For Denis Shapovalov and coach Adriano Fuorivia, their way has been the highway

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For Denis Shapovalov and coach Adriano Fuorivia, their way has been the highway
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  • Denis Shapovalov
    Denis Shapovalov
    Israeli-born Canadian tennis player

MONTREAL – As Denis Shapovalov prepares to make his Rogers Cup debut Monday night at the Aviva Centre in Toronto, Canada’s new Wimbledon junior champion is being hailed as another success story from the well-funded national development program.

But as 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov and coach Adriano Fuorivia barnstormed through the U.S. south last winter playing at the very lowest level of professional tennis, rather than fly to Australia to play the first junior Grand Slam of the 2016 season, it wasn’t out of choice but out of financial necessity.

As with most national tennis federations, if you don’t get with the program and fit within the fairly rigid structure, you’re on your own.

So far, Shapovalov and Fuorivia have shown their own way has been a winning way. They’ve also shown that there is more than one way to develop a champion and that they don’t always come out of tennis factories like national training centres and high-priced academies.

As Shapovalov grew into adolescence and clearly showed promise, he was invited to join the national high-performance program based out of Uniprix Stadium in Montreal.

He declined.

“For me, it was just basically I wanted to stay with my team, with my family. My physio, my fitness coach, Adriano and my mom all helping me,” Shapovalov told Eh Game in Paris. “If I have to go to Montreal, I have to leave all that, start with a new coach, live with a random family, live in a different place. That’s the biggest reason why.

“I didn’t see the reason why I should leave if my team has been successful thus far,” he added.

Fuorivia, who had been working for Tennis Canada in Toronto while training Shapovalov on the side for several years, even offered to quit his job and move to Montreal to continue working with his young charge.

That’s not how it works, though – at least not for Shapovalov even though two years ago many in tennis considered him the most talented 15-year-old in the world.

Even at 15, at the 2015 Australian Open, the talent was evident to tennis insiders. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)
Even at 15, at the 2015 Australian Open, the talent was evident to tennis insiders. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

And it’s not as though Tennis Canada has never made an exception. Shapovalov’s fellow Ontarian Bianca Andreescu, now 16, was not only able to stay at home in Toronto, Tennis Canada relocated a coach there and also brought in former world No. 3 Nathalie Tauziat of France to work with her. 

“We were focused on what we’ve been doing. In terms of how Tennis Canada is working, we understand it’s how they do things, and we have to respect that,” Furiovia said. “But there’s always been a respect for the individuals. Just because a certain player doesn’t fit into the correct system doesn’t mean there isn’t respect for the coaches there, and communication.”

Shapovalov is of the belief that the federation needed to be more flexible. “For some, for most people, the program should be necessary. I would say it’s based on results. But if you have a player who’s doing very well, I would think the federation should in some way help, or try to accommodate their situation,” he said.

The decision made, they had to figure out a way on their own. And they found a guardian angel in the person of Andrzej Kepinski, a businessman and well-known figure in tennis circles who promoted big tennis events for many years and has supported many Canadian players in a low-key way.

Later, fellow Ontarians Mary Pat and Bob Armstrong came on board.

Kepinski, who also has helped out Philip Bester and Filip Peliwo, is the point man not only because of his financial contribution but also because of his experience within the game and his business savvy.

The connection was made through Casey Curtis, the Toronto-based coach best known as the cman who brought Milos Raonic up from childhood and laid the foundation for the player he has become.

 “It’s because of Andrzej that we’ve been able to travel – otherwise Denis wouldn’t have been able to play all of those tournaments. He’s been a huge help,” Fuorivia said.

Kepinski has backed Shapovalov financially, with the only condition that he do the same for another young kid some day. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)
Kepinski has backed Shapovalov financially, with the only condition that he do the same for another young kid some day. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)

Kepinski wouldn’t tell Eh Game how much he had invested in Shapovalov. But he did say it wasn’t money that needed to be paid back. In a sport full of stories about financial backers who get behind promising young players – only for those players to find out later that they are indentured for far more than they took Kepinski has taken a unique pay-it-forward approach.

If he makes it, Shapovalov had to promise to invest the same amount in another promising prospect down the road.

The odyssey through the bowels of the ITF Futures Circuit – $10,000 total purses, no points in the qualifying, two if you get to the quarter-finals and 18 (and a little over $1,000) if you win the title, was a game-changer. As a comparison, the winner of this week’s Rogers Cup gets 1,000 ranking points.

Between November 2015 and May 2016 (with a couple of pit stops in Canada), Shapovalov and Furiovia traipsed through Niceville, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Plantation, Sunrise, Weston, Memphis, Little Rock, Orange Park and Vero Beach.

