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Great things may yet come to Denis Shapovalov, he just needs to wait

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Thursday, January 18, 2018 – Page B11

In his seminal 2000 essay on choking in sports, Malcolm Gladwell began by describing how Jana Novotna appeared as she fell apart in a Wimbledon final.

"Novotna was now visibly agitated, rocking back and forth, jumping up and down.

"She talked to herself under her breath. Her eyes darted around the court ... Novotna was unrecognizable, not an elite tennis player but a beginner again."

Whenever Denis Shapovalov is able to watch tape of his second-round loss on Wednesday at the Australian Open, he'll recognize those symptoms.

The 18-year-old Canadian has been through many new professional experiences in the past five months.

Now, after crumbling at the end of a match he had all but won, he knows what it's like to come apart at the seams as the world watches you do it.

Shapovalov came into this year's Australian Open exerting more gravity than the 50thranked player in the world probably should. Despite his inexperience, he is becoming one of those bodies the tennis world circles around.

John McEnroe, the closest thing we have to an agreedupon sage in these matters, recently called him "the future of our sport." He said Shapovalov would be top-five in the world within months.

All this excitement is based on four weeks of play at the end of last summer. Four marvellous weeks no doubt, but four weeks, nonetheless.

It's not what he's done that's made Shapovalov globally famous (beaten Rafael Nadal in a secondary tournament; reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open), but how he's looked as he's done it.

Shapovalov has the wild, 12cylinder style associated with some of men's tennis's most exciting players - players such as Gaël Monfils and Nick Kyrgios - but none of the emotional blind spots. He is a dervish between the lines and a diplomat outside them.

In a sport where there are currently only two types of oncourt personality - imperturbable or erratic - Shapovalov uniquely combines both. People have reacted to that. Perhaps, at this point, overreacted.

In the short time people have been paying serious attention to him, Shapovalov also hadn't taken a step wrong. À la McEnroe, the expectation seemed to be he would rise and rise until he'd won something big. Probably in no time at all.

Now we know it's going to take a little time.

"Bad luck," Shapovalov said after Wednesday's athletic cavein. "It's a sport. It happens, so ..." And left it there.

Shapovalov's breakthrough at Flushing Meadows came against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In that September match, he turned the veteran Frenchman inside out.

Wednesday's rematch between the pair had more of a see-saw character. Shapovalov delighted, while Tsonga plodded. Both strategies were intermittently effective.

Younger and more spry, the Canadian bounded into the fifth set. He had Tsonga down on the ground, 5-2. Shapovalov was within two points of ending it when Tsonga pulled out a stop.

But it was over. You could feel it.

And then it started to turn.

In what should have been the final game of the match, Shapovalov's serve began to sail on him. His backhand turned into a cracked firehose. He hit the volley as if he were trying to put the ball through, rather than over, the net.

As the wheels came off, Shapovalov did all the things Novotna had done - the rocking, the hopping, the muttering and the desperate stare. He was unrecognizable as an elite player.

For his part, Tsonga went Zen - he stopped trying. He put balls into the middle of the court and counted on his shattered opponent to put them out.

Over an excruciating 20-or-so minutes, Shapovalov gave back his advantage and more. He lost five games in a row and the match 3-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

As he left the court afterward, he appeared close to tears of frustration.

"As much as the loss hurts, you know, I don't find it a loss," Shapovalov said in his news conference. "I find it as an opportunity to learn."

For all of us, then.

Canadians are still new to tennis in terms of enjoying a national rooting interest at the highest level. That young fan base has known some disappointment - Eugenie Bouchard losing a Wimbledon final in 2014; Milos Raonic going out at the same point two years later.

But those losses seemed logical, and were never in doubt. We don't have many truly bitter defeats to look back on.

In that sense, this was a first.

Although it came early in a tournament few Canadians watch live, it was the hard swing from innocence to experience that made it such a letdown.

For about three hours, it seemed as if Shapovalov was going to make John McEnroe a prophet; like right now. Tsonga was just the first. He was going to beat Kyrgios, and Grigor Dmitrov and then the great names.

At moments on Wednesday, Shapovalov looked that good.

As if he were playing at a different speed than everyone else.

All he needed was a little momentum, a running jump into the pack leaders.

And then the kid who is already the most electric tennis player in our history turned into a teenage pumpkin.

It was one of those sports collapses that you as the viewer feel partly responsible for. You got ahead of yourself, and then the guy you were watching did the same thing. Obviously, that was all connected.

This is the point at which all of us - Shapovalov and the Canadians interested in his rise - assure ourselves that this was a blip. Better yet, as Shapovalov put it, a learning opportunity.

He'll come back stronger and so forth.

Maybe. We won't know until the next time he's in this situation at a Grand Slam. At the earliest, that's the French Open in 41/2 months.

It does seem like a long while for us to wait and for Shapovalov to spend thinking.

Novotna lost in the Wimbledon final four times (Gladwell wrote about the third of those), but she won it in the end. Twice.

That's a nicer idea to dwell on right now.

If Wednesday accomplished anything in the still preposterously young career of Denis Shapovalov, it was reminding us good things may come in time to good players. The worst thing they or you can do is rush them.

Associated Graphic

Canada's Denis Shapovalov bites his racquet in frustration during his second-round match against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Wednesday. Playing a five-set match for just the third time in his career, Shapovalov couldn't hold off a late rally from his opponent.


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