knee for three weeks after Miami (and missing Monte Carlo), the knee was okay for three weeks. But in Madrid, a tough third-set tiebreak loss to Zhang Zhizhen had the knee really barking right at the end. And then doubles the next day with Félix Auger-Aliassime – sore. Then the next day, fine. Then during the next doubles match – pain again.

As Shapovalov pointed out, he’s been largely spared from injury through his career so far. So it’s all new territory; it’s the same for his friend Auger-Aliassime, who also has been remarkably healthy overall but now is dealing with both knee and shoulder injuries.

Shapovalov withdrew from both Rome and Geneva, the week before Roland Garros, to try to get on top of the knee situation.

And given it held up well through the marathon against Nakashima, the question will be how he holds up against Arnaldi.

New coach, who dis?

This is the first tournament for Shapovalov with a new coach, Matt Daly (if you’re a regular reader of this website, you heard it here first).

They only began a few weeks ago. But since Shapovalov only got back on court a week before Roland Garros – and they began with the Canadian being a question mark to even participate – it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

Shapovalov said he spent more time on court against Nakashima than he basically had for the three weeks leading up to the match.

“I think he’s helped a little bit mentally for sure. I think, you know, he’s very smart, a smart person. He’s got a lot of coaching experience. And he’s helping me figure myself out a little bit,” Shapovalov said.

There have long been calls from the peanut gallery for Shapovalov to make a coaching change – as if a new coach would somehow magically transform him into a lower-risk, higher-percentage player.

That’s not Shapovalov, and he explained it fairly well Monday. Unlike a lot of players who have a couple of strengths and play to those, he’s a player who has almost too many options.

And tennis history has shown us that players with multiple tools often take a little longer to figure out which tools to use, and when.

“I think for me it’s a little bit tricky because I feel like I can play different styles and I can play differently. When you have players who are just, I don’t want to say one-dimensional, but they have their strengths – a big serve, forehand, – it’s easy. But for me I feel like sometimes I’m returning good, sometimes I’m serving good, sometimes the backhand is better. So it’s a little bit tricky,” he said.

“I need to always kind of find my way back into my identity and to the way that has been the best for me and playing well. So it’s not something I have mastered. Something I’m trying to get better at. Hopefully I can kind of figure myself out and really understand my game, also understand where in the end where I win matches and try to kind of make that, you know, solidify that so that it’s easier for me,” he added with a smile.

Who is Matteo Arnaldi?

Arnaldi, a 22-year-old Italian, is from San Remo (the same hometown as Fabio Fognini, which got him a shutout on Twitter from his elder after his four-set win over Daniel Elahi Galan in the first round.

He’s younger than Shapovalov, slighter, and far less accomplished; he had just four matches at the ATP Tour main draw level before this year, and went 0-for-4.

A graduate of the “Next Gen Finals” rite of passage and part of a fairly large crew of up-and-coming Italian players, Arnaldi has had some impressive wins during this clay-court campaign.

He qualified and won a round in Barcelona before going to Madrid and stunning Casper Ruud in straight sets.

Then he upset Diego Schwartzman in the first round in Rome although, to put that in context, Schwartzman has been making far too many lower-ranked players happy these days.

But all of it conspired to bring him into the top 100 for the first time a few weeks ago; he’s just outside that now.

A year ago, he was barely inside the top 250. He’s a good dirtballer who also has a breakout ability to hit winners, despite his relatively modest stature.

If Shapovalov can get through this one, he could get a huge test – and a popcorn match – against world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in the third round. That’s assuming Alcaraz gets through Taro Daniel of Japan Wednesday.

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