Canadians 1-for-3 in Monday Miami qualies (video)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Félix Auger-Aliassime was the only one of the three Canadians in action Monday in the Miami Open qualifying to make it through to the final round.

And even the 18-year-old struggled at first, before rising to the task.

Auger-Aliassime dropped the first set against Italian veteran Luca Vanni in a flurry of unforced errors. But then, he ran away with it in the third set of a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory.

His next opponent – the man standing in the way of him making the Miami Open main draw for the first time – also is no pushover.

Auger-Aliassime will play 37-year-old Paolo Lorenzi, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. and trains at the IMG Academy. Auger-Aliassime spent the off-season preparing there. So he’ll have seen him, even if he might not have practiced against him.

Lorenzi is the fellow who’s basically out there on the courts half the day, every day. 

Given the qualifying is not broadcast, we shot a few highlights of the match.

Bouchard struggles against nemesis Hibino

In 2018, Eugenie Bouchard faced 24-year-old Nao Hibino three times, all on hard court.

All three times – all within two months, at the Vancouver Challenger, in Hiroshima and in Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Hibino won. Bouchard managed just one set in those three defeats.

The Canadian managed a set on Monday. But after winning the first set, turning the page on a love set and running out to a 3-1 lead, Bouchard won just one more game in a 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 loss.

Hibino has has proven to be a brutal matchup for her, a consistent player with some power who runs down everything. Hibino has nearly the same winning percentage as Bouchard through her career (57.9% versus 58.8 per cent for Bouchard) based on approximately 12 per cent fewer matches at the WTA level).

Bouchard didn’t look great in practice against Magda Linette of Poland, but that’s not unusual for her. She was coughing occasionally, but it didn’t seem – from the outside – like anything big. Certainly nothing like she experienced at Indian Wells in that valiant effort against Kirsten Flipkens in the first round.

Against Hibino, everything sort of started well, then unraveled. Again, the cumulative pressure of having the ball come back, of trying to finish points off too quickly. It was fairly similar to her other losses to Hibino – plus, at this point, the Japanese has to be in Bouchard’s head, understandably.

Bad luck and timing

The 25-year-old Canadian was going to be the next player into the Miami Open draw. But that withdrawal she needed never came – at least, not in time for the qualifying.

In fact, there were only two withdrawals from the original entry list: Maria Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova.

It’s possible there might well be some before the main-draw matches begin. But that’s too late for Bouchard.

Most things weren’t going well Monday. After she decided to take a bathroom break following the bagel second set, Bouchard headed off in the wrong direction – only to be told the facilities were at the opposite side of the court (first day in a new site, everyone’s trying to figure things out).

During that bathroom break, coach Michael Joyce exited the court and spent most of the time talking with Bouchard’s mother, Julie Leclair.

Bouchard isn’t playing doubles in Miami. And she has entered the International-level Monterrey WTA event the week of April 1 and the same-level tournament Bogota the following week.

The Canadian Fed Cup team’s World Group I playoff tie against the Czech Republic will be held in Prostejov April 20-21. 

Another tough one for Polansky

Meanwhile, Richmond Hill, Ont.’s Peter Polansky had a tough one against No. 4 qualifying seed Mackenzie McDonald, losing 7-6 (4), 7-5 in a match that featured just three break points. 

Mackenzie had one break point in the second set, and converted it. And that was basically the match on a day Polansky played well enough, for the most part, to win it.

It was a long road back to the locker rooms inside the stadium, for sure.

Polansky lost a tough one in the first round of Miami qualifying, against No. 4 seed Mackenzie McDonald.

Canadians do a LOT of talking at Indian Wells (video)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – You know who’s done a whole lotta talking at the BNP Paribas Open?

The Canadians.

Win or lose, rain or dry – amid the moths and beetles – the Canuck crew created more buzz than any single group at Indian Wells.

The veteran Milos Raonic did as he usually does – went deep in the desert. And he’s still in it, to face Dominic Thiem in the semifinals.

Teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime impressed in a dominant win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. But then he hit the wall physically against Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan. 

Even then, he almost pulled it off.

Denis Shapovalov made a victory over Grand Slam champion Marin Cilic look routine, before not playing his best against the unseeded Hubert Hurkacz.

And then, there was Bianca Andreescu.

The third of the teen triumvirate is into the final, after getting into the tournament as a wild card.

Here is Milos Raonic talking about righting recent wrongs.

Here’s Auger-Aliassime looking at the positive after a great few weeks.

Here’s Shapovalov talking rap, and shrugging off a sub-par day.

And finally, here’s Andreescu after her crushing win over Garbiñe Muguruza, and answering questions that will allow the fans just discovering her to get to know her a little bit.

