Zoom out and you see that these are the traits that make him a joy to watch, and that make it so easy for observers to draw flattering, and at times silly comparisons to tennis legends. “It’s like watching a combination of Nadal and Federer at 18 years old,” said former world No. 1 Mats Wilander earlier this week. “He has the fire of Nadal and the speed around the court of Nadal and he has the grace of Federer—it’s unbelievable.”

Even more impressive than the chatter Shapovalov has provoked from old tennis heads is the almost instant fervor he’s inspired back home among people who have never watched a tennis match in their lives. This may very well be another case of Canada losing its mind over a talented player only to spit them out later. But Shapovalov generated more electricity among Canadian sports fans in one week at the U.S. Open than Milos Raonic did over half a decade of dutifully reaching quarterfinals at Slams. His fire and his refusal to play boring tennis shines through even to people who have no idea what boring tennis looks like. His surfer/hockey guy flow and endearingly busted, oversized, singularly over-cinched hats don’t seem to hurt either.

This is exactly the kind of person that tennis is made for: individuals who are utterly unique and unfamiliar to us, who might have something new to say about the practice of hitting a fuzzy yellow ball over a net. Who have managed to not have their personalities removed from them, say by a national tennis organization or a terrible coach.


This is also exactly the kind of person who, by simply existing, demonstrates how utterly disposable national regimes like Tennis Canada can be when it comes to developing star talent. How misguided and even dangerous is their obsession with “enjoyment and improvement which ultimately results in... retention in the sport and in overall growth in the number of tennis players” (emphasis Tennis Canada’s). The almost vegetable consciousness, to steal a term from writer Elif Batuman, with which they seem to approach the task of nurturing the gifts of individual, idiosyncratic children.

When Denis Shapovalov was eight years old, he spontaneously started hitting one-handed backhands. Right on cue, the official tennis people that stalk the halls of Toronto’s tennis courts apparently advised that Denis return to hitting a two-hander, but his mother and coach Tessa Shapovalova, a former world No. 445 from Russia, let him do it anyway.


“I said, ‘Well he has this naturally, so let him do what he wants,’” she told the Globe and Mail.

As Denis got older and the demands of coaching her son became too great, Shapovalova decided to open her own tennis school in Toronto so that Denis could continue training and living at home, instead of sending him to an academy or to Canada’s national training center.


“They had more of a group approach there, and my vision was a little different,” she said of the national training center, diplomatically. “I felt he needed more individual work instead.”

Tennis is an individual sport, and every tennis player needs individual work. I suspect that Tessa Shapovalova believed that her son had something unique and worth protecting from the world for just a little bit longer.


Nick Zarzycki is a writer living in Toronto.