Denis Shapovalov is used to firing up the fans, and feeding off their energy in return.
The Canadian tennis star, who plays with a high-risk, high-reward style, can bring up the atmosphere in a match with a jumping two-handed-backhand winner or a cheeky between-the-legs rally extender, putting emphasis on his more audacious shots with a shout and an emphatic fist pump.
Shapovalov, however, will have to create his own spark when he returns to action at the Western & Southern Open. The tournament, normally held annually in Cincinnati, will take place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York this year in the week leading into the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Main draw action begins Saturday.
Players and staff will be isolated from the general public over the two tournaments at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, and fans will not be allowed in the stands due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s going to be interesting, especially in New York,” Shapovalov said from Queens in an interview Wednesday. “I feel like I have so much love and support in the city and the past years I’ve been able to gather some really big crowds.
“So it’s going to be interesting playing over here without the fans, but I’ll definitely feel their support through the screens, through the internet, still know they’re there with me while I’m on court.”
Shapovalov said playing in a quiet stadium is nothing new, as tennis players often compete in tournaments with little fan atmosphere in the levels under the top-flight ATP and WTA Tours.
“We’ll see how it goes, it’s going to be the same situation for everybody,” he said. “We’ve all been through it before, I went through Futures, Challengers when there’s barely any people watching. So it’s going to be kind of back to that, but I think everyone’s still motivated to play regardless of whether there’s fans or not. Everyone just wants to get on the court and compete.”
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Regardless of the fan situation, Shapovalov said he is itching to get back on the court for competitive matches. The world No. 16 from Richmond Hill, Ont., hasn’t played on the ATP Tour since Feb. 21, when he lost to Alexander Bublik in the quarter-finals of the Open 13 Provence tournament in Marseille, France.
Not all his colleagues, however, have been as keen to return to action, especially for tournaments in the United States where the pandemic is widespread. At least six of the top eight women in the WTA rankings won’t play in New York, including defending champion Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., and No. 1 Ash Barty.
Rafael Nadal, the men’s defending champion, has also withdrawn from the tournament, while Roger Federer is out for the rest of the season after two operations on his right knee.
Shapovalov said the situation with the pandemic may yet affect his plans this year, especially with tennis deciding to travel between continents instead of restricting competition to one region. Formula One, for example, is holding all of its races in Europe.
“It’s definitely been on my mind a lot,” he said. “I still don’t know going forward which tournaments I’m going to play, which tournaments I’m not. Even with the U.S. Open I didn’t know how it was going to work with all the players staying at the same hotel and volunteers and everything, but so far it seems to be panning out really well.
“They’re doing a good job of really making sure everything’s clean and testing us as soon as we get into the hotel, and everything’s been pretty good so far.”
Shapovalov entered the 2020 season coming off an impressive close to 2019 that included his first ATP Tour tournament title, first appearance in a Masters final and a finals appearance for Canada at the Davis Cup. But he struggled to find form early this season, losing five of six matches before the ATP and WTA Tours suspended play due to COVID-19.
A player who has often found success in streaks, the pandemic denied Shapovalov a chance to go on a run to counter his slow start. The tournaments cancelled in the wake of COVID-19 include the storied Wimbledon Grand Slam event and Shapovalov’s hometown tournament, the men’s Rogers Cup in Toronto.
“It’s unfortunate, every tournament that was being cancelled, it was tough to see them going down,” Shapovalov said. “The same with Wimbledon, the same with all the other tournaments, just one after another, seemed like we’re going down. And it was tough, and we didn’t know when the Tour was going to come back. So it’s nice to be back now.”