03:45 PM GMT February 04, 2020
A new coach arrives, the player starts playing better than ever. All credit lies with the coach, right?
Looking at only the timing of their relationship, Russian Mikhail Youzhny played a major role in helping Denis Shapovalov of Canada turn around his 2019 and start 2020 as well as he did at the ATP Cup.
Youzhny started working with Shapovalov in August at the Winston-Salem Open. The 20-year-old was 17-18 on the season and in the middle of a 2-6 stretch. But after connecting with Youzhny, Shapovalov, who is the third seed this week in Montpellier, finished the season 21-10.
Youhzny, however, a former World No. 8 who retired in 2018 after 20 years as a professional, says the dynamic of a player hiring a new coach and immediately playing better is far more complex than it might seem.
“It doesn't work like this. It's not magic work. It's not like you're coming, you say something, and he's starting to play better, like really better,” Youzhny told ATPTour.com.
All kinds of things influence how someone performs on court, Youzhny said, and Shapovalov's career trajectory had always been up and up and up. Five months before their partnership began, the Canadian cracked the Top 20 in April after making his third ATP Masters 1000 semi-final in Miami (l. to Federer).
But under Youzhny, there's no questioning that Shapovalov's game has reached another level. The #NextGenATP left-hander won his first ATP Tour title at the Stockholm Open (d. Krajinovic) in October and made his maiden Masters 1000 final (l. to Djokovic) at the Rolex Paris Masters in November.
At the inaugural ATP Cup, Shapovalov started 2020 with two Top 10 wins against Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, and he pushed Novak Djokovic to a third-set tie-break at the Final Eight in Sydney.
The 20-year-old happily admits that Youzhny has had a positive effect, but also concedes that his recent rise is more complicated than it looks.
“I don't think it's anything specific. I just have been working over the years and just kind of building my game. Of course, Mikhail has helped me a lot, but it comes from before then. Even when I wasn't getting a lot of wins, when I was struggling, I was still going to the court, working every single day as hard as I could,” Shapovalov said.
“I don't think it comes from something magical. The end of last season it was kind of starting to click for me. The way I started, it's great. So hopefully I can just keep up my form and just keep improving. Still, I'm only 20 years old, and I feel like there is a lot of room to grow and areas where I can work on.”
Youzhny has been impressed with Shapovalov's talent, but more so with his willingness to grow and try new ideas.
“He can do everything on court, like volley, backhand, serve. That's why for me it's interesting to work with him,” Youzhny said.
“What I like, if you ask him something to try, he always tries to try... This is very good because he never said, 'This? I don't need at all. This, for what I need this one? Blah, blah, blah.' He's open for something new. This is really important because this is the thing that can bring you to a new level.”
For instance, at Youzhny's urging, Shapovalov has incorporated backhand slices into his game to get more returns in play. The tactic especially helped him at the end of 2019.
“Me and Mischa worked on blocking it a lot more to kind of start the point, and it's a tricky shot for the opponents,” Shapovalov said. “I feel like it's a really big improvement in my game.”
Players who hire new coaches, such as Shapovalov, can often be more open to new ideas, Youzhny said, which can help them improve at a quicker rate once the new mentor comes on board. Simply by deciding to bring a new coach onto the team, the player has shown he's ready to listen to a new voice and new ideas.
“He changed his mentality, he changed his mood... he changed already by himself,” Youzhny said. “Even if you say the same things [that he's heard] 100 times, 1,000 times before but from other persons, but working in a different way, it's feeling like something new.”
Shapovalov has appreciated Youzhny's new approach but also his familiarity with the left-hander's game and his opponents. Youzhny won 10 ATP Tour singles titles and went 499-416 before retiring at the 2018 St. Petersburg Open.
“I just really like the way he works. He's always making me work that little bit extra. Whenever I think practice is over or I'm going to get a drink, he makes me do those five, 10 extra minutes of ball feeding or serves and stuff like this. And I think stuff like this goes a far way,” Shapovalov said. “He really understands me, understands what I'm going through, and I really feel that from him.
“I feel like he can really help me with the players, too, in terms of what they don't like, what to do in matches.
“I think the combo has been really good. I feel like from the first day he's really understood how I play my game and how I see myself playing. He's really helped me get there and helped me become a good tennis player.”
Shapovalov reached a new career-high of No. 13 in the FedEx ATP Rankings last month. At this rate, by season's end, he could be matching Youzhny's career-high of No. 8. Together, as player and coach, they could share the glory, both deflecting praise to each other.