In Defence of Denis Shapovalov

The latest sports drama to hit the headlines was tennis Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov’s unintentional strike to French umpire Arnauld Gabas’ left eye during Great Britain and Canada’s round one Davis Cup match.

During Sunday’s final match between the sparring nations, the singles match between Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund and Canada’s Denis Shapovalov took a turn for the worse as the unlucky 17 year old received a default (disqualification based on code violations of court behaviour) immediately following the accident. Edmund, who lead the match 6-4, 6-3, had broken youngster Shapovalov’s serve in the third game of the third set when the Canadian batted the ball skywards in frustration. Yet rather than reaching the upper stalls of the TD Place Arena, the ball accidentally struck the chair umpire.

With Canada and GB tied 2-2 over the exhausting weekend, Edmund and Shapovalov’s match already ran high with tension as the winner would see their nation through to the quarter-finals of the 2017 Davis Cup. With Shapovalov’s default, Great Britain were forwarded to the quarter-finals with a 3-2 win over Canada and will face an undetermined national team in France of April this year.

Following the incident in Ottawa, Denis Shapovalov has been fined by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for US$7,000. Shapovalov has also issued a statement, saying how ‘incredibly ashamed and embarrassed’ he is after the incident.

Here is a video link to Shapovalov’s gut-wrenching moment and the immediate aftermath in the arena.

Now those are the facts, now for my opinion.

Shapovalov’s behaviour and words following such a tragic accident are that of a wiser player beyond his years as well as an empathetic young man. He speaks of his ‘unacceptable behaviour’, how he has ‘[let] his team down, [let] his country down’and he speaks of ‘promise[s]’ and ‘learn[ing]’.

Emotional control and the mental game of a tennis match are just as important as the physical fitness game. Even top players such as Britain’s Andy Murray, the current world no. 1, have commented on their need to curb aggressive outbursts on court (see 2016 French Open).

Ranging from youngsters to top players, emotional control on tennis courts continues to be of concern to the sport and to the ITF.

Previous World No. 1, American John McEnroe (who maintains several tennis records) was defaulted in the 1990 Australian Open for several accounts of code violations (back when the ITF’s rules and regulations quoted 3 violations as opposed to the 4 now). See here for the highlights: John McEnroe Australian Open 1990 Default.

Modern youngsters such as Australian Nick Krygios, renowned for his on-court tantrums and unsportsmanlike conduct, are also exhibitors of this type of behaviour. Kyrgios was suspended from the sport for eight weeks and fined US$25,000 in October 2016 by the ATP following accounts of verbal abuse to spectators,  unsportsmanlike conduct and failure to give full effort thus challenging the sport’s integrity. See tennis.com’s article.

Krygios is 21 years of age, only 4 years the senior of fellow tennis star Denis Shapovalov. Commentator and known sport violator, John McEnroe, even remarked that the star had to ‘grow up’ if he wanted to continue on his talented career or to ‘leave professional tennis’. Krygios online response to the intentional incident formulated in this tweet:

If we put that in direct comparison to Shapovalov’s own statement following his accident:

I can’t put it a better way than fellow tennis professionals.

Shapovalov’s own teammate Vasek Pospisill tweeted in response:

GB’s Davis Cup team captain, Leon Smith said: ‘He’d been a nice guy all week. Really polite, good-natured.’

Yes, Shapovalov may have caused damage to not only Arnauld Gabas’ eye but also his potential career as an umpire, yes it is devastating and a tragic accident, but it is important to remember Shapovalov’s youth and conduct in this situation. He is only seventeen.

I am not saying his age is an excuse for his actions. By no means should he pardoned; his actions were dangerous. Yet I I feel the media and people should dampen their aggression towards the young man. As Leon Smith has said: ‘Unfortunately for the young lad, this is going to get an awful lot of attention.’

This event will get a lot of attention. It will be used as an example in the sport and unfortunately Shapovalov will have to suffer for it; he could even face suspension.

However, look at his conduct and management of the situation. He has responded to and acted in a respectable manner towards an horrific accident. He has acted in a way that fellow tennis stars throughout the ages have not. He is apologetic, remorseful and going to learn from his mistakes. This, at least, is clear.

I wish the best of luck for the young Canadian’s future career. Denis Shapovalov is a talent in the making and though unfortunate, I believe this incident will make him a stronger, more respectable player in the future. There are good and bad consequences to all actions.

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