Denis Shapovalov interview

Canadian tennis star Denis Shapovalov returns to Montreal, where he made his name

We spoke to Shapovalov about that epic 2017 match against Nadal, aspiring to Federer greatness, making music, eating poutine, the other Denis Shapovalov and more.

The past decade has seen a golden age for Canadian tennis, with unprecedented wins and rankings by Bianca Andreescu and Milos Raonic and the rise of Montrealers Felix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Fernandez. Key to this story is Denis Shapovalov, a player who’s been on every Canadian tennis fan’s radar since he defeated Rafael Nadal in an epic match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2017, when he was only 18 years old.

“I can still remember the noise of the crowd like it was yesterday,” says Shapovalov, on a Zoom call from his home in the Bahamas. “That whole week was kind of a starting point for my professional career, the moment where I made it on tour, so it’s definitely always special to come back and play Montreal with those fans again.”

This month, Shapovalov will return to the Montreal tournament (now known as the National Bank Open) for only the second time since that crazy match, to show this city’s fans what he’s made of in 2022.

Born in Israel, raised in Toronto, Shapovalov came up alongside his friend Auger-Aliassime, ranking #2 at the junior level, achieving a #10 ranking as a pro and reaching the 2021 semi-finals at Wimbledon (where he won the title as a junior in 2016).

“I think Wimbledon is just so prestige,” he says. “It’s the top tournament in tennis in that respect, and it’s just really cool to be a part of. But the U.S. Open is more my personality. The style, the noise, the fans in New York City — the energy of it is so electric.”

denis shapovalov Montreal national bank open August 2022 cult mtl issue magazine print cover interview
Denis Shapovalov on the cover of Cult MTL, Aug. 2022

Shapovalov, a lefty with a one-handed backhand, is known for his aggressive, “high-risk” style — a powerful ground game, but not necessarily a consistent one. When asked how to recapture the magic he’s capable of when things aren’t going well in a match, he says it’s all in the prep.

“It’s important to keep having confidence in yourself,” he says. “When things aren’t going well, the work that I do put in day in, day out, it’s gonna come out in the important moments when I need it to. Of course, tennis is always up and down, not just in the match but as the weeks go, so it’s important to always remember that all the work that you put into it does pan out sooner or later.”

Like most athletes, Shapovalov obliged to stick to a strict diet, particularly during tournaments — you’ll often see him eating bananas during matches, on the advice of a former coach, though he recently revealed that it might be the fruit he hates the most. Post-tournament, when it’s possible to consume more decadent fare, he’s more of a burger guy than someone who’s likely to indulge in Quebec’s national dish.

“I’m not super crazy for poutine, but I know in Montreal you guys have that famous place with people waiting outside,” he says, referring to la Banquise. “I always wanted to go but it seems like crazy lines, all the time.”

On the rare occasion that he has any downtime, Shapovalov works on music. It’s a hobby he shared with the world by rapping post-match at the Indian Wells tournament in 2019, on the request of the stadium’s emcee. Shapovalov later described his own impromptu performance as “awful,” but the pandemic allowed him the time to hone his flow.

“I’ve been writing lyrics for five, six years now, and during the pandemic it was easy to focus on that, build a home studio and just record stuff and put some things together. It takes a lot of time and effort, which is difficult when the season is in play, but I definitely want to get back into the studio.”

Perhaps a musical collaboration between Denis Shapovalov the tennis player and Denis Shapovalov the Russian cellist (and owner of is in order. “I’ve never thought about that, but it would definitely be cool just to meet him. He’s been around for quite some time. I recall, when I was young, I would Google to see who has my name and it turns out he’s a pretty famous musician.”

Over the course of his pro career so far, Shapovalov has attracted his share of famous fans, even early on. Wayne Gretzky watched one of his matches during the 2017 Rogers Cup, telling the media that Shapovalov had “captured the imagination” of Montreal fans. More recently, Shapovalov got a chance to work with another famous Oilers player, Connor McDavid, through a sponsorship.

“He came to one of my Davis Cup matches, along with a couple of other hockey guys, so that’s been pretty fun,” says Shapovalov, who gravitated towards hockey as a child, but was discouraged from playing by his parents — notably his mother Tessa, a former tennis player and her son’s first coach — because of the injuries that are occupational hazards in pro hockey.

As far as his own fandom is concerned, one tennis player that Shapovalov admires, and has yet to face on the court, is Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz.

“I’m a huge fan of his game. I think he’s an unbelievable talent, but he’s also a great person —  super humble and a nice guy. It’d be really fun to play him and I’m sure we’ll have the chance throughout our career. I look forward to it.”

One of Shapovalov’s childhood tennis heroes was Roger Federer, a champion at the end of a career filled with highlights. A footnote to that legacy is Federer’s branding, which includes what’s arguably one of the best logos in sports. I asked whether that level of design is something Shapovalov has ever pondered.

“At some point in my career, of course it would be great if I achieve enough to make my logo,” he says. “But I need to work to get to that kind of place before I can start thinking about that.” ■

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Denis Shapovalov will play singles and doubles (alongside Karen Khachanov) at the 2022 National Bank Open, which takes place at Stade IGA in Monteal’s Jarry Park from Aug. 5–14.

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