Stepping Up: Footwork adjustment pays dividends for Canada’s Shapovalov

The 2019 tennis season has been a tale of two campaigns for Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.

He struggled at times early in the year and had middling results over the clay and grass portion of the schedule. Things started to turn in late August and really picked up over the last few weeks as Shapovalov won his first career ATP Tour title and made his first Masters 1000 final appearance.

The 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., started working with coach Mikhail Youzhny last summer and the move paid quick dividends.

“He really made me change my footwork and start moving a lot more with smaller steps and much more actively,” Shapovalov said Tuesday from Athens. “I feel like that just made such a big difference early on. At first it was a little bit tough for me in practices. I was getting tired quickly. But it really paid off quickly.

“I feel with that little adjustment I was able to just play a lot better and move a lot better on the court. It really helped me in those matches.”

Shapovalov and Youzhny, a former world No. 8 from Russia, went to work at the Winston-Salem Open in mid-August. Shapovalov reached the semifinals at the ATP 250 event and made it to the third round at the US Open before dropping a five-set decision to Gael Monfils.

The Canadian posted some solid wins on the Asian swing before taking the Stockholm Open last month and dispatching top-15 players Fabio Fognini, Alex Zverev and Monfils at the Paris Masters last week. Shapovalov had a walkover semifinal win over Rafael Nadal before falling to top-ranked Novak Djokovic.

“I was just playing at another level in terms of my footwork and in terms of the variety in my game,” Shapovalov said. “I was really feeling confident. It was just a couple slight adjustments that (Youzhny) made but they went really far for me I think.”

The results have sent Shapovalov, who has worked with a variety of coaches over his three years as a pro, to a career-high No. 15 in the world rankings. His season record has improved to 35-26 and prize money has risen to US$2.01 million.

Shapovalov said he felt an immediate connection with Youzhny, who was also in his early 20s when he first cracked the top 20. The Russian went on to win 10 tournaments and 499 career matches before retiring last year.

“From the first day I felt like he was really able to pick me up and really see my game,” Shapovalov said. “He had a clear vision of how he sees me playing the game and how to coach me and how to work with me.

“I think he really clicked with me from the first day and the first practice. I think it’s been very positive working with him.”

The footwork change gave Shapovalov more time to prepare his shots, set up a plan of attack and follow through on court.

“I felt like I was able to do whatever I wanted with the ball a lot better,” he said. “You know, control it, play it anywhere I wanted to. I feel like that’s why I was able to play really well in Winston-Salem and at the (US) Open.”

In Paris, Shapovalov was pushed to three sets against Fognini and Zverev before dispatching Monfils in a tidy 59 minutes.

“I was really just enjoying my time,” Shapovalov said. “I know that I’ve been playing good tennis because I was able to lift the title a couple weeks ago. I think everything was just kind of clicking for me at that stage.”

The Canadian caught a break when Nadal withdrew due to an abdominal strain. Shapovalov started slowly against the experienced Djokovic, who posted a 6-3, 6-4 win.

Next up on the calendar is the Nov. 18-24 Davis Cup Finals in Madrid. Shapovalov will be joined by Milos Raonic, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil on the Canadian roster at the 18-team tournament.

“I think in terms of setup we can really put whoever we want out there and we don’t have a lot of weak spots,” Shapovalov said. “It’s amazing to be a part of that team.”

Canada is in Group F with the United States and Italy.

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