The great rock ‘n roll sage Mick Jagger gave us this abiding truth: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
American tennis has long craved its own young Elvis – say a millennial-friendly hybrid of our past greats. We imagine the emergence of some kid with the crowd-friendly, fist-pump brashness of Jimmy Connors, the “You cannot be serious!” candor of McEnroe, the forehand and diva power of Serena, the showmanship of Agassi, the serve of Sampras and the apple pie “girl-next-door-ness” of Chrissie.
America has a deep and promising pipeline – that’s great. But fans look for compelling, over-the-top characters at the very top. And not since Andy Roddick has the American game produced a sizzling star with an unmistakable “It” quality.
That’s what we Americans want. Well, at least we got what we need. Hello, Denis Shapovalov, hello!
Okay, we know, the kid’s a born-in-Israel Canadian with Russian parents. He’s only 18 and earlier this year he foolishly blasted a ball into the eye of a Davis Cup Chair umpire – a bonehead move that gave Britain the tie. Shapovalov hasn’t won a big trophy to put on his family’s Vaughan, Ontario mantle. Goodness, earlier this year he was ranked No. 250.
But the kid is tennis’ Elvis – a hip-shaking crowd pleaser who’s wise beyond his years. Like the young Rafa Nadal he’s a lefty with crazy teen skills – a true prodigy. Like Bjorn Borg and Lleyton Hewitt, he has the obligatory long blonde locks. His cap-backwards, cross-bearing fashion sensibility has its own name – “Shapo-fashion.”
He gives us flash. His wondrous backhand isn’t as poetic as Roger’s and it’s not as powerful as Stan Wawrinka’s. Rather it suggests Guga Kuerten’s flowing backhand – a quick-strike ferocity.
Shapovalov is all about freedom. He’s youthful, unafraid and takes off on mercurial dashes. But, dare we note – unlike Nick Kyrgios and Bernie Tomic – he seems demon-free. He’s not a jerk. In contrast, he dares to say, “I just love [tennis] so much.” He appeals to the masses – crowds roar. His game flows spontaneously. He accepts that there’s work to be done – he respects the game. “He looks like he belongs,” observed Cliff Drysdale.
The golden man-boy engages our imagination. He relishes the big stage and big moments. The youngest player to ever reach the semis of a Masters 1000 tourney, here at the Open he played three times on the biggest court in the world – Ashe Stadium – and this summer he’s beaten Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Willy Tsonga. He says August and the US Open have been life-changing – you think?
But this afternoon against the No. 12 seed, Pablo Carreno Busta, there were only brief flashes of magic. He didn’t have it. In the first set he failed to convert three set points and went down in three close tiebreak sets 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3). “Coulda, shoulda, woulda,” quipped Drysdale. “And the truth is this match was a shoulda.”
Speaking of shoulda, Shapovalov should bring tennis a much needed jolt of “Wow!” And he knows it. He wants to inspire young Canadians to pick up tennis rackets instead of hockey sticks.
He told IT how a young wide-eyed kid came up to him the other day in Central Park and said, “Oh my God, wow, I can’t believe it, it’s him.” Denis says, “I want to change the sport, first of all in Canada. But definitely in America, I think I’m making an impact…The best thing in life is to see kids like this looking up to you and just aspiring to be like you.”
So the dream is alive. This is great, because long ago Jagger told us, “Lose your dreams and you’ll lose your mind.”