Canadians bloom in California desert


INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The California desert has for years been a place where Canadian tennis players bloom in winter.

The sheer number of snow birds ensure big-time support at the BNP Paribas Open no matter the Canadian, no matter the opponent. 

But when 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime faced 27-year-old Vasek Pospisil before a packed Stadium Court 2 Friday night, the crowd was as tense as the two players. It was as though rooting for one meant rooting against the other. 

And of course you know how Canadian are so polite and all.

It was a conflicted group although in the end, they got behind the fresh face, the up-and-coming teenager, who defeated Pospisil 6-2, 7-6 (4) to reach the second round.

Here’s what it looked like.

More “firsts” for Felix

Auger-Aliassime is the first player born in the 2000s (Aug. 8, 2000 to be exact) to win a main-draw match on the ATP Tour. He is the youngest to win one since his good friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov did it against Nick Kyrgios in the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2016.

And he’s the youngest to do it at the BNP Paribas Open in nearly 30 years, since Michael Chang (17 years, one month) did it in 1989.

“This was a bit more unexpected, I think, than the other “firsts” that I’ve known over the last two or three years, I was coming from the qualifying, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for my results. I had some expectations about my attitude, about the way I wanted to play. And I think that was really something that helped tonight. I was able to sort of put the emotions aside, even if  wasn’t easy, and concentrate on my game, and it paid off in end,” Auger-Aliassime said. 

The courts here – generally acknowledged by the players as being among the slowest, if not the slowest, on Tour – suit Auger-Aliassime far more than they do Pospisil, who can do significant damage on faster courts.

“It was always going to be tough, especially here. He’s very physical, and the courts are the slowest of the year for sure. He’s extremely fit. I knew I had to play well to win, and I didn’t do that. But again, credit to him. It was tricky, windy, and he handled it better than me,” Pospisil said.  “I struggled through the qualifying mentally a little bit, physically. I actually felt better (Friday), both physically and mentally, more fresh. But it was just tough, Felix played well, and conditions were tough.”

Pospisil has just jumped into the main draw at the next Masters 1000 in Miami, after a few withdrawals. But first, he’ll head to scenic Drummondville, Que., about an hour from Montreal, to play a $75,000 Challenger there next week.

Canadian colors in the desert


Auger-Aliassime said it felt like Davis Cup in California when he pulled off a comeback victory in the qualifying against Slovakia’s Norbert Gombos Wednesday to reach the main draw.

But the support was just as fervent when he played an American, Bjorn Fratangelo, in the first qualifying round the previous day.

Polansky gets rock-star treatment

Peter Polansky, who navigates around the fringes of relative obscurity most of the year, was buoyed by a jubilant crowd when he defeated Marius Copil of Romania in a first-round match Thursday.

It was a match Polansky called the “craziest” of his career, a victory that went 14-12 in a third-set tiebreaker and was a gruelling test of both body and nerve.

Polansky has had too many heartbreaking losses to count in similar matches, which seemed to be going his way until the very, very end. This one, he pulled off to reach the second round. He will play No. 20 seed Adrian Mannarino of France Saturday.

Here’s how it looked against Copil.

Polansky had near-uninimous support against Copil. On Friday, with Auger-Aliassime and Pospisil, the crowd was torn.

“The energy was different compared to my final round of qualifying. I heard encouragement for Vasek, and I heard it for me. But it stayed very respectful. I think the people were just happy to see two Canadians perform in such a beautiful stadium, and I think they were happy for me when I won in the end,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I expect them to be there for the next match as well.”

Another battle of Canada next up

The “next” one for Auger-Aliassime is against a player he considers one of his idols, longtime top Canadian male Milos Raonic.

Raonic is not in the best quadrant of his career, after multiple injuries cut short his 2017 season. Those injuries also are having their effect on 2018 in terms of the lack of practice and match play.

Still, even if his movement isn’t back to where it was, Raonic’s serve remains a formidable weapon.

As Auger-Aliassime coach Frédéric Fontang put it, it will come down to the return.

Auger-Aliassime also has the advantage of already having had four matches on the Indian Wells courts – not to mention nearly a full week of intense practice.

Raonic, who squeezed in as the No. 32 seed, had a first-round bye. This will be his first match since he lost in the second round of the Delray Beach event a few weeks ago.

