MELBOURNE, Australia - As the 2022 Australian Open began, Denis Shapovalov talked about wanting to bring the “Rafa mentality” to the court.
Now that he's reached the quarterfinals Down Under for the first time in his career after a 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 dismantling of world No. 3 Alexander Zverev in the round of 16 Sunday, he will get to test out that new mantra against the man who created it.
The 22-year-old Canadian will face 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal on Tuesday, with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
“It's just fighting for every point, kind of just staying in it, not letting things bother you,” Shapovalov said of the mindset he hoped he and his team could bring to the court in 2022.
If the match against Zverev was any indication, it's already mission accomplished.
Shapovalov is the third Canadian to reach the final eight in Melbourne. He joins Milos Raonic (who has gone at least that far on five occasions) and Mike Belkin, who reached the quarterfinals in 1968 - the first year of tennis's open era.
Felix Auger-Aliassime will attempt to join that group Monday (late Sunday night ET) when the No. 9 seed takes on No. 27 seed Marin Cilic in his own round-of-16 match.
“I'm definitely expecting a long battle out there. He makes you play a lot. His defence is very good. He's very good at what he does, you know?” Shapovalov said of Nadal. “I'm going to have to try to play my game, take it to him and keep doing what I have been doing: playing patient, fighting for every point and picking my spots to play aggressively.”
Shapovalov had a slight dip in focus at the end of the second set against Zverev. But beyond that, he outhit the mighty Zverev from the baseline. He kept the errors down. And on a steamy, humid day, he kept his infamously inconsistent cool pretty much throughout.
“Obviously it was really hot to begin with. Did a good job of just staying patient and, yeah, trying to play a little quickly on my serve games,” Shapovalov said. “I think I did everything really, really well today.”
Other than 11 double faults, Shapovalov dominated the rallies with power and surprising consistency. He rarely looked in trouble.
For his part, Zverev never looked as though he might mount a charge. And his career-long struggle with his second serve, resolved fairly well in 2021, reared its head. With eight double faults, he won just 29 per cent of his second-serve points.
“Maybe since Wimbledon, one of the worst matches I have played. It's just tough,” a downcast Zverev said. “Obviously I give credit to Denis. It's incredible he's in the quarters. I think he deserves it. He's done a lot of work. He's improved his game. But I've got to look at myself, as well. Today was just, in my opinion, awful from my side.”
Shapovalov went 22-for-27 at the net on Sunday. That's an area where he has made steady improvement in the last two years, and where he hopes new coach Jamie Delgado, a fine volleyer in his day, will make even more of an impact.
The arrival of Andy Murray's former longtime coach, and Shapovalov's first breakthrough effort Down Under, are happening concurrently.
After just a few weeks, though, it's far too soon to assess Delgado's impact.
However, adding the 44-year-old Brit, after parting ways with Russian former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny at the end of last season, was 100 per cent Shapovalov's decision.
It may be the first major call on his career that the Richmond Hill, Ont., native has made on his own, with mother and coach Tessa such a strong presence as he rose through the ranks.
“For sure, it's a little bit about growing up - wanting my parents to be my parents and kind of treating this like more of like a business and like a job,” Shapovalov said. “And I really wanted to build a team that's going to be on the same page the whole time. So it was it was my call, and my decision.”
Shapovalov spoke to a few potential candidates. He even approached his former coach and the former Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau to return.
“It just didn't work out. He's in a good position with Tennis Canada, and he's pretty comfortable. We just, couldn't come to a good agreement,” Shapovalov said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2022.