It’s a delicate balance, the reining in of a tennis thoroughbred that everyone – including himself – wants to gallop to the top like, yesterday.
Generally, the team around Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime has done a masterful job of taking these fledgling moments of his promising career one step at a time.
But perhaps a wild card at this week’s Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo might have been a step too far, too quickly.
That, of course, is in retrospect, after the Canadian went down 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1 to experienced lefty Mischa Zverev in his first-round match on Sunday.
If he pulls it off, and faces No. 7 seed Lucas Pouille in the second round, maybe you can say, “Okay, he was ready.” But coming in, through two Challenger-level clay-court events, the teenager had won just one match, to a player very close to his age. And even that one wasn’t easy.
So he wasn’t exactly on a roll of clay-court confidence as he entered the picturesque environs of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
No rhythm against experienced lefty
You could see Auger-Aliassime learning on the job with every passing moment against Zverev. But in the end, much of the outcome was in the hands of his 30-year-old opponent.
Zverev flinched once. But he didn’t flinch twice.
“Experience is sometimes good, sometimes bad. In the second set I was getting a little too defensive,” Zverev said during an on-court interview after the win. “He was playing really, really well. He has a great future – he’s 12-13 years younger than me, so he has many more years to go.”
Overall, calm and cool
The biggest step up Auger-Aliassime has taken in the last year is on the emotional side. His competitive temperament is far more even-keeled now. And when Zverev took his foot off the gas in the second set, he kept his cool and got on a roll.
The young Canadian was having all kinds of trouble holding serve. Three games into the second set, the clock was pushing 25 minutes – and Zverev only needed about two minutes to hold serve in the middle game.
Zverev was up 6-2, 4-2 and had three break points in that seventh game. Somehow, after more than 14 minutes, Auger-Aliassime managed to hold. And break. And then hold again.
After a flurry of points against serve in the eventual tiebreak, two unforced errors by Zverev gave the kid the set.
Those errors came when the German was trying to pull the trigger too early. And, in retrospect, they set the tone for the decider.
Zverev came back from a bathroom break with his mindset back to what had worked so well in the first set. He stepped into the court a little more again. And Auger-Aliassime began to display his first signs of frustration.
That second set had taken nearly an hour and a half. And the tension surrounding those monumental holds of serve may finally have shown.
Auger-Aliassime was broken at love in the final game, after one final too-hasty backhand went right into the net. And so Zverev went through. He was helped by 62 unforced errors by his younger opponent – far too many even if, having made 35 of them in the second set, Auger-Aliassime still won the set.
Post-match runner-up interview
— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) April 15, 2018
The teenager then enjoyed another new experience – an on-court interview after a defeat.
A year ago, he might well have cut a disconsolate figure. But he handled this with impressive grace, helped by the fact that he shares a language with the majority of the Monte Carlo crowd – the majority of which was firmly behind him during the match.
“Thank you to everyone, thank you for living this moment with me – a really nice first,” he said. “I would have hoped to keep it going in the third, but I’ll get back to training, and I’ll come back stronger next year.”
More matches needed
The downside of the Masters 1000 upgrade for Auger-Aliassime, of course, is that now he must wait more than a week before he can play another match.
Given he only began his season in February, after rehabbing a knee injury suffered during off-season training in Dubai with Roger Federer, he’s a little behind in that area.
It’s a different scenario than his appearances at Indian Wells and Miami last month.
There, he maximized. Auger-Aliassime defeated two solid players in qualifying and earned his way into his first ATP Tour main draw – at a Masters 1000, no less. He posted his first top-100 win against countryman Vasek Pospisil, and he showed well against the top Canadian, an inspired Milos Raonic.
The kid learned his lesson there, cutting it a little close in arriving for the Challenger the week before and losing in the first round.
But the upside was that Auger-Aliassime was able to practice in the unusual conditions for a week. And when he got to the big event, he was ready.
Auger-Aliassime learned another lesson the following week in Miami, where he went out in brutally hot, humid conditions against American Mackenzie McDonald in the qualifying.
No ballcap, no ice towel on changeovers and in the end, Auger-Aliassime was overcome by the conditions (even though he very nearly won the match).
Sunday in Monte Carlo, another lesson learned as he adjusted to his crafty opponent’s game, and upped his patience level. Still, he had to save 6-of-7 break points in that second set. Had Zverev, who’s had a rough six months, been more confident in closing out matches these days, it might well have gone 6-2, 6-2.
But Auger-Aliassime made Zverev earn it. He gave himself a chance.
More dirt for Auger-Aliassime
Next up for the young Canadian is a return to the Challenger circuit, where he played events in Alicante, Spain and Barletta, Italy (with just one victory) before coming to Monte Carlo.
He is entered in a Challenger in Francavilla, Italy, where he may well be seeded. The week after that, he could play another ATP Tour event.
Auger-Aliassime is a few spots out of making the qualifying in Estoril, Portugal on his own ranking.
And as he learned at Indian Wells, the sweetest opportunities are the ones not given, but earned.
(All screenshots from TennisTV)