 

Felix fights in defeat, as desert run ends

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – If Félix Auger-Aliassime couldn’t win Monday night, at least there were noble lessons in defeat.

The 18-year-old Canadian had a huge opening to reach the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open. And he knew it.

He had qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka in the third round. And then, he would face lucky loser Miomir Kecmanovic.

Kecmanovic, a junior peer a year older than the Canadian, was the kid Auger-Aliassime trounced 6-3, 6-0 in the US Open junior boys’ final in 2016. That was the follow-up to Auger-Aliassime’s win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis of that event, his final one in the juniors.

So it was all to win. Unfortunately, after a jam-packed start to the season, the kid hit the wall.

It never felt as though he was going to win the match. And yet, he very nearly did, in a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (5) marathon that finished just a few minutes short of three hours.

“In the second (set) I felt – physically, I felt just not great. And I was up a break, but something wasn’t right. I just felt like I was on the edge, yeah. I was really close to getting broken every time. Then eventually turned his way and I kind of had 30, 40 minutes where I lost my rhythm. Like, I wasn’t sure what to do anymore. I tried to fight, stay in there. For sure paid off, I felt I was close to winning. Tough to swallow, but at the same time he deserved it, as well,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Low energy, changing conditions

The first set, which Auger-Aliassime won, took nearly an hour. But after he won it, there was no energetic fist pump, no sign that he was going to go on a roll. Instead, he almost look … relieved.

Restrained throughout, it turns out the kid perhaps was trying to save every bit of energy for the tennis, and not use it on extraneous emotion.

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How can you not love a guy whose first reaction after a win like that is to go and bury his head in his tennis bag? (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime did come out in the second set hitting a lot harder, and he broke to open the set. From there, the match turned on very little. A shank, a break back. And then, as Auger-Aliassime was about to serve at 3-4 in the second, there was a five-minute break as enough rain drops fell to make the lines slippery.

He played a stinker of a game, and was broken at love.

But then he broke Nishioka when he served for the set. And that was the thing about it. The Japanese lefty barely broke 100 mph with his first serve. And yet Auger-Aliassime made a lot of return errors, notably on the even weaker second serve. And as much as Nishioka makes his living with his legs, it was the Canadian who ended up running more during the match – on a night when he would have preferred it be otherwise.

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Auger-Aliassime mimics losing a key overhead in the lights after his third-round loss Monday night. His match was a late afternoon one that began in one set of conditions and ended in the dark. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

It unravelled from there. The crosscourt pattern from Auger-Aliassime’s backhand to Nishioka’s loopy forehand was not in the Canadian’s favor. Nishioka’s backhand is pretty flat, but he put all the spin he could on the forehand and Auger-Aliassime was unable to time it or attack it consistently enough.

Down 1-5, Felix fights back

It was clear that those well-muscled legs had no juice left. Of some 60 unforced errors Auger-Aliassime hit in the match, a large proportion came on forehands in which he just didn’t get himself set enough to fire accurately. The legs just wouldn’t go.

Still, down 1-5, Nishioka was the one who got tight.

“It was tough to believe, because I wasn’t playing good at all.  … He was really dominating. I’m down match points. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to win this one.’ I eventually broke back 5-2, and then I saw a little bit of an opening. Let’s try and win my first game. I was only one break down after that. I thought I might have a chance. Maybe he’s going to get tight serving for the match,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I gave myself a chance. I can be happy with myself for that. Obviously the outcome is tough.”

Down 1-3 in the ultimate tiebreak, Auger-Aliassime went up 5-3, and had the match on his racket at 5-4. But it wasn’t to be.

Serene in desert defeat

The young Canadian was serene in discussing a tough loss. And from what he said, it wasn’t as if he went into the locker room in a fury, but calmed down by the time his press conference rolled around.

The progression he has shown in handling losses as well as wins is one of of those signs of rapid maturity in the last year or two.

We remember the reactions when he lost in the juniors. It looked like it was the end of the world; Auger-Aliassime could barely muster a gracious handshake. It was less than a year ago that the then 17-year-old was devastated after losing a heartbreaker, at home at the Rogers Cup, to Daniil Medvedev after also being ahead in the early going.

That day, he was crushed, but with all the media interest, he had to discuss the defeat in pretty expansive detail. And he handled that first experience with precocious perspective.

Monday night in the desert, he was just as you would hope he’d be. Even the best players in the world lose most weeks. How you handle those defeats goes a long way in determining how you handle the victories.

Auger-Aliassime went from the hunter to the hunted in less than 48 hours. He went from daytime conditions in a quiet stadium – twice in a row – to the noisy din of Stadium 2. He went from beating a top-10 player in his first crack at that, to being the favorite against a qualifier.

And, he went from day to night – in the same match. He dealt with a little rain. He had to adjust to the lights for the first time in the tournament – at the most crucial moments. Everything was thrown at him – including the tantalizing prospect of opportunity and a leap into the top 50.

