Sophomore slump, schmophomore schlump. Canadian tennis wunderkind Denis Shapovalov is coming off a fruitful second pro season, scaling the ATP ranks — he hit new career-high rankings 11 times in 2018 — to sit currently at No. 27. The 19-year-old from Richmond Hill became the youngest semifinalist in the history of the Madrid Masters in May, and was clutch in Canada’s David Cup victory over the Netherlands over the summer. He’s known for his combustible energy and his daring, lay-it-all-on-the-line shots. And his equally intrepid fashion sense — flashy colours and covetable sneakers — has earned him some endorsement deals with the likes of TAG Heuer and Nike.
At a recent charity gig for the Lights Foundation, thrown by TAG, we caught up with Shapo to chat about his personal style, his desire to raise the bar for Canadian tennis, and what he’s got in common with Dr. Henry Jekyll.
When people think Denis Shapovalov, they think bold, gutsy shots. How did that become your calling card?
I think from when I was young, my mom always told me to go for it, be aggressive, and not be scared to go for the shots. I think it’s a huge asset in my game today. You know, a lot of guys in big moments, they hesitate, but I feel like I’m the opposite. Sometimes, maybe I go too much. But it’s easier to tone it down than to go for it sometimes. So yeah, it’s just a trait I’ve grown up with. I think it really helps me on the court.
Would you say your on-court style matches your off-court personality?
No, definitely not. I’m two different characters for sure. Off the court, I’m definitely more of a shy, mellow, pretty nice guy. I’m just humble and just go about my business. But then on the court, I’m different, man. You know, I’m a beast out there. Not in a cocky way, but I’m out there battling and fighting and I feel like almost, I would compare myself to wolf. I feel like my opponent is my prey and I’m just going to do anything I can to beat him out there. That’s just the contrast I have; it’s almost like I’m two different people sometimes.
Tell me about your personal style. What would be in a Denis Shapovalov starter pack?
I’m really into shoes. I’m a sneakerhead. I wear a lot of Jordan stuff, and a lot of black or white clothes. I especially Jordan 1’s and Air Forces. I like a little bit of the rapper look, a little stylish. Sometimes I like to wear some baggier stuff. You know, I’m pretty chill, honestly. I’m just like an average 19-year-old. I was raised in a pretty humble family, I just go about my business. I stay with my closest friends. I don’t, you know, hang out with posses or anything. I just chill with my boys. [Laughs.]
You still roll with your Vaughan crew?
Definitely, yeah! I’ve got, like, two or three close friends that I’ve had from when I was young, so, it’s those friends that sometimes, when I’m outside of tennis, I need them with me. They’ve been with me my whole life, so they don’t see me as Dennis the Tennis Player, you know? They see me as Dennis the 12-year-old guy I met back in the day. It’s always great to have friends like that, who you can always trust and rely on.
Let’s talk watches. What do you look for in a watch?
Obviously the bezel. It’s gotta be a nice looking bezel. And then obviously the strap. I like a a rubber strap, so it’s kind of more sporty. I’m more into sportier watches and TAG does just such a good job with that. I mean, I think almost all their watches look pretty sporty, so they’re making great watches for me.
Do you get noticed a lot more in public now?
Yeah, I’ve gotten used to it. Obviously, in Toronto happens a lot, but it’s honestly awesome. When the fans are respectful and nice about it, it’s always great. I don’t mind taking a picture, getting to know them. It’s the reason why I play. You know, they come and support me and they help me play well. So I return the favour. I’m always happy to spend time with them, especially the kids. It just makes my day when the kids are shy but want to come up to you and you take a picture with them and they’re just so happy.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I’m into a lot of rap. Recently, Jay Z has really inspired me. I listen to him all the time. He’s a guy who one day I hope to meet. He’s really a big idol of mine.
You totally sidestepped the sophomore slump, despite all the high expectations that were on you this year. How’d you avoid cracking under the pressure. I think that’s TAG’s slogan, isn’t it…
I had a great season. I mean, yeah, for sure, it’s tough the following season. Everyone talks about it. But I just tried to stay focused. I tried not to think about results. I tried to think about just improving, getting my game better, and the results will come. I think I’ve done a good job with that and so has my team.
How would you like the rest of your career to play out? What’s the dream?
My dream is obviously. in terms of performance, I want to be number one. I want to win Grand Slams and stuff like this — you know, just like any tennis player wishes. But my main dream is to raise the level of Canadian tennis. It’s really a hockey nation — and don’t get me wrong I love hockey — but I love seeing kids pick up tennis rackets. I love the idea that Canadians are starting to believe it’s possible to become a tennis player when you’re from here. I just hope that the level and the game keeps growing in Canada. You know, you have Milos Raonic, who’s inspired guys like me and Felix [Auger-Aliassime]. I’m sure me and Felix are doing the same for some kids who are young right now and are going to be good in a couple of years. I hope to see a lot more great Canadian tennis players. I hope to see a lot more rivals of mine of the court.