Big, bold, risk-it-for-the-biscuit shots. That’s Denis Shapovalov’s calling card. The 21-year-old wunderkind has become Canada’s highest-ranked male tennis player (currently 17th in the world) via ballsy diving backhands and between-the-legs volleys. If the reward is high, our guy is not afraid to roll the dice.
But Shapovalov’s latest risky lob may just be the wildest one he’s taken yet: a shot at rap stardom.
Going by the name Shapo, the tennis pro recently dropped his debut track “Night Train.” Produced by DJ Mad Linx and mastered by Luke Leveille (who’s engineered for Drake), it finds the normally humble Vaughan, Ontario native serving up braggadocio-heavy bars over a menacing trap beat. In a gruff-voiced flow, he gets real about being a pro athlete on the grind and the trappings that come with it, from endorsement deals (“Slower than a ‘rrari, that’s a no go/Swoosh on my feet, that’s a logo”) to online trolls (“I’ve been in the ring while these motherfuckas chit-chat”). Hey, as athlete-rapper tunes go, we've certainly heard worse.
“I'm not trying to be the next great hip-hop artist,” Shapovalov tells Complex. “I'm just doing it because I have a passion for music. I honestly just love sharing what I feel, putting it onto beats, and rhyming it. I figure I've been doing it for a while and got some material, so why not post it out to the world and see if people like it?”
After all, what's another gamble? In between training sessions for the upcoming U.S. Open, Shapo chatted with us about his new track, his crazy sneaker collection, and the rise of Canadian tennis.
So how’d this track come about?
Honestly, I just had a lot of time during this period with no tennis. So I was just messing around, you know, writing a lot of lyrics. I had a couple different songs that I wrote at home—I even built a studio, there was just so much time. I sent “Night Train” to a couple buddies and they really seemed to like it, so I got it mastered and everything. I just thought I'd share it with the world and see if people vibe to it. If not, then no worries.
I commend you for resisting the temptation to rhyme “Denis” with “tennis.”
[Laughs.] I think that would've been the corniest line ever. Growing up, every single person I met was like, “You know your name rhymes with ‘tennis,’ right?” I mean, maybe that's where it comes from, the rhyming.
Have you been dabbling in rap for a while?
Yeah, I think it's been a while now. It all started from listening to a lot of G-Eazy’s stuff. I'm a huge fan of his rapping and his music. I think he's such an incredible artist. He actually motivated me to write lyrics. I just love his chill flow and the way he just makes it sound so, so good and so clean. I grew a passion for it then. I just started jotting down notes, jotting down lyrics. There's so much that goes on when I travel [to write about] as well. I just started working on it.
Aside from G-Eazy, who are some of your other influences?
Gotta be Eminem. To me, he's just the GOAT. There's nobody that beats him lyrically—he's on another level. And of course Drake. He's from the 6ix, from my city, so of course I listen to so much of his stuff. He's been a huge influence and role model of mine as well. Honestly, I'm still playing around with my sound, but I try to almost mix it between an Eminem aggressive style and the slick, laid-back, raspy voice that G-Eazy has. Obviously I'm nowhere near where they are, but hopefully with a lot of practice, I'll improve that.
You actually made your rap debut last year after your victory at Indian Wells. How’d it feel to rap in front of a live crowd of tennis spectators?
First of all, that was awful because I was so unprepared. I won my first match and the girl interviewing me was like, ‘OK, if you win tomorrow, you'll have to do something for us.’ I just wrote something quick that took me like a minute, just so I could focus on the match but also have something clean to give the fans. I'm not gonna give them one of my songs or go off on the crowd and shit. I also still had to beat Marin Čilić at the time. In the end, it all happened and I pretty much embarrassed myself over there on stage. But, you know, it's whatever. I still think it was a pretty cool moment to just take that step and do it.
Why’d you call your track “Night Train”?
I feel like my whole life, growing up was just a night train, you know? It was early mornings or late nights. I was always awake when other people were asleep. I was always training. I was always grinding. And even now, I'm traveling across the world, seeing new cities every week. It's always on the move. When people are standing still, I'm on that train that nobody is on—or very few people at least.
I can imagine what that’s like for a young guy. People your age are out partying and getting shitfaced every night while you’re getting up at 5 a.m. to train.
Yeah, definitely. And on top of that, I was a player who growing up didn't have support at all, from the Federation or anyone. It was just me and my family. And once you make it, there's so many doubters and haters and everyone's trying to say, “Oh, you do this bad or you do that bad.” But I'm still on a grind. I'm living my dream…. That was another thing I threw on the track. I say something like, “I'm in the ring fighting while you guys are just chit-chatting outside.” Get in the ring and see what it's like in here before you guys start talking.
Athletes receive more rage-tweets per day than people realize.
I think once you're an athlete, everyone forgets that you're also a person and you see all that shit, you know?
You’re in New York, gearing up for the U.S. Open. A lot of players have opted out of the tournament due to the coronavirus. What made you decide to forge ahead?
Honestly, I just really wanted to get back to playing tennis. And for sure, health is first priority. But I feel like they're at least trying to make a bubble and everything. So I figured I'm not too far away; I'd see how these tournaments go and then make a decision whether I want to play more this year or rest. Just see how it all pans out. It's been tricky because normally tennis players, we're one week after the next. So to have that much time off, it was interesting. It don't think anyone knew how to prepare without getting sick of just practicing, but I think we did a good job.
Did watching Bianca Andreescu win the U.S. Open last year inspire you at all?
Of course. Felix [Auger Aliassime], Bianca, and I, we all grew up alongside each other. So from juniors, we've all been motivating each other. It's been me and Felix just battling back and forth, and now Bianca's shot up. So it’s just great to see all of us making it on tour and actually going all the way. Growing up, you never really know how good you can be or if it's all going to fall together.
Honestly, my goal in life is just to raise the Canadian tennis level. There are so many talented athletes here, but—not hating on hockey or anything—I feel like they all end up going to hockey. So it'd be nice to get a couple more tennis players and develop the sport in this country. It’s such a winter sports country, but now we're proving that we're more than that.
If you could link up with another player on a track, who would it be?
Actually, I'm doing a track with this French tennis player, Corentin Moutet. It's a super dope song called "Drip." He raps as well but in French. There's some back and forth between French and English. We're going to release it sometime in September. I think it's much sicker than "Night Train," so I'm really excited. I figured I'd start small, with little lyrics here and there, and then boom! Hit 'em with the hit. [Laughs.]
Not only are you a Nike-sponsored athlete, but you’re a rapper now, too. There must be some pretty fire kicks in your collection.
Yeah. I've got the Jordan 1 x Off-White Chicagos. I've also got the North Carolina Off-Whites. What else? I've got probably every kind of Air Force 1 out there; I've got a room full of just Air Forces. I've got these custom ones—they're the Chinese New Year edition in black and gold, and they say "Shapo" on the back. I don't wear them. No chance. I've worn them once and it was the perfect day outside. That's it.
Shapo, that's your rap name. Is that meant to sound like El Chapo, the infamous Mexican gangster?
Nah, nah. [Laughs.] I'm not going there. Not yet at least.