If you judge a future champion in part on how they handle the bumps in the road long the way, the Canadian is in good shape.

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Auger-Aliassime tried to get himself pumped up at the end, but he had hit the wall physically and his speedy opponent had more left in the tank. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Miami next?

Auger-Aliassime said he would discuss it with his team. But the plan as of last night was to play the qualifying in Miami.

As in Indian Wells, his current ranking would get him into the main draw there next week. But will the Miami Open do what the BNP Paribas Open did, and grant him a wild card?

“That’s not in my control,” Auger-Aliassime said. 

Given he’s not a player represented by IMG, which owns and runs the tournament, the odds are longer. If not, he’ll have nearly a week to rest and process, and then get back on the court.

1st top-10 win in 1st try for Auger-Aliassime

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – If you could choose which player ranked in the top 10 you had to face first, the options could be worse than the one you went undefeated against in the juniors, right?

And so, Félix Auger-Aliassime was welcomed into the big time Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open.

The 18-year-old Canadian continued where his junior mastery left off against  20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. And that was true even though he expected, and saw, a far different player than back when they were “kids”.

The 6-4, 6-2 victory took an hour and 17 minutes and was a lot about Auger-Aliassime’s power and takeover of of court territory. It was also about a less-than-fresh Tsitsipas, who said he’ll have to start looking for solutions against a player who clearly is not a good matchup for him.

He’d better get at it.

If all goes as planned, it’s likely these two will be seeing a lot of each other over the next decade or so.

First top-10 win

Auger-Aliassime has played three top-20 players in his short career. He has won all three matches.

He defeated Lucas Pouille (then No. 18) at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last summer. A few weeks ago in Rio, he upset No. 16 Fabio Fognini (the No. 2 seed) in the first round on his way to the final.

And now, in his first match against a player in the top – albeit, the youngest, newest member – he prevails again.

Here’s some of what he had to say afterwards.

Auger-Aliassime is the fifth-youngest to ever beat a top-10 player for the first time. For whatever it’s worth (and it’s definitely not a sign of future success, but of potential), the other four are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and … Gaël Monfils.

What a difference a year makes

(Screenshot: TennisTV)
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

Tsitsipas gave huge credit to Auger-Aliassime for his stellar play.

But he also cut a bit of a forlorn figure, almost marvelling at Auger-Aliassime’s energy.

He admitted he didn’t have a whole lot of it himself. And that is the flip-ahead for Auger-Aliassime in a couple of years, if he continues progressing.

This is the seventh tournament for Tsitsipas in 2019: Sydney, the Australian Open (where he reached the semis), Sofia, Rotterdam (a first-round loss), Marseille (a title) and then Dubai (a loss in the final to Federer after tough three-setters in three of the four matches leading up to it).

And then – straight to Indian Wells.

And even though he had five or six days to acclimate to the rather unique conditions, what he probably needed even more was a break.

“I mean, my mind at the moment is not very fresh. I feel like I had enough of tennis already, but still doesn’t mean anything. … He deserved that victory. He won it by himself. I didn’t give it to him. But me, I mean, myself I would say that just so much tennis that when you do the same thing over and over again, your mind gets so tired and you’re not the same focused like before,” he said.

“And unfortunately, it happened here. I think taking some small break before Miami will probably help. But, I mean, I’m a bit disappointed because I really wanted to do well here. It’s a really nice place to get some good results and play well.”

A little variety to the tennis diet

The way it sounded, Tsitsipas is a little tired of the monotony of doing the same thing, day after day, week after week. This is the grind of being a tennis player. And as the Greek star goes deeper into draws week after week, he’s going to have to figure out how to keep himself fresh.

“Maybe disconnect a bit from the sport and do something else, not even watch it at all. Like, don’t watch tennis at all. In our level of game, sometimes — I mean, in other jobs as well, when you do something, you know, with a lot of intensity and a lot of focus and a lot of will, sometimes your mind cannot keep up and you get tired. You cannot do the same thing over and over again,” he said. “And that’s why I admire the players like Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. They seem to be so consistent in all they’re doing.”

Sounds like coach Dad will have to find some different drills, some ways to make it a little more fun. Because a steady diet of those kinds of feelings for too long is a burnout waiting to happen.

“I don’t know. Probably mix it up. That’s the only solution, to be consistent. I don’t know. Don’t do the same thing. Just maybe serve and volley one day, the other one you can just stay back,” Tsitsipas said.  “It’s all of this variety in your game can probably help you be more fresh. I don’t know. I don’t know myself, to be honest.”

Auger-Aliassime fresh as a daisy

(Screenshot: TennisTV)

For Tsitsipas’s 18-year-old opponent, this is all uncharted territory. And that alone makes it a whole lot of fun.

