Denis Shapovalov didn't appear to run from one corner of the court to the other so much as fling himself there. He broke many of the cardinal rules of execution against No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal, including hitting off his back foot and unloading while falling backward. Nevertheless, the rockets he fired kept flying true and landing for glowing winners. Individual beads of perspiration dripped from strands of long white-blond hair streaming from the back of his cap, which of course was worn backward.
An homage to Lleyton Hewitt, whom he resembles in so many ways? Not really. Shapovalov is 18 years old, and the unwritten rule is that you have to wear the hat that way until at least 21.
The Canadian pulled off an upset for the ages on a sultry Thursday night at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. He knocked out Nadal in every sense of the term, halting the reconstructed Spaniard's drive to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. It was an utterly unexpected result, and Shapovalov reacted exactly the same way all kids his age do after accomplishing something of that magnitude. He said he grew up dreaming of playing the likes of Nadal and Roger Federer, and announced, "You know, my dream came true today."
Was this a preview of Shapovalov's future, or a one-off event that will make good fodder for the grandchildren?
True, the Tel Aviv-born teenager (he was one when his family moved to Canada) was lucky to escape four match points in his first-round contest against Rogerio Dutra Silva. But he backed up that escape with an upset of former Grand Slam champion Juan Martin del Potro. The way he mastered Nadal suggests that Shapovalov isn't likely to pinch himself on Friday and discover that he really had been dreaming all along.
Shapovalov cracked 49 winners in the see-sawing, two-hour and 45 minute match that ended in a tiebreaker (3-6, 6-4, 7-6 ). His lefty serve was effective against his fellow southpaw, brutally so at times. He kept Nadal off balance with his serve selection and hit nine aces to Nadal's two.
Shapovalov's shot selection and execution was bold and unrestrained throughout. He knew he needed to take big cuts at every ball that afforded the opportunity. That's an easy task to set, but a difficult one to execute. But Shapovalov trusted his game (including his sizzling one-handed backhand), even on those occasions when he found himself dangling precariously on the brink of the abyss. Instead of waiting to be rescued, he pulled himself out hand-over-hand.
"It's so tough [to play Nadal]," Shapovalov told reporters after the match. "A lot of the times he just hits a shot that's way too good. I was managing to get a lot back when I could. But you could tell why he has won so many Grand Slams. His ball was just so heavy. He's such a warrior out there."
But Nadal was no more a warrior than his Canadian opponent, who was down 0-3 in the decisive tiebreaker. Shapovalov reeled off seven of the next eight points and fittingly ended the match with a forehand blast that Nadal couldn't even lunge for.
"I wish him the best," Nadal told reporters after the match. "He has everything to become a great player. He played with the right determination in the important moments."
At 18 and three months, Shapovalov became the youngest-ever quarterfinalist in a top-tier ATP Masters 1000 event. Ranked No. 143 at the start of the event, he is projected to crack the top 100 and could jump into the mid 60s if he wins his next match against No. 42 ranked Frenchman Adrian Mannarino. It's an easily conceivable scenario.
Shapovalov's win adds to the proliferating number of signs that suggest a fleet of young players (collectively known as the #NextgenATP) is ready to push out the old guard.
Everywhere you turn these days, a 21-and-under player seems to be counting coup on a respected veteran. At this tournament alone, seeds David Goffin, Richard Gasquet, and Lucas Pouille were taken out by Shapovalov's peers.
The current transition might even be over before Shapovalov tries wearing his ball cap bill forward.