The future of tennis is here

“Who is this kid?”

The question came from a pair of couples seated behind me. The volume of their voices had been escalating slightly every couple of minutes thanks to the souvenir beers they drank. They weren’t the only people drinking, as the steady rain kept everybody inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, rather than exploring the US Open grounds as normal. How closely they were paying attention to every point of the match is debatable, but their interest had been piqued.

“Who is this kid?”

It was a question most people had on their minds, from the top rows of the stadium to the lower suites, which over the course of the week had been occupied by a rotating cast of celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, and Anna Wintour. Everyone was on the edge of their seat for a first-set tiebreak featuring Pablo Carreño-Busta, the 12th-ranked player in the world who has been steadily rising through the ranks in tennis for the past half-decade.

But the “kid” everyone was buzzing about was Carreño-Busta’s opponent, 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov (who, fortunately for everyone with pronunciation struggles, goes by Shapo) and instead of cheering on the seeded favorite the crowd was hanging on every point the then-69th-ranked Shapo played — every flick of his wrist or youthful wince at a wasted opportunity.

The crowd was locked on Shapo, a Canadian player with blonde locks that recall Bjorn Borg as much as they do a contemporary teen beach bum, and a focus on the court that did little to belie his boyfish features.

The rain forcing everybody into the roofed stadium made the daytime match louder and more crowded than it would be normally, and each point brought with it a rolling murmur, followed by a roar of approval or disappointment.

Crowds at Arthur Ashe, the largest tennis stadium in the world, are known to root for underdogs. (Or Americans, who earn automatic support from the crowd). But in this fourth-round match, one of the first of the second week of the tournament, Shapo was getting all the love without having any of those things on his side.

With his long hair, affable smirks, and a signature backwards hat that he likes to wear a size too big, it’s unsurprising that Shapo resonates with a crowd. He’s funny without being childish, gets down on himself without expressing his temper as outwardly as you would expect a teenager to on the court (with the exception of an embarrassing and impulsive display earlier this year that left a chair umpire injured, which he publicly apologized for) and would be just as believable as a teenager whose family pushed him into male modeling, or a loafing next door neighbor who mows your lawn.

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Shapo is someone who could break through … if tennis fans are ready for him. After all, US Open fans are a crowd that, like most tennis audiences right now, are still indelibly attached to the Big 4 of the game — Roger Federer, eventual 2017 Open champ Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Between them, they’ve won 50 out of 60 Major tournaments in the last 15 seasons and become stalwarts of a sport that is reticent to let them go. Even players in the same age group as the Big 4 have risen to high levels, but with the exception of Juan Martin del Potro (whose fans are some of the most committed in any sport, not just tennis) have failed to garner anywhere near the same devotion as that quartet.

Shapo lost the first tiebreak 7-2, and for the rest of the match vacillated between looking as sharp and aggressive as anyone left in the draw and wavering on big points, failing to use his wingspan and flexibility to take advantage of any openings Carreño-Busta offered. The match would be over in an abrupt three sets with a final score of 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) — a match much more entertaining and hard fought on the court than it looked on paper.

It didn’t matter that he fell short of the Round of 16, though. After the nearly three-hour affair it was easy to see that the crowd had embraced him. Afterwards, he was dubbed a sensation by international outlets. Commentators latched on to his style of play and youthful promise.

Shapo made his mark, showed his potential, and bowed out early at the year’s last Major. But the fact that he even got that far, and made such an impression, is great news for men’s tennis.

During his final press conference of the tournament, as Shapo answered questions from curious reporters, he ran his hands through his hair like your favorite teen idol and responded affirmatively to a question on whether he could also have an impact on tennis’ growth beyond Canadian borders. It’s disappointing to think fans could be missing out on a positive, mature, and most importantly captivating individual because of the shadows still being cast by those who have come before.

Shapovalov is like a player who was crafted in an Interesting Athlete Lab to appeal to as many people from as many backgrounds as possible. He’s half-Cliché Canadian Youth and half-Most Interesting Boy in the World. Born in Tel Aviv to parents that were Russian-Israeli citizens, Shapo’s family moved to Canada early in his life where he started playing tennis, encouraged by his mom, who eventually started her own tennis facility which she still runs and coaches at today.

He lives and trains in the Bahamas for much of the year (which, if you grew up in Canadian winters, you would probably choose to do too); he goofs on his own form with Michael Jackson references; he unabashedly loves “his idol” Wayne Gretzky and Roger Federer and Taylor Swift. He roots for the Maple Leafs and supports the Raptors and recently became an ambassador for the National Bank of Canada, but would just as easily fit in at a California beach playing frisbee while talking to his high school buddies about midterms as he does in a toque or on a tennis court.