“I think Felix can give him trouble here, honestly. He has a great game for these conditions. He’s very physical. He moves well … It’s very tough to create anything and hit winners, and he can really hang physically,” Pospisil said. “So I think, serving well, he can definitely give Milos some trouble Especially if he does like he did against me – swinging free, is confident and has nothing to lose. Then maybe he has a chance to win.”

Little Félix was in awe

Three summers ago, Auger-Aliassime warmed up Raonic ahead of his match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. He had turned 15 just a few days before. Raonic was about to face big-serving Ivo Karlovic in his first match of the tournament.

The kid was the jinx; Raonic, who had reached the final the previous time the event had been held in Montreal in 2013, lost in two tiebreaks.

Here’s some vintage video of that warmup session.

Auger-Aliassime is a lot taller now – his hair is a lot taller, too. His serve is a lot harder. He has since signed a deal with Nike, so his kits are fancier.

And he’s done enough on the tennis court that he won’t be quite as in awe of Raonic, the former No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist.

Raonic reached the Indian Wells final the last time he played it, in 2016.

“Everything’s possible in sport. You never know. We saw with Denis (Shapovalov) last year at the Rogers Cup,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“It’s unbelievable for me to be able to play Milos in the second round. Just two or three years ago I was warming him up, he was sort of my idol. It was like, ‘Wow, Milos is right there’. Now, to play him in the second round of a Masters 1000 is incredible.

“I’ll let the emotions in a little bit (from Friday’s victory), and then I’ll start preparing for Sunday.”

Looking ahead

Auger-Aliassime also is entered in next week’s Challenger, although if he does manage to defeat Raonic, his entry would automatically be rescinded.

Even if he doesn’t, the teenager may pass on it after all the tennis and emotions of the past week. Coach Fontang said it’s something they would discuss, when the time comes.

As with Pospisil in the main draw, Auger-Aliassime just squeezed into the Miami qualifying in recent days, after a few withdrawals. 

His ranking for that entry list was No. 166. 

Right now, it’s actually lower than that, by nearly 10 spots, despite his efforts in the desert. Auger-Aliassime has 56 points coming off his rankings resumé the next two weeks because a year ago, he won a Futures event in Canada and then reached the semifinals of that Drummondville Challenger.

The difference, of course, is that at the ATP level, he can earn big chunks of points quickly, if he can win matches. It would take a win over Raonic to get him back to where he is this week.

Canada Day in Budapest (and Antalya)


The tennis nation of Canada had an excellent day on Sunday.

And the more well-known names – Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Denis Bouchard – weren’t even involved.

On the down side, the understaffed Fed Cup team was no match for Romania in Cluj-Napoca over the weekend. Carol Zhao, Bianca Andreescu and Katherine Sebov – all but Andreescu making their singles debuts at the World Group level – won just one set in three matches. 

The Canadians did salvage a point in the dead doubles rubber on Sunday.

But everywhere else on Planet Tennis Canada, there was hardware.

First up on Sunday was Rebecca Marino, who is returning to pro tennis after a five-year absence.

The 27-year-old followed up her victory at a $15,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Turkey last week with another title on Sunday, in a similar event.

Marino won three qualifying matches in the first title run. So she has now gone 13-0 in her return (including one walkover) and hasn’t lost a set.

Pospisil wins second straight

Later Sunday, Marino’s fellow British Columbia native Vasek Pospisil won his second straight title on the Challenger circuit.

Flashback: Vasek Pospisil as a junior 10 years ago, at the 2008 Australian Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Pospisil won the Open de Rennes two weeks ago without dropping a set.

In between came the four-set loss to Borna Coric of Croatia in Davis Cup, and some physical woes.

But Pospisil bounced back in Budapest, managing to put together five victories even if he wasn’t feeling 100 per cent.

He won this title after getting through back-to-back-to-back three-set matches in three days in the final rounds.

In the final, he defeated promising teenager Nicola Kuhn 76 (3), 3-6, 6-3.

Kuhn returned to court a little while later, and helped Canada to a third trophy on Sunday.

Flashback: Auger-Aliassime at age 14, in Sept. 2014. Not so long ago. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

He and fellow 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime upset the No. 1 seeds, Marin and Tomislav Draganja of Croatia, 2-6, 6-2, 11-9 to win the doubles title.