The Canadian has played a lot of tennis. But he’s only had a few weeks where he really did well.  And his evident vigor and eagerness made Tsitsipas look all the more flat on Saturday. 

He’s also playing really, really, really high-level tennis. And even if he got the early-bird 11 a.m. slot both times, Auger-Aliassime was scheduled on the big stadium.

“I want to win as much as I can. I want to go as far as I can as a player. You know, I don’t know what my limits will be, but, you know, I try to work hard every day to go as far as I can. I want to probably feel all the emotions that I can feel, you know, on these courts, win as many trophies as I can,” he said.

“Yeah, there is no real limits for me.”

Aliassime

Along that road, it’s worth at least paying a modicum of attention to his opponent Saturday, who has arrived where the young Canadian wants to be in short order.

Maybe even ahead of schedule, if you compare his road to that of the younger rival he never defeated in the juniors.

Auger-Aliassime will play speedy Japanese lefty Yoshihito Nishioka in the third round.

Auger-Aliassime through to face Tsitsipas

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – It was only a blip in time ago that Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime beating a player in an ATP Tour event was a big deal, an impressive win.

Fast forward a few months, and the 18-year-old made his 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 48 Cameron Norrie of Great Britain look almost routine.

“During matches, and tournaments, you get used to the level. I’ve raised my ranking and my level, too. You have to expect the best. But I think I was able to impose myself from the first rallies, and maintain it through the whole match. It wasn’t a routine win, but it was a very good match on my part,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I was able to stay calm. Even when he had break points. I was able to take my time, serve well, manage it well.”

Auger-Aliassime served at 80 per cent, and won 80 per cent of his first serve points.

He also won 6-of-10 on second serve – a stat that can fluctuate for him. But when it’s that good, it’s hard for an opponent to see a way through it.

Auger-Aliassime blasted one serve at 131 mph.

Serve the focus in transition to hard court

Coach Frédéric Fontang said that one of the first things they did upon arrival in the desert from the South American clay-court season was to stabilize the serve.

There had been some ups and downs with it on the clay. But on the hard courts, it’s even more of a weapon for him even if he felt he had used it to good effect on the clay.

“Norrie is a dangerous player because he hangs tough. He’s a counter-puncher, and he’s able to find angles as a left-hander. He’s someone who’s difficult to overpower. And he waits for the error, with a flat backhand and a lot of spin on the forehand,” Fontang said. “For Felix, the plan was to create space, and then move forward. He forced Norrie into trying to do too much, and he was the one making the errors.”

Tsitsipas is next for Auger-Aliassime

The next match for Auger-Aliassime is one that will gain a lot of attention.

He will face Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has moved into the top 10 just as Auger-Aliassime has moved into the top 60.

The two are almost exactly two years apart. Tsitsipas’ Aug. 12 birthday (when he turns 21) comes just four days after Auger-Aliassime turns 19.

This will be the first time they meet in the pros. But back in the juniors, it was the Canadian who dominated their rivalry.

Canadian dominates junior rivalry

They squared off three times: in the Canadian Open junior championships just before the 2015 US Open, at the Eddie Herr in Florida that December, and in the semis of the 2016 junior US Open boys’ singles.

All three were won by the younger Auger-Aliassime. He went on to beat Miomir Kecmanovic in that US Open boys’ final.

In those three matches, Tsitsipas only managed one set.

But if Auger-Aliassime was precocious in the juniors, it has been Tsitsipas who has been precocious in the pros.

His appearance in the final of the Rogers Cup in Toronto last summer was the clarion bell. And his win over Roger Federer during a run to the Australian Open semifinals in January was further confirmation.

“He’s really playing well right now. He’s put together lots of tournaments, lots of matches, and he’s confident. But I’ve done that, too,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“The fact that I knew him in juniors – even though we’re very different players now – it definitely adds something to have already have played against him. It’s better to have beaten him than to have lost to him – even in the juniors. And I know he’s not crazy about playing opponents younger than he is.”

Auger-Aliassime, Djere among Indian Wells WCs

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The hard yards put in by 23-year-old Laslo Djere and 18-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime down on the Brazilian red clay did not go unnoticed by the powers-that-be at the BNP Paribas Open.

Both received wild cards into the tournament’s main draw, which begins Wednesday.

For Auger-Aliassime, who was just outside the top 100 at the entry deadline for qualifying, it means he’ll have some wiggle room.

Eliminated Friday night in the quarterfinals by Djere, he’ll have at least four days to travel from Brazil, and quickly get acclimated to the dry air and the slow, gritty hard courts in the desert.

Djere
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

Bonus for Djere

For Djere, who had not even entered the qualifying and is still alive in San Paulo after winning the Rio 500 event last week over Auger-Aliassime in the final, it’s bonus time. 