The first sign that Shapo was someone to keep an eye on at this year’s US Open, at least for casual fans, came two rounds before his match against eventual semifinalist Carreño-Busta, when he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in three sets. He easily dispatched the 2008 Australian Open finalist, who had hoped to use this year’s relatively easy men’s draw to make it to a Major final nine years after he had first reached one.

There were those for whom that match was a wakeup call about the possibilities of the next generation of men’s tennis — that young players are here and ready to unseat the Big 4’s dominance if they can. Many considered it a validation of Shapo’s promise that was arriving pleasantly — but not quite surprisingly — ahead of schedule.

His ATP ranking was in the mid-100s as recently as June, before he decided to use the summer as his personal coming out party at the pro level. Shapo, also the 2016 Wimbledon Junior Champion, made the semifinal of the Rogers Cup in Montreal, beating Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to losing to his peer, Sascha Zverev. He became the youngest player to ever make a Masters 1000 semifinal, announcing himself as a threat against players of all levels.

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

His rise to prominence in Flushing Meadows almost didn’t happen though. He didn’t receive a wild-card entry into the US Open, a decision that forced him to play four additional matches just to make it to the main draw rather than being granted automatic entry from the start. Shapo himself acknowledged he expected such a decision (as tournaments tend to favor home country players) and rolled with the punches accordingly.

It wasn’t only the wild card that could have kept him out of the public eye, but a relegation to outer courts and non-primetime matches. He — like many of his peers — greatly benefited from a men’s draw decimated by injuries among the top players. On July 26, Novak Djokovic started the deluge of injury announcements when he held a press conference to announce he would be shutting down for the rest of the season to fully rehabilitate an ailing elbow injury that had plagued him for more than a year.

On Aug. 4, defending champion Stan Wawrinka announced that due to a knee injury, he would not compete at the US Open. Kei Nishikori, a finalist in 2014, followed suit on Aug. 16 due to a torn tendon in his wrist. On the 24th, top Canadian talent Milos Raonic announced that he wouldn’t be heading to New York either thanks to an ailing wrist. Then to cap it off, world No. 2 and 2012 champion Andy Murray pulled out of the draw on the Saturday before the tournament began due to a pestering hip injury.

While it was a blow to TV ratings and those who were hoping to watch their favorite players in a Major before the year was out, these injuries were a boon to younger players who were on the verge of breaking out. Shapo especially. Would he have played three straight matches on Arthur Ashe if Nishikori, Wawrinka, and Murray were there to fill those primetime slots? Probably not. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have forced his way into people’s consciousnesses without that attention advantage, but it sure helped give him a boost.

Tennis fans are lucky that it worked out this way.

There are other young men in Shapo’s age group who have been coming up this summer or over the past season, but nobody comes close to matching his mix of magnetism and skill. There’s the previously-mentioned Zverev (who can’t cut it in five set matches yet), there’s Dominic Thiem (who is very sweet and talented but as vanilla as they come), there’s Borna Coric (who mostly keeps to himself and hasn’t done anything major since his promise was first flaunted a few years ago) and there’s Andrey Rublev (who hasn’t really shown a breakout personality trait for fans to latch on to).

In Shapo, tennis couldn’t have crafted a better heir to the current rotation of top players — the Big 4, plus Wawrinka and Nishikori — who are heading for retirement, many of them sooner than anyone wants to admit.

Based on the talk around the grounds at the Open, men’s tennis fans might not be fully on board with saying goodbye to their heroes just yet. The Big 4 has been dominant for so long that separating tennis fans from their favorite player right now is easier said than done, even with firsthand evidence of how engaging some of the new players could be once they fully inherit the spotlight.

In Shapovalov’s post-loss press conference, he sits ruddy-faced and answers many questions that you would expect in this type of session; questions about family, tennis’ popularity in Canada, and whether he wishes the tiebreak was never invented after losing three of them in a row (he has no ill-will towards tennis tiebreak inventor James Van Alen).

At one point, with his arms crossed in front of him like a seasoned professional, he is asked about his lessons learned from the tournament.

He says what many fans discovered that week: That he can compete with the current guys on tour week in and week out. He makes sure to add that he still has a lot to work on to maintain this level of play, but as anyone could see he has a solid shot at doing so.

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 7

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Three women of various ages — a mother, daughter, and family friend — sat in the center of the grounds on the second Monday of the tournament, watching Rafael Nadal’s match on a pair of oversized screens. This trio had hoped to find extra tickets into Ashe to watch Rafa firsthand but had no luck, so settled for the bustling central viewing area and some drinks instead.

From under their sun hats and Oakley glasses, while sipping on the tournament’s signature Honey Deuce cocktail, they discussed the current state of men’s tennis — at least from the fan’s point of view.