The kids had a roller-coaster ride in the match tiebreak. They were up 6-2 and serving. Suddenly, they were down 7-6, with the Croatian brothers about to serve the next two points.

But they took both those points, and finally converted on their third match point.

Auger-Aliassime was immediately headed to the big tournament in Rotterdam, where he has a wild card and will make his ATP Tour main-draw debut against Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

Rising rankings

When the 24 ranking points she has earned over the last two weeks finally hit the computer, Marino’s ranking will have gone from zero – or infinity, depending on how you look at it – to approximately No. 732.

Flashback: Rebecca Marino as a junior 10 years ago, at the 2008 Australian Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

(A few years ago, before players like Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin made comebacks, you needed to have earned points in three tournaments before you could get a WTA Tour ranking. That was amended.

Now, if you earn 10 points in any one tournament, you qualify. But points from $15,000 ITF tournaments take a minimum of one extra week to show up).

Pospisil’s singles ranking of No. 85 might, at best, move him up one spot because of the points he was defending from the San Francisco Challenger a year ago. But on the plus side, he didn’t lose any ground.

Pospisil would have made the Rotterdam qualifying, and given himself a chance to earn more. But his success in Budapest meant he couldn’t get there in time.

Auger-Aliassime’s doubles ranking will vault from No 1092 to inside the top 500. He’s a fine modern-classic doubles player (a junior US Open doubles champion with fellow Canadian Shapovalov when he was just 15). He just hasn’t played much.

Pospisil, Mannarino last-minute Davis Cup subs


No doubt Canadian Vasek Pospisil had prepared himself to kick off Canada’s Davis Cup tie against Croatia in singles – just in case.

The 27-year-old was only listed for the Saturday doubles with Daniel Nestor. But on Friday he was called upon to do what he has done so many times for his country: double-duty in singles and doubles. 

He replaces Peter Polansky in the lineup.

Via Tennis Canada, here’s the explanation from new Canadian captain Frank Dancevic.

“Peter had an elbow injury when he arrived in Osijek. At first, the pain was tolerable but kept getting worse as the week was progressing. He did a few tests yesterday and the doctor and I thought it would be best for him not to play. I was not confident that he would be able to last if the match would have gone to 5 sets.”

Mannarino makes debut


Polansky isn’t the only last-minute casualty as Friday’s first-round ties got underway in eight different countries.

No. 1 French player Lucas Pouille also was a late scratch because of a stiff neck.

He is replaced by lefty Adrian Mannarino, who will make his Davis Cup debut at age 29 for the reigning champions. He just got the call from captain Yannick Noah on Thursday, after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bowed out just before the draw because of a reported knee issue.

Mannarino is a bonus player for the French, as the rosters were expanded to five players for this 2018 season. To have enough depth that your third singles option is ranked No. 25 in the world is a luxury most countries can only dream of.

The other options would have been to have either Nicholas Mahut or Pierre-Hugues Herbert – standout doubles players and capable singles players – fill in.

Two of the country’s Davis Cup stalwarts, Gaël Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are not on the team for this tie. Nor is Gilles Simon, another experienced player.

Pospisil starting 2018 strong

Pospisil is on a bit of a roll so far in 2018. He had to qualify at the Australian Open, and he did. That he drew Marin Cilic in the first round was just so much bad luck. The Canadian could well have pushed their match to five sets, but he fell in four. And Cilic went on to reach the singles final.

But the Vernon, B.C. native has had intermittent knee pain last week, even as he won a Challenger title in Rennes France. 

In the absence of top Canadian Milos Raonic from the Davis Cup scene these last few years, Pospisil has done yeoman’s work in keeping Canada in the World Group.

Over the last six months, teenager Denis Shapovalov has emerged to give Pospisil some respite.

But once again, Pospisil has gotten the call.

Dancevic’s other option was to put in … himself. No doubt he’s keeping that as an emergency measure.

Pospisil chooses ’18 coaching team


There have been a lot of coaching changes for Vasek Pospisil in the last few years. (It feels like a Canadian virus; fellow Canadians Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard also have had their share).

But after spending the late summer and fall testing out some options, the 26-year-old from Vancouver has made his choice.

In 2018 and in the preparation leading up to the new season, he’ll work with two coaches who operate as a tightly-knit unit: Dirk Hordorff and Rainer Schuettler.