Ranked No. 92 at the main-draw deadline, he’d still be about 10 spots out of making the main draw. without the wild card, the alternative would have been to just go back to Europe.

Both, by their current career-high rankings, would easily have made it in. No doubt that weighed in the balance.

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Auger-Aliassime qualified for the BNP Paribas Open a year ago, and beat countryman Vasek Pospisil in the first round before losing to Milos Raonic. This year, he has a wild card straight into the main draw. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Opelka, Young and Donaldson are in

The other players on the men’s side who received wild cards include Reilly Opelka, Donald Young (currently ranked No. 214) and Jared Donaldson.

Donaldson is currently ranked No. 129. But he’s just returned from a six-month injury layoff. Opelka, whose ranking is at a career-high No. 58 after his first career title at the New York Open, would have made it in easily with that ranking. But he earned his way in with his efforts in the Oracle Challenger Series.

Young, who was a semifinalist at the Newport Beach Challenger during the second week of the Australian Open, also earned his wild card that way.

Djere

Anisimova, Vickery and Andreescu straight in

On the women’s side, six Americans received main-draw wild cards. 

Among them are 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, who reached the fourth round at the Australian Open. But Anisimova hasn’t played much since then. Her only match was a retirement after seven games of the first set against Varvara Flink of Russia in the first round of Acapulco this week.

Sachia Vickery, Jennifer Brady (who is in the semis of the Oracle Challenger on site this week), Taylor Townsend and Madison Brengle are the other American recipients. 

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Jennifer Brady is still alive in the Oracle Challenger. But now, she won’t have to play the qualies in the main event. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Jessica Pegula clinched one of the Oracle Series wild cards, and will make her second career appearance after qualifying all the way back in 2012, when she had just turned 18.

Another player who has had a great 2019 and whose current ranking would have allowed her to easily make the main draw is Canadian Bianca Andreescu.

The 18-year-old, currently ranked No. 71, is in the semifinals of the Acapulco WTA Tour event this week after being one of the last to make the main draw. She upset No. 4 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu and No. 7 seed Saisai Zheng and will face No. 5 seed Sofia Kenin Friday night. 

Andreescu won the Oracle Challenger in Newport Beach last month. But as she’s not an American, she’s not eligible for the wild-card challenge.

Another wild card will go to the second-place finisher in the Oracle Challenger Series, still up for grabs.

Qualifying wild cards

For the women: Francesca Di Lorenzo, Allie Kiick and Catherine McNally received passes into the qualifying. Also in is Ashley Kratzer, the winner of the pre-qualifying tournament.

As well, 16-year-old Zoe Kruger of South Africa, who trains at the IMG Academy and is coached by Thomas Hogstedt, received a qualifying wild card. Hogtstedt and Indian wells tournament director Tommy Haas are very close; Hogstedt used to coach him. It’s all in who you know, sometimes.

There is one more women’s qualifying wild card to be announced.

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Young Caty McNally, seen here Thursday during a third-round loss to Viktorija Golubic at the Oracle Challenger, will play the Indian Wells qualies. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

For the men, Americans Christopher Eubanks, Marcos Giron, Mitchell Krueger and J.J. Wolf are into the qualifying. Evan Song, who won the pre-qualifying tournament, also receives a qualifying wild card.

Two match wins are needed to make the main draw.

The qualifying begins Monday, and the first-round main draw matches (the top 32 players have byes) begin Wednesday.

 

Laslo Djere a great February ATP story

There are plenty out there who bemoan the state of tennis in February, in that lull between the Australian Open and the Indian Wells – Miami double.

No stories about how amazing Djokovic is, or how legendary Federer is, or whether Rafael Nadal will make a splash this hard-court season.

Because we’ve not read nearly enough of those stories.

Actually, if you love stories, there’s no better time than February, or mid-July, or October. Because that’s when the rest get to shine, get their moment in the limelight, and tell their tales.

Every tennis player has a story. The road to the top of the game is so long and winding, filled with challenges and potholes, that every single player who somehow survives and conquers it – no matter where they top out – has a fascinating journey.

Which brings us to Serbia’s Laslo Djere, a former top junior who has spent most of the last few years trying to permanently climb out of the Challengers.

Unless you’re an ardent fan of Serbian tennis, you would never have known his story. Even then, from the sound of it, he never told it. But now that we know it – now that he has won his first career ATP Tour title – you’ll be hard-pressed to forget it.

Djere defeated Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime – another great story – 6-3, 7-5 Sunday to win the Rio Open. It’s a 500-level ATP Tour event that didn’t have a 500-level pair of finalists. And yet both earned their way there.

