Denis Shapovalov just lost to Novak Djokovic for the eighth time in eight matches. The match’s scoreline, 6-3, 6-4, was not close, but the contest itself felt tight. Shapovalov, as in some previous matches against Djokovic, had opportunities to build leads and was largely unable to capitalize. He made some bad errors, including a big handful of double faults, but he pushed Djokovic — not an easy task on an Australian hard court. The match took almost two hours, a rarity for a straight-set match without a tiebreak. Shapovalov broke Djokovic’s serve after trailing 40-love in the second set. The loss is not without positive takeaways.
After a match like this, in which Shapovalov showed plenty of reminders of his skill and potential but fell ultimately (and significantly) short, both the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders would have a lot to say. You played pretty well! Yeah, but are you ever going to beat this guy? Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, in my opinion, but I think you can be optimistic about Shapovalov’s performance or come down on him pretty hard for it, and you could make some strong points either way.
Look, Djokovic is a terrible matchup for Shapovalov. The 21-time major champion’s peerless defense is anathema to Shapovalov’s risky (if explosive) aggression. Shapovalov would not have double faulted nine times against any other opponent, nor would he have biffed an easy backhand volley on a vital point at 4-all in the second set. Not that this result should be asterisked, but Shapovalov would have had an easier time against any other opponent in the world. It’d be harsh to fault him for losing to his principal tormentor.
Despite the lopsided head-to-head, Djokovic clearly took the match seriously from the outset, which is a compliment to Shapovalov. The Serb is prone to bouts of lackadaisical play in many of his matches — but, crucially, he only indulges in them when he can afford the dips. In this match, he was sharp immediately, dodging a pair of break points in the opening game, then another at 2-all in the first set. Though Shapovalov scored a body blow in the second set by going up 4-3 after being down a break, Djokovic duly responded with a quick hold and a break at 4-all. The fact that Djokovic didn’t let go of the set speaks to the idea that he didn’t think he could afford to give Shapovalov an inch.
Shapovalov’s highlight reel from this match is nothing to sneeze at, either. He played some incredible defense, which I think is an underrated part of his game — he’s a great mover, and he’s rangy, so he covers the corners really well. He slides confidently, helping him explode back out of the court’s nether regions when his opponent drives him there. And I’ve never really seen him gas out, at least not in the past couple years — he can defend like this for hours if he needs to. He hit a half volley on break point at 4-all in the second set that made me gasp. He blistered a few massive forehands. Even against the smooth wall that is Djokovic’s tennis, Shapovalov’s game found a few footholds.
This match had more than enough reminders that Shapovalov is a damn tough opponent at his best. There’s the huge serve, the athleticism, the heavy groundstrokes. He’s a great fighter: With Djokovic serving at 3-2, 30-love, Shapovalov erred to end a rally and started berating himself. I thought he was wasting his energy, Djokovic never drops serve from 40-love up. But Shapovalov dug in, banged a couple winners, and got the break. The return of serve is often a mess, but everything else is often great enough to make up for that hole in his game. And when he does have a good returning day? No one is safe.
Shapovalov is a former quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, where he pushed eventual champion Nadal to a fifth set in 2022. He has experience against Djokovic on the big stage. He’s taken part in 20 main draws at the slam events; his body of work is extensive enough that he knows everything he needs to win a big title. And if he needs more time to figure it out, that’s fine — he’s only 23. He’s not going to beat Djokovic at the Australian Open, but if he plays his best, I could see him taking out virtually anyone else. With two victories under his belt prior to the loss to Djokovic, his 2023 is off to a solid start.
Shapovalov’s rivalry with Djokovic, though it showcases some impressive moments for the Canadian, also highlights his struggles to improve. In their very first meeting (at Djokovic’s backyard in the Australian Open), Shapovalov managed to win a set. He’s yet to do better in a rematch, and he’s had seven bites at the apple since that initial meeting. His return of serve falls to pieces sometimes, but even when it holds up, he can’t convert enough of his break points — he’s 7/29 against Djokovic in total, and 4/22 in his last three matches with the Serb. Shapovalov was the better player for the first six games of today’s match, worming his way into two Djokovic service games without facing a break point himself. Then his serve went haywire at 3-4 and he coughed up a break via three double faults. If Shapovalov hasn’t managed to iron those wrinkles out of his game against Djokovic by now, will he ever?
There’s a temptation to say Shapovalov will figure things out eventually, purely because he’s so clearly skilled, but I’m not convinced. He hasn’t done the best job of learning from his mistakes in the past. In the quarterfinals of the 2020 U.S. Open, he beat Pablo Carreño Busta 6-0 in the fourth set to force a fifth. Carreño Busta had been struggling physically, and Shapovalov seemed surprised and unprepared for a fifth-set resurgence. He lost the decider 6-3. Then, prepared with a nearly identical scenario at the 2022 Australian Open — Shapovalov had forced a fifth set against a diminished Rafael Nadal — he again folded in the decider. This was worse than the U.S. Open loss; Shapovalov didn’t have the excuse of it being his first major quarterfinal, or his first big match against a legendary opponent. He had even beaten Nadal before. But despite Nadal playing fairly tamely (his five winners and three unforced errors suggest he wasn’t trying to force the issue) in the fifth set, Shapovalov made 13 unforced errors and lost it 6-3. He may have logged a lot of time on the ATP Tour, but his notes are a little all over the place.
It’s not difficult to argue that the defining trait of Shapovalov’s career so far is inconsistency. He’ll have a great win or a great run, then he’ll crash for a while. He made the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2021, lost a high-quality, tight match against Djokovic in which he played like a top-five player, then lost four of his next six matches. He beat Nadal in Rome last year, then, inexplicably, suffered six defeats in a row at a time when he should have been buoyed by momentum. It’s not ideal for anyone to follow up a big win with a losing streak, but for a top-20 player, it’s especially hard to find an excuse. And I can’t give him a pass for being young — he’s just 23, yes, but he had his breakout when he beat Nadal in Montreal in 2017, over five full years ago. His ranking steadily rose from just outside the top 50 to #10 in late 2021; it’s since regressed to #18. He’s had ample time to get used to the grind and demands of the tour, and he just doesn’t seem to be improving much.
Consistency is at the core of most great tennis players. Shapovalov doesn’t have it, and until he gets it (if he gets it), he’ll continue to amaze occasionally while underachieving the rest of the time. At this point, Shapovalov doesn’t need to beat Djokovic to show improvement, he just needs to keep his game from imploding for more than a few weeks at a time. Had he won today’s match? I’d have no way of immediately proving it was more than a flash in the pan.