It seemed as though Pospisil and Woodford – seen here during last year’s preseason with Pat Cash – were a good fit. But reality proved otherwise, and Woodforde was gone by May)

Pospisil spent last year’s offseason and the first part of 2017 with Aussie doubles legend Mark Woodforde.

But that one really didn’t work out even if began with a bang, as Pospisil upset then No. 1 Andy Murray at Indian Wells in March.

After the split during a series of Challenger events in Asia in May, Pospisil immediately won a $150,000 Challenger in South Korea. But the rest of the season lurched along in fits and starts, with his reoccurring back issues often surfacing at just the wrong times.

Experience and Tour knowledge combine

THE GOOD LIFE: Hordorff probably wouldn’t argue if you said that being able to sit courtside on a lovely Aussie summer day chatting with the charming Mrs. Tipsarevic while supervising her husband’s practice has been a major perk of his long association with the Serb. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Hordorff, best known in recent years as the coach of Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic, has always coached other players. He worked with Taipei’s Yen-Hsun Lu for a decade.

Schuettler spent more than 15 years on Tour, reaching a career-best No. 4 in singles. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

But his longest coaching relationship was with Schuettler.

Through 20 years together, Schuettler reached a career high of No. 4 in singles back in 2004. He was a surprise finalist at the Australian Open in 2003.

Now – much in the way former Raonic coach Ricardo Piatti and longtime former pupil Ivan Ljubicic worked together – they are a team.

The two combined to coach Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis from 2014-16.

(Purely coincidentally, Berankis is nearly exactly the same age as Pospisil – two days older, born June 21, 1990).

Hordorff, 56, also is vice-president for High Performance Sport at the German Tennis Federation.

Good candidates, tough call

Pospisil also considered another combination. Jan de Witt and Jan Vacek, both from the Germany-based BreakPoint Academy, were with him in New York at the US Open. 

Pospisi listens to Jan de Witt as Jan Vacek watches on, on a practice court at the US Open ahead of his first-round match. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

DeWitt has coached many players, notably including both Gilles Simon and Gaël Monfils. Vacek (imagine this tandem: Vasek and Vacek), a giant of a man, played on the ATP Tour for a decade and reached a career high of No. 61.

In the end, the Canadian liked what the Hordorff-Schuettler team had to say.

The pair will be the anchors as Pospisil rebuilds a solid team around him, and works to get his mojo back and get back to winning on court.

Currently ranked No. 109, Pospisil likely will have to play the qualifying at the Australian Open in January. He will begin his season at Hopman Cup in Perth, teamed up with Bouchard.

#OlympicDay – Rio tennis flashback


There were a lot of big names missing at the Rio Olympics – especially on the men’s side.

But it was a fabulous event just the same.

Here’s a sample of pics taken during the tournament.

Among those featured are Eugenie Bouchard, Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, Venus Williams, Fabio Fognini, Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Daria Kasatkina, Andy Murray and many more.

There’s a special collection of epic Barbora Strycova moments in there, too. 



No French Open for Canadian Pospisil


Canadian Vasek Pospisil has decided to skip the French Open this year.

For the first time since 2013, the 26-year-old was to play in the singles qualifying after a rankings drop. Had the deadline been this week, he likely would have been straight into the main draw.

The 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion with American Jack Sock will also miss the doubles, which he had planned to play with Poland’s Marcin Matkowski.

“I need to reset. The last few weeks have been draining and I don’t feel that I’m in the best state to be going to Roland Garros right now without a team, and being tired mentally and physically,” said Pospisil, who split with new coach Mark Woodforde during his current tour of Challenger tournaments in Asia.

Pospisil with former coach Mark Woodforde at Indian Wells in March. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

After one final tournament in Busan, Korea this week and a break at home, Pospisil will head east. He will train with former coach Fred Niemeyer, who coaches with Tennis Canada out of Montreal. The preparation for grass and the summer hard-court seasons will begin.

Pospisil has never done well at the French Open in singles. As it happens, he has arrived there nearly every year carrying an injury, or rusty from lack of match play. In five visits, he has lost in the first round each time, last year to top-10 player Tomas Berdych.

The relationship with Woodforde began late last year with a trial and went through the offseason training period. It seemed promising at first; there were some good moments, including an upset of world No. 1 Andy Murray at Indian Wells in March.

But in the end, the relationship lasted just four months. Pospisil’s association with previous coach Frédéric Fontang lasted more than four years.

The Canadian will have to start from scratch again on the coaching front and rebuild his team. That’s a bigger challenge in the middle of the season than it is at other periods of the year.

Buss: The fans, from all over, the lifeblood of the BNP Paribas Open


INDIAN WELLS – Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open, 36,361 patrons came through the gates and set an all-time session attendance record for the event.

Curious as to who these throngs were, I spent the better part of the day trying to meet some of them, to find out who exactly is out watching tennis in the desert.

Conversations about the BNP Paribas Open usually center around the stunning facilities, the top-shelf field, the gorgeous Coachella Valley and of course, Oracle founder and billionaire Larry Ellison. But without the fans, this event doesn’t happen. What began 40 years ago as a small pro tournament played at a private club is now an internationally renowned mega-sporting event that is growing in stature year after year. And it’s all fuelled by fan demand.

As I walked the grounds observing clusters of fans, one of the first things I noticed was an immediate need for a translator. From Europe to Asia, to South America and beyond, you’ll hear foreign languages a-plenty around the grounds.

Indian Wells used to be quite provincial. As the tournament grew, the event morphed in to a destination for winter-weary North Americans. Throwing an elite tennis tournament in to the equation just sealed the deal. An international fan base has grown roots at this event and with American tennis exceptionalism in decline at the moment, that’s a trend likely to continue.

I asked a couple from Seattle what finally brought them to Indian Wells after all these years, “Roger Federer. I’ve never seen him play live. I figured I better do it now before its too late,” the gentleman replied.

When I casually mentioned Federer wouldn’t play his first match until Sunday, he said, “Oh, we know. We just want to watch him practice for a couple days. We have to go back Saturday night, so we’ll take whatever we can get !”

All the way from Seattle… to watch Fed practice.

When Federer takes to the practice court, every nook and cranny is jammed. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

West coast tennis fans used to have an array of events to choose from: Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach, La Costa, Carson, San Jose to name a few. Now, the BNP Paribas Open is the one time all year the top men’s players travel west of the Mississippi. (the women also hit Stanford, Calif. in the summer).

In part, that speaks to a larger trend. To host a major event and attract the top stars, it now takes a world class facility. With the cost out on the West coast, and no available slots in the ATP Tour calendar, Indian Wells is it here for some time to come.

As a result, everyone comes: the reunion crowds who meet up here every year, the celebration crowds who mostly hang out at the bars, the parents and children with their giant autographed yellow tennis balls clamoring for the attention of their favorite players.

When Juan Martin del Potro takes the court, the blue and white comes out. (Barry Buss/Tennis.Life)

There also is no shortage of industry people here. And as always, the crowds are divided into the haves and have-nots. The Stadium 1 box seats and suites are a mix of corporate marketing and personal discretionary spending, with the increasingly steep prices giving even some of my well-heeled colleagues pause.

Of course, there is also Fan Zero, Larry Ellison. He’s such a big fan of the game – he bought the tournament. He has a private luxury box within the private luxury seats, so that you don’t forget that.

Above the bourgeoisie is the proletariat, that guy who just loves his tennis. I flagged one down early Saturday stalking the outer courts alone.

He said he was first through the gate and set up shop on the back courts and watch until there were no more matches to watch. “I just love it!” he said.

Tennis brings out the patriotism in every fan. (Barry Buss/Tennis.Life)

In the space next to him lay an enormous backpack bursting at the zipper– what he called his “Indian Wells survival pack”.

He had fluids, hats, a blanket, extra clothing, sunblock, chargers, homemade sandwiches to last all day. “I won’t pull my wallet out once the whole day. It makes me laugh hearing what people spend out here. I park at the hotel and take the free shuttle. They aren’t getting any of my money!” he said.

Walking further through the crowd, you feel how special this event is for those in attendance. So much athletic greatness, one rock star after another practicing and playing beside each other all day long. You can just feel the pride the fans feel for the favorites, but you can feel their pride in their countrymen and women even more.

When Federer is playing, out come the Swiss red and white flags. The Argentines never miss a moment to flash the blue and white when their native son Juan Martin del Potro is doing battle. And last night on center court, Vasek Pospisil had to feel like he almost was playing a Davis Cup tie in his Vancouver hometown, with the amount of maple-leaf love he was getting on Stadium 1. There’s no doubt it was a factor that helped catapult him to a career victory over world No. 1 Andy Murray.