Djere
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

A story of tragic loss, and dogged perseverance

As the week went along, he told his story. And it’s the story of a kid trying to make a success of himself in tennis who lost not one, but both his parents along the way.

Djere’s mother Hajnalka was diagnosed with cancer when he was 15, and died two years later. His father Caba died in December.

And there he was, two months later, popping the cork on a big bottle of champagne and taking a swig in front of an appreciative crowd halfway across the world from home.

View this post on Instagram

Always in my ❤…

A post shared by Laslo Djere (@lacidj_95) on

 Shoutout to the parents, near and so far

As Auger-Aliassime made a poised runner-up speech, he thanked both his parents for all their help along the way. The worst thing that happened to him was that they are no longer together, tough enough for a kid. But he already knows how lucky he is, how privileged he’s been to have had everything in place because of his talent to ensure he had a shot at a pro career.

Perhaps the 18-year-old appreciates his parents even more, now that he knows Djere’s story.

“I dedicate this trophy to my parents.I lost my mom seven years ago. I want to dedicate this one to her,” a stoic Djere said, as waves of applause went through the stadium. “

“Also to my dad – I lost him two months ago. My parents have been the biggest impact on me, and because of them I am who I am today So just want to thank then And I hope they are watching me now.”

Djere had revealed the story for the first time to a few journalists covering the Rio Open earlier in the week. According to this story on globo.com, he thought about how to say it (a Serbian speaking English to a mostly Brazilian group poses its own challenges, as well). He measured his words.

He didn’t have to tell that story. Who knew he would end up lifting the trophy? Djere could just have gone on his merry way and a few weeks from now, when he wasn’t at Indian Wells and Miami but all the big stars of the game were, he would go back to relative obscurity.

But perhaps he finally felt it was time.

A rare, brilliant smile

You hope the ATP will rush to set the record straight on his official bio, now that Djere has leaped into the top 40. Because there’s no evidence there, no hint of the road he has travelled.

As you scroll through his Instagram, you see that Djere rarely smiles. Even when posing for a photo. And yet every once in awhile, you see it – and it is a brilliant smile.

Djere
Djere knew exactly what do with that big bottle of champagne. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

He was as stoic on court Sunday even though it was clear he wasn’t feeling well. Djere doubled over a few times. He had tape running up the inside of his left upper leg. He took some tablets at one point.

And perhaps it’s that stoicism that allowed him to get through these last few years. It certainly helped him through the first four match points against Auger-Aliassime – all saved.

But when it was over, he let it out – just a little. When he was giving his speech and telling the story of his parents, it was coach Boris Conkic who was misty-eyed.

Rookie finals nerves for both

The match was not an oil painting. The two finals rookies were too tight, and it was frankly too humid and clammy, for their best tennis to come out.

Djere
Has there ever been anyone happier to take a shower than Djere after the Rio final? Doubtful. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime’s face was dripping. Djere’s shorts were SO soaked, so transparent, every tennis fan watching knew that he had run out of white underwear earlier in the week. As gross as it was to see, it had to feel 10 times worse to actually have to wear them.

A long road to a rocket rise

It took Djere more than two years to go from No. 200 into the top 100.

With this one momentous week, he leaps into the top 40 in a very crowded section of the rankings. And in an instant, his career is completely changed.

He earned $369,000 US for winning the title – five times what he had made so far this season (and most of that came from losing in the first round at the Australian Open). And the player who essentially is a clay-court specialist now will find himself in the draws of every big event this spring, leading up to the French Open.

And he can even aspire to a seeding in Paris, if he can continue on this run.

During the lull, the other stories can get told

This is the time of year for the Laslo Djeres. Perhaps everyone thought it was time for Auger-Aliassime, still just 18, to write the story this week. But he will have plenty of opportunities. This was Djere’s time.

It was also the time for two undersized scrappers in Delray Beach.

It was Radu Albot who won, the first-ever player from Moldova to win an ATP Tour title. And it was Dan Evans – the disgraced Brit who missed significant time after a positive cocaine test – who legitimately announced his return.

That one went to a third-set tiebreak, after a long rain delay, and was as dramatic as you could ask for. It didn’t require a member of the big Three.

Djere
Albot narrowly survived the ball-to-the-wall attack of Dan Evans to win his first career title at age 29. Three straight weeks of impressive wins jumped his ranking from No. 90 to a career best No. 52. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Three years ago in Rio, it was Pablo Cuevas, who lost to Auger-Aliassime in the semifinals. He went on a run through Rio and Sao Paulo and got himself into the top 25, at age 30. He made the Hamburg final later that year.

Last year in Hamburg, another underpopulated clay-court 500-level event after Wimbledon, it was 26-year-old Nikoloz Basilashvili who turned his career around. He went from the qualifying to the title – from outside the top 80 to inside the top 40. Basilashvili went on to win in Beijing late in the season and currently sits at a career-best No. 20 in the world.

