Shapovalov sees off 'super tough' French veteran

 - Ravi Ubha

In-form Canadian steadies to deny Simon in four-set first round

Denis Shapovalov, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Rafael Nadal has stockpiled Roland-Garros trophies over the years.

Could another left-hander, Denis Shapovalov, win a Grand Slam title in Paris one day?

Shapovalov favours flat, laser groundstrokes instead of the spin associated with the Spaniard — and clay-court tennis in general — but the Canadian’s flashy shot-making has translated to success on various surfaces in his still young career.

This month, the 21-year-old reached the semi-finals at the Italian Open and stretched Diego Schwartzman — Nadal’s conqueror in Rome — to a third-set tie-break. For that, he earned a spot inside the top 10 for the first time.

Now ranked 11th, Shapovalov began his Roland-Garros campaign on Tuesday by earning victory against another clay-court veteran, Gilles Simon, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in a shade under three and a half hours.

The eventful contest could have gone the distance on Court Philippe-Chatrier, with home hope Simon sure to rue not serving out the second at 5-3, 40-0.

“Definitely very happy to get the win,” Shapovalov said. “Coming back in the second set was huge, otherwise I felt like it would have been a long five-set battle.

“Of course, to play Gilles is super tough, especially on these courts. Super happy to get the win.”

When asked later on court by former Grand Slam finalist Cedric Pioline about cracking the top 10, Shapovalov thanked his team.

That includes current coach Mikhail Youzhny and a sports psychologist, whom Shapovalov simply refers to as Vadim and often spoke about en route to making the quarter-finals at the US Open.

The Canadian said working with Youzhny in Florida during the season’s shutdown has contributed to his success on the dirt faster than many would have anticipated.

“They don’t have red clay, but we spent a lot of time on green clay and just got used to playing on clay, working the points and just building my game on that surface,” Shapovalov said. “So I really feel like it’s been super helpful but I don’t think anyone expected for my transition to be that good and to play that well in Rome and leading into even this tournament.

“To play so well today, the conditions are way different than they are in Rome. It’s almost like playing on another, third surface.”

Rome brought warmer climes than the cold and wet currently featuring in Paris.

Simon has seen it all.

While he played Youzhny 12 times, Simon had only ever faced Shapovalov once before. But that too came in Paris, when he was forced to retire with a leg injury indoors last year at the Paris Masters.

At 35, the Frenchman is past his prime but the charismatic counterpuncher once coaxed 100 unforced errors out of Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open only to lose. Opponents indeed know what he brings to the table.

Shapovalov committed nearly 30 unforced errors in the second set alone, when it appeared as if Simon’s web weaving would level the contest.

Simon’s running monologue included “You’re driving me crazy”, after another net-cord winner went against him earlier in the set, and he let out a roar, which might have been heard at the Eiffel Tower when broken at 5-5.

That was the most absorbing set of the affair, with Simon having let slip a 5-2 lead. Taking out his anger on a water bottle, he earned a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct and to compound his woes, he felt he received a bad call as Shapovalov served at 6-5, 15-0.

A reeling Simon was broken early in the third but commendably did not fade. And when Shapovalov netted a slice at the net with Simon stranded, he officially forced a fourth set.

Alas, Shapovalov — whose numbers of 55 winners and 65 unforced errors certainly were not poor given the conditions and his foe — was the man in form.

His quest to reach a second straight Grand Slam quarter-final or go even further continues on the surface he just might be growing to like.