Nobody in the world loses five-set squeakers with as much panache as Denis Shapovalov.
One minute, he’s dead and buried. An hour later, he’s rising from the grave. An hour after that, they’re shoving the casket lid closed on him.
It doesn’t earn him extra ranking points, but it makes for compelling viewing. The Canadian did it again over the weekend against Andrey Rublev – down a set, up a set, eventually upset in fifth-set tiebreak. Aside from the Serena Show, it was the most entertaining match of this U.S. Open.
“Both of us deserved to win,” Shapovalov said afterward. For once, that line wasn’t total nonsense. They were both great. Shapovalov lost 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (7).
Ten years ago, you might’ve said it was one of the great displays by a Canadian tennis pro. Nowadays, it’s a bit of a bummer. Shapovalov was our last man (or woman) standing among the singles hopes at this tournament.
This is what happens when you declare anything a golden age. People expect gold.
By that brand new standard, this tennis year wasn’t so hot. The highlight came early, with Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime both making the quarters in Australia.
Shapo made a few headlines by almost beating Rafael Nadal in, you guessed it, five sets. He made far more headlines for having a mid-match meltdown over Nadal’s time wasting.
“You guys are all corrupt,” Shapovalov screamed at the umpire at one point.
Everyone knows Nadal is shifty when it comes to the pacing of matches. Everyone knows he gets special treatment. But if Novak Djokovic can’t get anything done about it, then there’s no point in anyone else trying.
If you want to talk junk about the biggest guy in the yard, then you have back that up with results. Shapovalov isn’t there yet.
Maybe this is our partly our fault. We talk about our tennis pros like they are the kings of the sport. They’re only following our lead.
But two quarters in Australia – that was the high-water mark of Canada’s 2022 season.
Leylah Fernandez managed another quarter-final in the French Open. Using the most objective measure of popularity – number of ads for sugar water that feature them running around like maniacs – Fernandez is currently the most admired of the Canadian contingent.
Aside from her natural charm, that must be because she was the last one to make a real impact on the national consciousness – in the final of last year’s U.S. Open.
That’s the bare minimum to ignite Canadian tennis fever these days – a final in a Grand Slam.
You’ve won at Cincinnati or Madrid? Yeah, tell your mom. She might care, but no one else does. Canada is a majors-only country now.
It seems very long ago that Eugenie Bouchard made the final of Wimbledon and the rest of us were acting like we’d just cracked cold fusion. That was all the way back in 2014 – eight years and a completely different era.
It created an unrealistic expectation, first, for Bouchard herself, and then for everyone who followed. Canada was done with participation ribbons. We were going to start grabbing trophies.
But unless you’ve lucked into a generational player, that’s not how tennis works. When the next rankings come out, Canada will have three players in the top 20 of the ATP and WTA, with a fourth (Bianca Andreescu) on her way back there. That’s already more than England, Germany and France.
Tennis golden ages involve a lot of puttering along. Everyone’s working on keeping their ranking steady, making a tidy million or three, maybe not winning anything outright, but winning enough to maintain their status as a going concern. They’re talking about how good they feel and how they’ll get them next time.
“Honestly, tennis is, like, super chaotic,” Andreescu said last week. Because it is.
A month ago, no one was totally sure who France’s Caroline Garcia was. Going into Week 2 at Flushing Meadows, she’s everyone’s favourite to win this thing.
Garcia put a beating on Andreescu here. It’s just as likely Andreescu will do that back to her the next time they meet.
Despite her relative absence over the past three years, you’d still put Andreescu on top of your most-likely-to list. She’s done it once. So you trust her when she says she believes she can do it again.
No other Canadian talks that way. If there’s one thing they know for sure, it’s that they don’t know.
When asked to speak in general terms about the state of the game and his place in it, Shapovalov put a finger on one of his problems: “The older guys are not retiring.”
That’s true, but it’s not an excuse. If the older guys were regularly getting their heads handed to them by the younger guys, they’d retire. They keep going because they’re still winning.
Why do you think Serena Williams flirted with the idea of returning (“You never know”) while she was in the midst of the biggest, loudest sendoff in the sport’s history? Because kids these days haven’t proved they have what it takes. You ever notice that Venus Williams isn’t looking around for someone to give her a gold watch? Why leave?
Not so long ago, it looked as though Canadian tennis would be throwing out major winners once or twice a year. It still might.
But only two national programs reap that sort of return – Spain and Serbia – and only because of two remarkable players. The United States has won one major in the past five years and I defy you to name the player who did it.
This is what our golden age looks like – four or five players good enough to make you want to watch. The visible presence of one good player begets more good players. A full cohort of them suggests that competitive viability could go on forever.
Eventually, maybe you’ll get to that era-defining player who wins a bunch of titles. We may already have that person and not know it yet. But greatness is a relative term in tennis. Canada is great. Just not in a way you always notice.