In 2017 in Hamburg, former world No. 21 Leonardo Mayer of Argentina had spent a year outside the top 100 as he struggled to win matches and even dropped down to the Challenger circuit.

He went from No. 138 into the top 50 with the win there, which launched him back where he belonged.

Now, with Federer back in Dubai, Nadal in Acapulco and two Masters 1000s coming back to back, we return you to your regular programming.

But remember the new names you learned of this week, and their stories.

Auger-Aliassime one win away from 1st title

Wherever Félix Auger-Aliassime’s promising career takes him, he’ll always remember Rio.

The 18-year-old Canadian posted another impressive victory Saturday in dispatching savvy clay-court veteran Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 and will face another unseeded longshot, Laslo Djere of Serbia, in the Rio Open final.

After all but one of the Rio seeds went down on the first full day of play, this ATP Tour 500 tournament became a competition between a group of ambitious players to see who would seize the moment.

Auger-Aliassime earned his way on Saturday.

Djere, a 23-year-old Serb who was the No. 3 junior in the world after the French Open nearly six years ago but is only coming into his own now, got a walkover from Aljaz Bedene to reach the final without hitting a ball.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s so surreal. I always believe in myself but honestly, today, I had a slight chance to win I felt because Pablo is an unbelievable player. He won the tournament here, he’s really experienced,” Auger-Aliassime said, as quoted on the ATP Tour website. “But from the start, I felt good. After the first set I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a chance in this.’ I’m really happy.”

Cuevas hurting, but experienced

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The 33-year-old Cuevas had some aching body parts, but he still competed with all of his experience. (Screenshots: TennisTV)

At 33, Pablo Cuevas has forgotten more about playing on clay than Auger-Aliassime has learned so far in his young career.

And on a day when the body was hurting, and slow to get going, that savvy was enough to make it hard work for his young opponent.

Cuevas lifted his level in the second set, notably putting a lot of pressure on Auger-Aliassime’s second serve (the Canadian won just 20 per cent of them in that middle set).

But a fairly long toilet break after the second set – necessary,, as both players were spraying perspiration around them every time they moved on a hot, humid night – Cuevas was slow to get the machine revved up again.

It was enough that Auger-Aliassime could break early in the set. He navigated some trouble spots beautifully, and served out the match like a veteran.

Another “youngest ever” for Auger-Aliassime

The “500” level of ATP Tour events has only been around since 2009. But in that period, no one younger than Auger-Aliassime has ever reached a final.

Notable among the youngest five are Auger-Aliassime’s countryman MIlos Raonic and two of his junior rivals – Alex de Minaur and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Also notable is that all of them lost their finals. Auger-Aliassime has an opportunity to put his name next to another record. 

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Funnily enough, in this finals match, he may well go in as the favorite. That will be a completely different kind of dynamic than it would be, say, to play a top 20 player where he isn’t expected to take home the trophy.

Two paths lead to the same place

They say each player has his own path. And it’s true with these two, who are five years apart, but arriving at their first finish line at the exact same time.

one winDjere was already 18 when he reached his best ITF junior ranking of No. 3 in his final year of eligibility.

He defeated players like Thanasi Kokkinakis and Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev in the juniors, and played doubles with Croat Borna Coric.

But while all those players were zooming up the ATP Tour rankings, Djere struggled to get into the top 100.

He has had impressive wins – notably over his old doubles partner Coric in Gstaad after a win over Cuevas in Umag, to name just two during an excellent clay-court spring a year ago.

The previous spring, he defeated Fernando Verdasco, Daniil Medvedev and Viktor Troicki in the same week. He chased the clay everywhere he could, and did very well at the Challenger level. But his ranking had stagnated between No. 80 and No. 110 for the last year and a half.

Until this week.

Career bests for both

Djere came into Rio ranked No. 90, just a few spots off his career best. He should be in the top 50 regardless, and in the top 40 if he wins his first career title. It has been 2 1/2 years since the Serb broke into the top 200.

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(Screenshot: TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime was more of a phenom, hitting No. 2 in the juniors when he was only 15. He jumped into the top 200 a year and a half ago. And if the end of his 2018 season didn’t bring the milestones some expected of him (top 100, main draw in Australia), he’s more than catching up on that timeline now.

He’ll be top 60 no matter what, near the top 40 if he wins on Sunday.

The two should both head to Sao Paulo for the finale of this Golden Swing. Auger-Aliassime will play Cuevas again in the first round (what are the odds?). Djere drew a qualifier.

But after that, they’ll part ways.

Auger-Aliassime’s surge came too late for Indian Wells and Miami. So he’ll be the highly-ranked top seed in the qualifying unless the tournaments offer him a wild card.

