No athlete in Canada held the spotlight in 2017 quite like Denis Shapovalov.
The 18-year-old’s remarkable run up the ATP rankings, leaving behind upset wins over Grand Slam tournament champions, has earned the Richmond Hill, Ont., tennis player the Lionel Conacher Award as the Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
Shapovalov collected 20 of 64 votes (31 per cent) in a poll of broadcasters and sports editors from across the country. He edged Sidney Crosby, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second straight Stanley Cup, by a single vote. Slugger Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds was third with 11 votes (17 per cent).
“To be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed to get this award, this huge honour,” Shapovalov said in a phone interview from his training base in Florida. “There are so many Canadian athletes that deserve it, so it’s honestly motivating me to keep going and work harder. I’m very happy.”
It is the third time in five years the award has gone to a tennis player. Milos Raonic, still Canada’s top-ranked player at 24th despite an injury-shortened season, took it in 2013 and 2014.
Shapovalov is hot on Raonic’s heels. He started the year ranked 250th in the world and reached as high as 49th after big performances at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and the U.S. Open in New York. He ended the season ranked 51st.
The Canadian is being touted as a rising star with potential to crack the top 10 or even top five in the world.
But what moved voters was Shapovalov’s style and sense of timing as much as his skill. The left-hander with shaggy blond hair and a one-handed backhand had the country in thrall as he seized his wild-card entry into the Rogers Cup in August and went on a spectacular run.
In the second round, he posted a two-set victory over Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, and followed that by coming from a set down to defeat 15-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal. He had another comeback win in a quarter-final over Adrian Mannarino to become the youngest player to reach the semifinals of a Masters 1000 tournament before falling to another teenage prodigy, Alexander Zverev.
“It was definitely, absolutely crazy,” Shapovalov said. “I was so proud to be playing at home, having the whole country watching my back.
“It was honestly a dream week. It’s something I’ve dreamt of my whole life. Hopefully in the years to come I can actually lift the Rogers Cup trophy. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. So many emotions that week. Everything kind of had to fall into place. I had to play big, which I was able to do, so it was definitely a life-changing week. A week I’m never going to forget and hopefully I can keep building off that feeling and just keep moving forward.”
Voter Wayne Moore of Castanet News in Kelowna, B.C., wrote that Shapovalov “grabbed the imagination of tennis and non-tennis fans with his flair and talent.”
“Shapovalov came out of absolute obscurity to rock the tennis world,” wrote David Hughes, executive producer of CTV National News in Toronto. “He also helped re-energize men’s tennis in Canada with his streak to stardom.”
Shapovalov stayed hot at the U.S. Open three weeks later as he got through the qualifying tournament and made it to the fourth round, beating 12th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before losing his seventh match of the fortnight to Pablo Carreno Busta.
But the turning point of the season actually came before all that. Shapovalov pointed to the Aegon Championships on the grass courts of the Queen’s Club in London just before Wimbledon in June.
“It was one of my first ATP tournaments and I saved match points in the qualifying, got through qualifying, beat Kyle Edmund in the first round and pushed Tomas Berdych, who is an unbelievable player, to three sets, to the limit,” he said. “That really gave me the confidence that I can compete with the best in the world.
“After that, it was a matter of having that opportunity to play on the big stage again. And sure enough, the next chance I had at Rogers Cup I was able to play great tennis.”
Shapovalov also made headlines for the wrong reasons in the decisive match of a Davis Cup tie against Britain in February when he was ejected after angrily smashing a ball away and inadvertently striking umpire Arnaud Gabas in an eye. Shapovalov apologized, called it a learning experience, and was fined.
He made up for that by winning both of his singles matches against India in Edmonton in September to help keep Canada in the World Group for 2018.
Those who have tracked Shapovalov aren’t surprised to see his success. He took the U.S. Open doubles title with Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal in 2015 and won the junior singles at Wimbledon in 2016. He was winning Futures and Challenger-level tournaments before joining the big boys.
Now he’s in position to get direct entry into most ATP tournaments and hopes to continue his climb. The goal for 2018 is to crack the top 25.
“It’s a very difficult goal,” he said. “You have to have an extremely good year to reach that number, but I think it’s possible if I can play well and if things fall into place like they did this year.”
Sprinter Andre De Grasse was last year’s winner of the Conacher Award, which has been handed out since 1932, and is named for the all-rounder voted Canada’s athlete of the half-century in 1950. The illustrious list of past winners also includes basketball star Steve Nash, who won it three times, Crosby (three), and hockey icon Wayne Gretzky (seven).
The Bobbie Rosenfeld Award for the Canadian Press female athlete of the year will be announced Wednesday, followed by the team of the year on Thursday.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press