With the Denis Shapovalov on a tear since the Rogers Cup in Montreal three weeks ago, Canadians are starting to think about his chances of winning the US Open this year.
Crazy thing is their optimism may not be misplaced.
Unlike Connor McGregor jumping into Floyd Mayweather’s ring, the 18-year-old belongs.
Here’s why he’s got a shot.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 31, 2017
When the draw came out, this year’s two tennis best players – Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the first and third seeds – were in the top half, far away from Shapovalov.
Second-seed Andy Murray and fourth-seed Alex Zverev were in Shapovalov’s half, though. Zverev, incidentally, is the one player Shapovalov hasn’t beaten since he started his summer tear in Montreal three weeks ago.
Two days before the tournament started, Murray pulled out due to injury, and on Wednesday, Zverev lost his second-round match.
Former world No. 3 David Ferrer, who was having resurgent summer, lost in the first round too. Until Friday, fifth-seed Marin Cilic was lurking, but he has also since been eliminated.
At this point, the highest seeds in the bottom half are No. 16 Lucas Pouille and No. 17 Sam Querrey.
Both have big games and neither will be easy wins, but if Shapovalov plays his best, they should be beatable opponents for him.
.@rogerfederer on playing two 5-setters so far?
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 1, 2017
If Shapovalov makes it to the final – yes, it’s still a long way away – the question becomes who he’d face there.
While Nadal and Federer are the favourites, neither are fully on top of their game.
Federer took 10 sets just to get to the third round, and though he hasn’t admitted anything, it looks as if his back injury that flared up in Montreal is still a problem.
Nadal meanwhile took four sets to get past world No. 121 Taro Daniel, and he was down a set and a break in the second before he found his forehand.
After watching Shapovalov push Nadal to his limits in Montreal, it’s not a stretch to see him putting up a wall again in the final no matter who he faces, if he can make it that far.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 2, 2017
Most keen tennis fans watching the youngster’s run in Montreal came out of it with one strong observation: he has to clean up his serves.
It’s not that they don’t have enough power or accuracy – they do, they have plenty of both – it’s that he wasn’t getting enough first serves in and he was throwing in far too many double faults.
Looking at his stats at the US Open, it’s clear he and his coaches made the same observations.
How can we tell? Check out the numbers.
Chart 1: First serve percentage
This chart shows how many first serves Shapovalov has been putting in play through each tournament (above challenger level) this year. You can see how he’s getting more in even since he played three weeks ago in Montreal.
Chart 2: Double fault percentage
This chart shows the percentage of double faults he throws in out of his total service points. While it’s not a steady decline, the numbers again show strong improvements since Montreal.
The nice thing about looking at these stats is they’re two numbers that are unaffected by the opponents. Because of that, they can be viewed in a vacuum unlike other stats such as return numbers and even aces, which are obviously influenced by who you’re playing.
"Every win has been [showing]…that I belong with these guys, playing these high-level tournaments."
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 31, 2017
While you might think Nadal or Federer or some other established player might be Shapovalov’s biggest hurdle, that’s not the case.
He’s shown he can hit with the big guys, and he can often out-hit them.
What he hasn’t yet shown is if he can hang with them over a prolonged, five-set match.
Now, just because he hasn’t done it, it doesn’t mean he won’t be able to. But after his thrilling three-set win against Nadal in Montreal, Shapovalov stood through his entire press conference because he was cramping up after the match.
So you have to worry about the 18-year-old’s durability if he’s forced to go four or five sets against Pouille, Querrey, or if it’s a final against Nadal.
Having said that, we know he has the game, and we’re starting to expect him to rise to the occasion.
So can he climb tennis’ biggest hurdle one week from now? You’d be foolish to say no.