Most of those tournaments are played in small clubs on Har-Tru, an artificial clay surface that was kryptonite to Shapovalov’s attacking game and isn’t even used on the ATP Tour any more.

At first, his ranking was so lowly he had to qualify for these events, and many of these tournaments have 128-player qualifying draws. That’s 128 players with tiny rankings and big dreams, most much older and more physically mature than Shapovalov.

Team effort: Shapovalov and doubles partner Félix Auger-Aliassime with Tennis Canada coach Guillaume Marx (far left) Adriano Fuorivia (far right) were all smiles at the junior US Open, where the duo won the boys' doubles.. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)
Team effort: Shapovalov and doubles partner Félix Auger-Aliassime with Tennis Canada coach Guillaume Marx (far left) Adriano Fuorivia (far right) were all smiles at the junior US Open, where the duo won the boys' doubles.. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)

The surface taught him to be more patient and construct points better. The multiple matches taught him to take on a heavy workload. And the constant competition even on days he wasn’t feeling his best taught him how to win ugly.

By the end of it, he had broken into the top 400 and was making waves.

By the time Shapovalov re-joined his good friends Félix Auger-Aliassime and the rising Ben Sigouin – both national centre products – at the junior French Open, he was a different player.

Shapovalov came close to making it an all-Canadian final in Paris; he lost a tough three-setter in the semi-final to an inspired Geoffrey Blancaneaux (who then beat Auger-Aliassime in the final).

After a quick trip home, he was back in England on the grass. Shapovalov won the tune-up event at Roehampton and then, the main event at the All-England Club.

Through the two junior Slams, the agents were everywhere, constantly stopping by to say hello, dangling offers of wild cards and smothering them with flattery. Kepinski, who was on hand for both, deftly handled all of the entreaties with the hardened soul of a seasoned negotiator.

One of those offers, from the Lagardère Agency, was for a main-draw wild card into the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. last week.

It was a welcome ice-breaker before the Rogers Cup; in the first round, Shapovalov faced Slovakian veteran Lukas Lacko, ranked No. 102 but once in the top 50. He went toe-to-toe with him until the final few points of a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 loss.

Here are some highlights of that match.

And here’s Shapovalov in an exclusive interview afterwards, moments after he left the court.

There surely will be more juicy carrots to come. But Furiovia said there is no rush. “At last year’s Wimbledon, they started. They all text me once a week and here (in Paris), every single day they want to meet,” he said. “We don’t want to rush a decision; we feel there’s no need to rush. We’ll go with the right agent – when the time is right.”

And Tennis Canada is coming around. Even before the win at Wimbledon, there were already plans to offer additional support.

“Denis decided to have his personal, private structure. No problem, we accompany that. We have helped him with tournaments, etc. Now, we will speak with the parents, and will do it in a formal way,” said Tennis Canada high-performance chief Louis Borfiga. “He will go into a ‘transition’ program, like we did with (Vasek) Pospisil and Milos (Raonic). I’m advancing that by a year (Tennis Canada’s transition program normally kicks in at age 18) because he’s exceptional so he can have his private coach, helped by Tennis Canada.”

That program also comes with strings attached. Shapovalov and Furiovia would have to submit a training and tournament schedule, and Borfiga has to sign off on it. “It has already worked very well with other coaches, like (Raonic coach) Riccardo Piatti,” Borfiga said. “We never give money and say, ‘Do what you want with it’. We want to have a control on what is done.”

What makes Furiovia think he can bring a player to the top level of the game?

“I’ve never done it before. I think I’m crazy. You have to be crazy. I’m willing to learn and do what it is that you need to get to the next level, work with people,” he said. “I still rely on his mom a lot (Tessa, a tennis coach who runs her own small academy), because she got him there. We make decisions together. If there’s something I don’t like, or I think we need to tweak, we look at it together it if’s major changes. But when the player believes in something, it works.”

Borfiga said he respects Furiovia a lot. “He has brought his player this far. Denis has really progressed,” he said.

On Monday night, Shapovalov will make his debut in his hometown tournament, a marquee evening match against the No. 11 seed Nick Kyrgios – a player just four years older, but in an entirely different league.

Early on at Wimbledon, Shapovalov served as a junior practice partner for Kyrgios – a meet arranged by Kyrgios agent John Morris who, like the others, would be quite interested in signing the kid.

Less than a month later they meet again in the big leagues, on the big stage, squaring off against each other.

It’s been quite a ride. And it seems it’s just beginning.

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