Denis Shapovalov and Fast ATP Starts

18-year-old Canadian lefty Denis Shapovalov has had one heck of a summer. In Montreal, he defeated Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in back-to-back matches, and at the US Open, he qualified for the main draw, upset Jo Wilfried Tsonga, and reached the fourth round in only his second appearance at a major.

Thanks to those wins and the big stages on which he achieved them, he has cracked the ATP top 60, despite playing fewer than 20 tour-level matches. The Elo rating system, which awards points based on opponent quality, is even more optimistic. By that measure, with his win over Tsonga, Shapovalov improved to 1950–good for 34th on tour–before losing about 25 Elo points in his loss to Pablo Carreno Busta.

While an Elo score of 1950 is an arbitrary number–there’s nothing magical about any particular Elo threshold; it’s just a mechanism to compare players to each other–it gives us a way to compare Shapovalov’s hot start with other players who made quick impacts at tour level. Since the early 1980s, only 13 players have reached a 1950 Elo score in fewer matches than the Canadian needed. As usual with early-career accomplishments, there are a few unexpected names in the mix, but overall, it’s very promising company for an 18-year-old:

Player               Matches   Age  
Lleyton Hewitt             7  16.9  
Jarkko Nieminen            7  20.2  
Juan Carlos Ferrero       10  19.4  
David Ferrer              12  20.4  
Kenneth Carlsen           12  19.4  
Tommy Haas                13  19.1  
Peter Lundgren            13  20.7  
John Van Lottum           14  21.8  
Sergi Bruguera            14  18.4  
Julian Alonso             15  20.0

Player               Matches   Age   
Xavier Malisse            16  18.6  
Jan Siemerink             16  20.9  
Ivo Minar                 16  21.2  
Florian Mayer             17  20.7  
Cristiano Caratti         17  20.7  
Nick Kyrgios              17  19.3  
Denis Shapovalov          17  18.4  
Martin Strelba            17  22.1  
Jay Berger                17  20.2  
Andy Roddick              18  18.6

I identified just over 350 players who, at some point in their careers, peaked with an Elo score of at least 1950. On average, these players needed 75 matches to reach that level (the median is 59), and two active tour-regulars, Gilles Muller and Albert Ramos, needed almost 300 matches to achieve the threshold.

Shapovalov’s record so far is equally impressive when we consider it in terms of age. Again, he’s among the top 20 players in modern tennis history: Only 11 players got to 1950 before their 18th birthday. The Canadian is only a few months beyond his. And many of the other ATPers who reached that score at an early age needed much more tour experience. I’ve included the top 30 on this list to show how Shapovalov compares to so many of the game’s greats:

Player                  Matches   Age  
Aaron Krickstein             25  16.4  
Michael Chang                32  16.5  
Lleyton Hewitt                7  16.9  
Boris Becker                 27  17.5  
Mats Wilander                27  17.5  
Guillermo Perez Roldan       26  17.6  
Andre Agassi                 46  17.6  
Pat Cash                     66  17.6  
Goran Ivanisevic             35  17.7  
Andrei Medvedev              22  17.8  

Player                  Matches   Age
Rafael Nadal                 44  17.9  
Sammy Giammalva              21  18.0  
Horst Skoff                  19  18.1  
Jimmy Arias                  61  18.2  
Kent Carlsson                56  18.3  
Sergi Bruguera               14  18.4  
Denis Shapovalov             17  18.4  
Andy Murray                  22  18.4  
Juan Martin del Potro        31  18.4  
Fabrice Santoro              59  18.5  

Player                  Matches   Age
John McEnroe                 28  18.5  
Roger Federer                40  18.5  
Stefan Edberg                40  18.5  
Andy Roddick                 18  18.6  
Pete Sampras                 56  18.6  
Thomas Enqvist               28  18.6  
Xavier Malisse               16  18.6  
Novak Djokovic               33  18.8  
Jim Courier                  51  18.8  
Yannick Noah                 41  18.8

There are no guarantees when it comes to tennis prospects, but this is very good company. On average, the 23 other players to reach the 1950 Elo threshold at age 18 improved their Elo ratings to 2100 before age 20, and rose to 2250 at some point in their careers. The first number would be good for 12th on today’s list, and the second would merit 5th place, just behind the Big Four. Nadal and del Potro were the first of Shapovalov’s high-profile victims, and judging from this sharp career trajectory, they won’t be the last.

First Look: Francis Tiafoe

Last night at the Citi Open in Washington, Francis Tiafoe played his first tour-level main draw match. For a 16-year-old with almost no professional experience, he put on a good show, making Evgeny Donskoy work hard for his 6-4 6-4 victory.

Tiafoe is one of a few young American men viewed as rising stars. He doesn’t have the professional experience of Stefan Kozlov or Jared Donaldson, but he has nonetheless racked up some impressive feats in the last eight months, claiming the title at the Orange Bowl in December and another big win at the Easter Bowl in April.

His game, as viewers discovered last night, is a work in progress. He lit up the radar gun with both serves and forehands, but neither was steady enough to avoid getting broken by Donskoy three times. His backhand, the less showy but more consistent half of his ground game, was sufficiently solid to keep him in points, but it aside from a couple of down-the-line bullets, it was rarely enough to win them.

Both serve and forehand are, at this stage of his development, very complicated shots. His serve is a bit jerky, and his second serve is particularly erratic. A more offensive kick serve would do wonders for his service game–he won barely 40% of second-serve points yesterday.

The forehand is an even bigger problem. It’s easy to get fooled by the occasional big winner–he did hit some sensational shots from that wing last night. The bigger picture, though, is that his big, not-very-fluid windup prevents him from hitting the effective rallying shots that are absolutely necessary to compete at this level. Compared to top-100 players, Donskoy is not a particularly tough test, and Tiafoe hit 19 unforced errors from that side alone. That’s 20% of his total forehands in the match–double the tour-average rate of forehand unforced errors. They also accounted for one-third of all the points he lost.

It could have been worse. Donskoy, whether because he feared the forehand or because he stuck with familiar patterns, tended to rally back to Tiafoe’s backhand. That shot is far smoother, simpler, and much, much more consistent. While he didn’t try for nearly as much off that wing, he did hit four winners–and only four unforced errors.

He tended to play far behind the baseline, so it was a rare point that displayed other aspects of his game. In the second set, he opted for a few more slice backhands, a shot he seemed to have a decent feel for. He hit one very slick backhand drop shot for a winner, but more often when he ventured inside the baseline, he didn’t appear to have a natural sense for smart, reasonably-high-percentage plays.

It’s important to keep all this in perspective, though. Tiafoe is the youngest man to play an ATP main-draw match this year–nine months younger than Alexander Zverev, for instance. Donskoy was his first top-300 opponent and last night was only his 15th professional match. If he didn’t look particularly poised rushing between points, I think we can let it slide.

As strong a player as Tiafoe is for his age, the inconsistency of both serve and forehand will likely keep him out of the spotlight for another few years. Unlike Zverev and Borna Coric, he won’t be challenging top-50 players before his 18th birthday. Still, there are a lot of good qualities to build on, and when he hits his twenties, he could well be part of the next great generation of American players on the ATP tour.