They admitted they aren’t ready for the next era of the sport yet, though there’s a good chance that retirements are coming down the pike. Federer, for example, has been openly concerned about his back and his body’s ability to handle the general wear of the tennis tour.

The women didn’t watch Shapovalov’s loss the day before, although they did notice people seemed to be drawn to that match. Nor did they notice that announcers had been discussing Coric’s semi-shocking upset of fellow next-big-thing Zverev days earlier. The most ardent fan out of the three made it clear that her commitment to the old guard will only fade once it leaves the courts for good, no matter how promising the young players on tour look at any given tournament.

The family friend put it most succinctly: “It’s hard to let go of the Big 4. When I have to give up Rafa I will.”

Her outlook echoed many other fans’ on the grounds. Some seemed willfully ignorant of the generational shift taking place in men’s tennis, claiming that there aren’t really any good American men on tour to root for (ignoring 2017 quarterfinalist Sam Querrey), or that they don’t pay attention to players until they graduate to the pro tour and “start making an impression” (ignoring the beginnings of many promising young careers happening right now).

By comparison, fans of the women’s half of the tour seem to be much more prepared for the next generation. Naomi Osaka, a bubbly player of Haitian-Japanese descent (who represents Japan on the court), drew one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen at the US Open (non-Arthur Ashe category) for a third-round match she would eventually lose to surprise quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi.

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 2

2017 US Open Tennis Championships - Day 2

Naomi Osaka Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Fans were packed into just a few rows of bleachers on an outer court for the match, some of them discovering Osaka for the first time. Many in the crowd seemed at peace with Venus, Serena, and other top women preparing to move on from the tour thanks to a surplus of rising women’s talent. Osaka has made it to the third round of every Major tournament this year at just 19 years old.

Two older women, both African American, seemed highly invested in every point Osaka played, although they refrained from showing emotion as much as they could in case they mistakenly made noise and disturbed a point. Attentive and straight-backed on the bleachers, they had been following her matches all year, not just at the top tournaments, and told me “we love watching her” in between two edge-of-your-seat points.

The most frequent complaint I heard about the women’s game mid-tournament was that there was still no clear American successor to the Williams sisters. Conveniently, four Americans made the US Open semifinals for the first time since 1981, and the first time in any Major since 1985. Three of those players were much-hyped women under the age of 26, and 24-year old Sloane Stephens took home the trophy for her first Slam win.

Fans of the men’s game just aren’t in the same place as women’s fans. Whether that’s because Venus and Serena already gave a glimpse of what the future of women’s tennis will feel like when they had career dips a few years back, or because everybody saw how easily the tour got on without the star power of Maria Sharapova during her PED ban, is hard to say. What seems evident is that men’s fans are more content to put their heads in the sand while their game transitions. In the mean time, they may miss out on genuinely enjoyable career beginnings of Shapo and the rest.

No matter what entrance you use to walk into the US Open grounds, you are confronted with the history of tennis and the towering talents that helped craft the sport.

From one direction, traditional white banners hang from posts tipped with gold spheres, and photos of every past winner greet you as you walk up a brick path towards the main courts. The men and women who have lifted trophies during the final weekend are frozen in time, hitting forehands or backhands or serves, some of them pictured in exuberant winning poses so that you know exactly how they felt at the moment they won championship point.

From the other direction, the Court of Champions envelops you in two curved walls adorned with shining golden plaques celebrating the titans of the sport. Even if you don’t have the time or interest to read the inscriptions and track how many Major tournaments each honoree won in their time, the message is clear. Chris Evert, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, and Billie Jean King all reached tennis’ peak and elevated the entire sport as they did so.

Gerry Weber Open 2015 - Day 3

Gerry Weber Open 2015 - Day 3

Photo by Thomas Starke/Bongarts/Getty Images

Not all tennis fans are ignoring the next generation of men’s tennis, but many are content with their current favorites. As an era of dominance heads towards a close, the goal for many fans is to hold onto every player’s career as tightly as possible and avoid acknowledging how lucky they were to be treated to this level of magnificent tennis for so long.

As long as their skills are there, younger players like Shapo will break out in their careers in due time, no matter whether fans embrace them before the generational transition is complete. But by selling new players short, fans are limiting their own experience, and giving up the chance to welcome new talents and enjoy fresh faces as they emerge.

Shapovalov and his peers will have a hard enough time competing with the memory of the players on those banners no matter their results on the court, but if fans start accepting the state of things earlier rather than later and meet halfway, the eventual loss of veterans will be that much easier to take. Young players might not be able to replace Rafa, Roger, or anyone else, but more actively welcoming exuberant players like Shapo as they take the stage should lessen the blow when the time comes to say goodbye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *