INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – As Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime warmed up the legs inside the big stadium at the BNP Paribas Open, you could play a guessing game as to who his practice opponent would be.
The 19-year-old is keeping pretty good company these days.
His sparring partner for the day was … none other than Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, who won the ATP Tour event in Acapulco nearly two weeks ago, comes into the BNP Paribas Open with a semifinal result to defend, as he tries to stay close to Novak Djokovic in the race for No. 1.
He’s 170 points behind at the moment. But Djokovic, who is unbeaten so far this season and has been playing some supreme tennis, only reached the third round here a year ago.
So Djokovic has just 45 points to defend; Nadal has 360.
Here’s what they looked like as they went through their paces in a stadium that won’t be this empty for long.
Looking in mid-season form
Normally, a week out from a big tournament, and adjusting to new conditions, Nadal typically doesn’t look all that great on the practice court.
But he looked really good on Friday. As though he’d be ready to jump in tomorrow.
As for Auger-Aliassime, who had a great streak during the European indoor winter season, he travelled to Acapulco as planned.
He did beat Alex Bolt in the first round there, probably still running on adrenaline. But the reality of all the tennis – and the long trip, and the jet lag – caught up to him in the second round against a fit Kyle Edmund.
Auger-Aliassime did pretty well in the desert a year ago. He defeated Cameron Norrie and then Stefanos Tsitsipas before going down in a heartbreaker against Yoshihito Nishioka – a third-set tiebreak.
This will be his third trip to Indian Wells. As a 17-year-old in 2018, Auger-Aliassime won two matches in qualifying to make the main draw. He then defeated countryman and friend Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the main draw (harkening several meetings to come in the intervening years, as it turned out).
Another Canadian, Milos Raonic, defeated him in the second round. But he had made his big splash at a top-tier event.
Given the way the Canadian players’ draw luck has been this season – often drawing each other – it almost was a foregone conclusion.
Teenagers Félix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Annie Fernandez would be on court at the same time at the combined ATP/WTA tournament in Acapulco, Mexico.
While this sent Canadian tennis fans scrambling for viewing options, there was no issue on court as both were victorious in straight sets.
Auger-Aliassime began about 20 minutes before Fernandez, on a much bigger court.
He completed his 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Aussie Alex Bolt just a few minutes after Fernandez routinely ran through No. 82 Nina Stojanovic of Serbia 6-4, 6-1.
Long trip for Felix
For Auger-Aliassime, it was the culmination of a long 48 hours after he lost the fifth ATP Tour final of his career in Marseille to Stefanos Tsisipas. Auger-Aliassime flew to Mexico, and then had to quickly adjust from indoors to outdoors with humidity – and a seven-hour time difference.
For Fernandez, it was a third straight-set victory in a row over an opponent ranked higher than she.
The 17-year-old from Laval, who now makes south Florida home, rolled over No. 3 seed Lizette Cabrera (No. 122) and veteran American Varvara Lepchenko (No. 177, but once as high as No. 19) in the qualifying to reach the fifth main draw of her young career at the WTA/Grand Slam level.
She continued her roll against Stojanovic, a hard-hitting 23-year-old who is playing the best tennis of her career and stands at a career high No. 82 in the rankings.
For Auger-Aliassime, who defeated Bolt 6-3, 6-0 on the Aussie’s home turf in Adelaide just a month ago, Tuesday’s victory was little more of a slog, given the circumstances.
But he got through it. He’ll now face Kyle Edmund of Great Britain in the second round.
Fernandez’s next opponent is a more than familiar one.
It’s Nao Hibino, the No. 8 seed from Japan.
Hibino a Canadian magnet
Hibino has been somewhat of a staple for the Canadian players of late.
She faced Genie Bouchard four times over a period of about seven months between the 2018 Vancouver Challenger and the 2019 Miami Open. And Hibino won all four matches.
Fernandez played Hibino – who at 5-foot-4 is about the same height – three times herself in 2019. She took the first two, at Challengers on home turf in Granby, Que. and Vancouver, B.C. in straight sets.
Hibino got her revenge on her home turf, in Hiroshima, Japan, in the first round of a WTA tour event last fall. But it was closer-than-close: 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-5.
It shouldn’t be long before WTA Tour fills in the data for the 2019 junior French Open champion, who is making the transition to the pro ranks look routine in this early going.
More Canadian good news
There was more Canadian action Tuesday – this one more true to recent trends as Françoise Abanda and Katherine Sebov met in the first round of the Shoebacca Open, a $25,000 ITF tournament in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Abanda qualified at the tournament. And, of course, of all the main-draw players available, she drew Sebov. The pair, two years apart, had never met.
Abanda came out the winner, 6-3, 7-5 in a straight-sets win that took over two hours.
As well, Toronto’s Sharon Fichman took the court in doubles in Acapulco, just moments after her fellow Canadians finished off their victories. She’s playing with Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine.
After a topsy-turvy, dramatic win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Félix Auger-Aliassime made it a trifecta of Canadians to reach the quarterfinals of the ATP tournament in Marseille.
Auger-Aliassime joined teammates Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil in the final eight.
And, in a reversal of recent Canadian draw luck: none of them will play the other.
The 19-year-old Auger-Aliassime saved three match points against him, and finally closed it out 11-9 in the third-set tiebreak. With an ace.
“I started incredibly. I couldn’t ask more of myself in the first set,” Auger-Aliassime said in a French-language interview on court after the win.
The Canadian won the first set 6-0, broke Herbert three times, and took 27 of the 40 points.
“What was courageous, good on his part was that he didn’t flinch. He hung in, and raised his level. There were very few break points on either side after that,” he added. “I was very surprised at the result of the first set. And after that, I … don’t really know what to say.”
Herbert won two points that featured Tweeners – one of them to take the second set.
“I tried to hold on as best as I could. Mentally, I tried to put it all in there to try to win it. But I don’t even know if that was a mental match,” Auger-Aliassime said, in response to a question about mental strength. “It was … all over the place.”
Herbert earned match point No. 2 after Auger-Aliassime hit a really good overhead that looked to have the point won. Not only did Herbert guess right on the direction he fired the forehand so hard down the line that Auger-Aliassime was sent sprawling to even get his racket on it.
“The return of the smash – I’ve never seen that. It was just incredible,” he said.
Shapo, Pospisil and FAA
Earlier in the day, Denis Shapovalov played his opening match in Marseille after a first-round bye.
And he was impressive in dispatching Marin Cilic 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. That one had its dramatic moments as well.
On Wednesday, Pospisil posted a very routine win – and an impressive upset – over No. 8 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland. The 29-year-old also is into the semifinals in doubles with Herbert’s regular doubles partner, Nicolas Mahut.
Pospisil with the toughest matchup
Shapovalov will be first up on Friday against unseeded Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan – an unpredictable opponent who is capable of pulling out a big match on the day.
That one will be at 3 p.m. Marseille time (9 a.m. ET, 6 a.m. PT).
They’ll be followed by Pospisil against No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The two have played only once, in the qualifying of the ‘s-Hertogenbosch grass-court event in 2017.
But Pospisil can access plenty of intel from his teammates.
Tsitsipas is a former junior rival of the two younger Canadians. Auger-Aliassime was 3-for-3 against the Greek star in the juniors, and is 2-1 against him in the pros. Shapovalov has done even better: he also went 3-0 against him in the juniors – and is 4-0 against him in the pros. Let’s just say that Tsitsipas isn’t a huge fan of the red maple leaf.
Auger-Aliassime will be the second night-session match, after the fourth quarterfinal between No. 1 seed Daniil Medvedev and Gilles Simon of France. It should start around 9 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET, noon PT).
He’ll play the winner between No. 3 seed David Goffin and qualifier Egor Gerasimov.
That match got under way after 10 p.m., following Auger-Aliassime and Herbert’s two hour, 41-minute drama-fest.
Marseille being a 250-level event, TSN/RDS do not have the broadcast rights. Hopefully they can work something out and get those matches on air Friday.
BRISBANE, Australia – The young – and youngish – guns abound in Group F at the ATP Cup.
Canada has both Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov. Australia has Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios. Germany has Alexander Zverev.
And Greece has Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas is the most highly ranked of all of them. He’s also basically a one-man team (with all due respect to any athlete who plays, or aspires to play, professional tennis).
But with Denis Shapovalov’s 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) victory over Tsitsipas in a match of No. 1s that was a testing way to start a tennis season, Canada clinched a victory..
Earlier, Auger-Aliassime had the relative good fortune to square off against Michail Pervolarakis, a 23-year-old ranked No. 487.
And afterwards, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov finished off the sweep with a 6-2, 6-3 victory in doubles over Pervolarakis and … Petros Tsitsipas, a late substitute for his brother.
Goliath slays David
Pervolarakis’s last match came in December – at a $15,000 ITF event in Heraklion, Greece.
That’s the lowest level of pro tennis. And that day, he was beaten in three sets by No. 689-ranked Artem Smirnov of Ukraine.
Friday, he played his first career singles match at the ATP Tour level.
And while he showed he definitely had some game, Pervolarakis was overpowered 6-1, 6-3 by Auger-Aliassime, who is ranked 678 spots higher than Smirnov.
Here’s what it looked like.
“It truly feels good to be back on the court. With the injury I had a longer pre-season, was able to train well to get fit, and I just felt like I was doing some good things, practicing well, but the first match you don’t know what to expect,” Auger-Aliassime said.
“I didn’t know the opponent, also, so that’s a factor that is always challenging when you’re a player and so I tried to focus on what I had to do. But I was happy that overall in the match I had a great first set, couldn’t ask any better, and I was able to be solid in the second. So overall very happy to be back.”
Shapo v Tsitsi an early-season challenge
In a typical season-opening run towards the Australian Open in Melbourne, a player like Shapovalov, ranked No. 15, generally is going to get a lower-ranked player in a regular 250-level ATP Tour event. Maybe even an Australian wild card.
But with this format, almost every team’s No. 1 is a top player. That’s sort of the point of the exercise. And it’s definitely a selling point, because the top two singles players are required to play.
And so, first out of the box for Shapovalov, it was Tsitsipas. Rivals from back in their junior days, this was their fourth meeting in the upper levels of the game.
The first came two years ago in the first round of the Australian Open. Shapovalov won in straight sets. They played again in Monte Carlo in 2018 (on clay). Tsitsipas won that one.
And last year in Miami, they played an epic in the fourth round, won by Shapovalov in a third-set tiebreak.
On Friday, Shapovalov was just the steadier performer – the one who clearly had made the better adjustment to the conditions.
The Canadian, who had done some off-season training at the IMG Academy in Florida, has already been in Australia for 10 days.
Tsitsipas, although he said it wasn’t the reason he lost, spoke of an “irritation” in his shoulder and wrist. It was an issue he attributed to taking a three-week break after the season and starting up again – and also the change in conditions from Dubai to Brisbane.
In short, he didn’t seem ready for such a big task right out of the gate.
“His serve was better than mine and a few points in the tiebreak … I didn’t work out what I had to do and I didn’t have a clear picture of how I have to play, which I usually have also much more adrenaline and a rush when I’m in the tiebreak. I like playing tiebreaks,” Tsitsipas said. “Today, he was just, you know, better decision-making and he did things better than me.”
Shapovalov up for this one
Unlike Auger-Aliassime, who decided to have personal coach Fred Fontang courtside, Shapovalov went with captain Fuorivia alone. Coach Mikhail Youzhny sat behind them with the rest of the Canadian team.
It made sense, in this case. Fuorivia, who was Shapovalov’s coach as a junior and returned last spring after Shapovalov and Steckley parted ways, probably knows him better than anyone except for his mother Tessa.
At times, the tennis was impressively high level for the opening day of their seasons. It generally is with these two, who both have all-court mentalities and, of course, those sweet one-handed backhands.
“It’s definitely a huge win for me. Obviously, he had an unbelievable end to the season and he’s definitely one of the top players in the world right now. He’s got a great game,” Shapovalov said. “So to beat a guy like this first match of the year, it’s really special for me.”
The other Tsitsipas brother
As at Davis Cup, the rule in the ATP Cup is that the doubles are played even if the outcome is already decided.
(Of course, it was the rule at Davis Cup as well. But with the lack of healthy bodies on a four-man squad, the Canadians decided to forfeit their doubles against the U.S. in the round-robin).
But it took awhile.
The maximum time, if one of the No. 1 singles players is playing the doubles, is 45 minutes after the singles. It took every bit of that time. And in the end, it was Tsitsipas – younger brother Petros – who took the court instead of big brother Stefanos.
Petros, 19, is the No. 5-ranked player in Greece. His ATP Tour ranking is tied with Piotr Matuszewski of Poland at No. 1,415 in the world. He has three ATP ranking points (his brother has 5,300).
In doubles, the younger Tsitsipas did briefly break into the top 1,000 in 2019, peaking at No. 973 in October.
So all this is above his level. Still, peers Auger-Aliassime (also 19) and Shapovalov (20) thought he was the trickier player on the court.
“I mean, for me like for his ranking he had a good serve, to be honest. It was not so hard, but precise. Better (touch) than his partner, that’s maybe the similarities,” Auger-Aliassime said after being asked to compare the games of the Greek brothers.
“I was impressed. I think he was definitely the better doubles player on the court and he was doing a good job covering the net, he was a bit more tricky to play against,” Shapovalov said.
Next up: Australia
Canada’s next challenge comes Sunday – again at 10 a.m., which is 7 p.m. Saturday night on the east coast in Canada, and 4 p.m. on the west coast.
And this time, they might not be the heavy favorites.
Canada will play Australia, which essentially is the home team in this country vs. country competition.
Australia has the dangerous Nick Kyrgios at No. 2 singles, with the higher-ranked Alex de Minaur at No. 1.
Kyrgios was both humbled and inspired Friday night, as he aced to raise funds for the victims of the bush fires that have been particularly devastating on his hometown of Canberra.
Kyrgios vs. Auger-Aliassime would be a rematch of their dramatic, somewhat contentious, marathon at the Queen’s Club tournament last summer.
No changes in the top 10, as only Russians Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov were in action in an actual tournament.
Medvedev continued his furious run from the North American hard-court summer right into the fall, as he wins in St. Petersburg.
He doesn’t move up in the rankings, but he puts more separation between himself at No. 4, and Dominic Thiem at No. 5.
Thiem, who won St. Petersburg last year but chose Laver Cup instead, drops 160 points.
Novak Djokovic was idle, but reports have him back on the practice court, three weeks after his shoulder let him down at the US Open.
Nadal, Federer, Thiem, Zverev and Tsitsipas played Laver Cup. No. 8 Kei Nishikori is still injured and will miss the Asian swing.
And Roberto Bautista Agut, at No. 10, spent the week as a sub in Geneva.
ON THE UPSWING
Borna Coric (CRO): No. 15 ============> No. 14 (The Croat is back on a winning track by making the final in Russia).
Félix Auger-Aliassime (CAN): No. 21 ============> No. 20 (Idle last week, the Canadian is back in the top 20 after Wawrinka drops 10 points below him. He’s the No. 2 seed in Chengdu this week, on a mission to win that first Tour title).
Andrey Rublev (RUS): No. 38 ============> No. 36 (Ran into the buzzsaw Medvedev in the St. Petersburg quarters).
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA): No. 61 ============> No. 39 (Tsonga is on a mission. Challenger last week. Title in Metz this week. And another Challenger next week).
Aljaz Bedene (SLO): No. 76 ============> No. 64 (The Metz finalist makes a jump).
John Millman (AUS): No. 94 ============> No. 79 (Good ride on the Challenger circuit in Taipei, as he wins the title).
Grégoire Barrere (FRA): No. 98 ============> No. 89 (Another career high for the 25-year-old Frenchman, who reached the Metz quarterfinals).
Egor Gerasimov (BLR): No. 119 ============> No. 98 (Into the top 100 and a career high after qualifying and reaching the St. Petersburg semis. The 26-year-old has a special exempt into Chengdu this week).
Steven Diez (CAN): No. 172 ============> No. 160 (The Spanish-Canadian, 28, reaches a career high after making the semifinals at the Kaohsiung Challenger).
Peter Polansky (CAN): No. 200 ============> No. 167 (After a season of backsliding, the 31-year-old Canadian gets back in the winner’s circle with a title at the Columbus Challenger).
Danilo Petrovic (SRB): No. 259 ============> No. 194 (The 6-foot-8 Serb, down as low as No. 338 in May, won the Sibiu Challenger, and jumps into the top 200 for the first time at age 27).
J.J. Wolf (USA): No. 285 ============> No. 247 (A career high for the 20-year-old after making the Columbus final. He was the No. 1 U.S. college player last spring, out of Ohio State, before turning pro this summer).
ON THE DOWNSWING
Stan Wawrinka (SUI): No. 19 ============> No. 21 (Wawrinka bypassed Laver Cup in his little part of the world to play St. Petersburg (yes, it was about the money). But he ended up pulling out of that as he needed more down time after the US Open).
Gilles Simon (FRA): No. 37 ============> No. 49 (Last year’s Metz champ loses in the second round).
Ricardas Berankis (LTU): No. 63 ============> No. 70 (He gets Shapovalov in Chengdu, after a long trip from St. Petersburg).
Martin Klizan (SVK): No. 90 ============> No. 121 (Last year’s finalist – he defeated Wawrinka and Shapovalov – lost in the first round in St. Petersburg).
Matthias Bachinger (GER): No. 126 ============> No. 182 (Ouch. The 32-year-old German went from the qualies to the final in Metz a year ago. Last week, he lost in the qualifying).
Michael Mmoh (USA): No. 168 ============> No. 208 (Injuries have kicked the 21-year-old’s behind this season, and he falls out of the top 200. A year ago, he had just jumped into the top 100 and a career high).
Duckhee Lee (KOR): No. 216 ============> No. 252 (The 21-year-old from Korea, who is deaf, reached No. 110 back in April, 2017. While he broke through to win his first career ATP Tour match last month in Winston-Salem (sacrificing the US Open qualies to do it), he drops after not defending his semifinal effort in Kaohsiung).
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a week, one of those watershed “firsts” in Félix Auger-Aliassime’s young career will occur.
The 18-year-old will celebrate his 19th at the Rogers Cup, which not only is a Masters 1000 event, but is held in his hometown of Montreal.
To prepare for that tournament by getting some match play on the hard courts, and to keep things on the down low before all the attention he’ll get at home, Auger-Aliassime is at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. this week.
That’s not the only reason, of course. The Citi Open is an ATP 500 event, which offers plenty of ranking points (and prize money).
The young Canadian spent about 10 days in Montreal training after taking a post-Wimbledon break.
On Saturday, he had a practice in the heat of the day, then took to the stadium court at 8 p.m. for a practice that was still going strong when your Tennis.Life chronicler left just after 9:30 p.m.
Peas in a pod
Auger-Aliassime hit with Frances Tiafoe, who is experiencing the same type of thing this week in D.C. Tiafoe is a local. But the advantage he has is that this isn’t his first Citi Open rodeo.
And, of course, there’s Coco Mania, which is sucking up all the early air before the big event begins.
Here they are on court. Auger-Aliassime’s fellow Montrealer Genie Bouchard had the 7-8 p.m. slot just before them, so the two city-twins did run into each other.