Djere is entered in the main draws of both events, but not in the qualifying. And he won’t get in. So he’ll head back to Europe and wait for his bread butter – the spring European clay-court season.

Auger-Aliassime’s Rio roll continues

The thing about Félix Auger-Aliassime’s run to his first career ATP Tour semifinal is that he hasn’t even played brilliant tennis on the way.

He’s played solidly, for the most part. At times, he’s put together some brilliant points. He’s mixing up the play well. And he’s competing very, very well.

But he’s had his ups and downs, too, and a few tight moments and dodgy shot decisions.

Imagine what he might be able to do on the weekend. Because he can up his level even more and still stay well within his capabilities.

The opportunity is there for the 18-year-old, whose 6-4, 6-3 win over Jaume Muñar of Spain Friday night was rarely in doubt. He dominated him. And the victory also appeared to cement his position as the new darling of the Rio crowd.

They’re clearly loving his energy, his power and his willingness to bring them into his orbit. Oh, and the Brazil Nike jersey.

Next opponent a step up

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Auger-Aliassime plays experienced clay-court customer Pablo Cuevas, whose second serve is a whole lot heavier and difficult to handle than that of the younger Muñar.

It’s the toughest outcome, as the other semifinal is … Aljaz Bedene vs. Laslo Djere.

At 33, the Argentina born, Uruguay raised Cuevas is unseeded and ranked just outside the top 60. But he was a top-20 player a couple of years ago, and he’s on his way back up. Beyond that, his clay-court gravitas is uncontested.

Cuevas has six career titles – all of them on clay. And the last four have come during the Golden Swing: one in Rio in 2016, the other three at next week’s tournament in Sao Paulo.

He has a semifinal and a quarterfinal so far this year and now, another semifinal.

The only concern he might well have is that there has been a lot of tennis. 

That was something that definitely affected Muñar Friday, as the 21-year-old received some medical attention and had his upper leg wrapped.

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He was playing his ninth singles match and 13th match overall during the South American Tour, having reached the single quarterfinals three straight weeks. He should break into the top 60 next week, having begun it at No. 81.

And his contentious second-round match lasted three hours, 20 minutes. It showed. The Nadal-like sprint he put on running back to the baseline to start the warmup was probably the most energy he displayed.

Felix the fresh one

In contrast, Auger-Aliassime didn’t play the first tournament in Córdoba. He had a date in Slovakia for Davis Cup and then had to travel all the way down to South America.

Rio
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

But his play in the decider in that crucial tie for Canada was a huge confidence booster – a good setup for his first Golden Swing.

The momentum didn’t carry over to his debut in Buenos Aires, where he succumbed to 22-year-old Christian Garin after being up a set.

But that extra freshness may prove to be a huge benefit now.

Because as the tournament has unfolded (with seven of the eight seeds losing in the second round and the eighth, No. 5 Joao Sousa, going out in the second), it’s all there to be won. 

And Auger-Aliassime has the youngest and the freshest legs.

The four remaining players, as it happens, are the four who upset the top four seeds in the first roun. So they’re all looking to grab the same opportunity.

Another career milestone

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The win will put the Canadian into the top 80 – regardless of what happens this weekend. A win Saturday would put him in the top 60.

But more than that, it’s the opponents he has beaten.

Even if Auger-Aliassime didn’t get the best version of Fabio Fognini in the first round, he still straight-setted the world No. 16.

Rio
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

And then, he turned around and defeated a player he had lost to just a week before.

Those are extra-point wins, even if those points don’t show up in the rankings.

In Muñar, he defeated a fellow young gun who had defeated him twice – both occasions on clay – a year ago. One was a tight contest in a Challenger. The second came in the second round of the French Open qualifying.

Muñar played a brilliant match that day. He was all over the court. He serve-volleyed and came to the net. Auger-Aliassime, in contrast, was spraying balls all over the place and clearly a little overcome by the occasion at his first “grownup” Roland Garros. That was especially true given how much effort has been focused on his clay-court game the last 18 months.

Auger-Aliassime did bounce back well from that defeat – he won the Challenger in Lyon, France two weeks later and reached the final the week after that in Blois.

But all in all, these three victories (so far) in Rio will add as much to his toolkit than the ranking points and prize money that come along with them.

Auger-Aliassime is building a career. And he has added a number of solid building blocks this week.

Auger-Aliassime takes down Fognini in Rio

In search of his first victory on his first career Golden Swing of South America, Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime hoped the second attempt would be the ice breaker.

On the minus side, the 18-year-old wild card drew No. 2 seed Fabio Fognini, ranked No. 16 in the world but likely higher than that if there were such a thing as clay-court rankings.

On the plus side, that Fognini did not make the trip to South America this year.

And so, through no real fault of his own, by playing some tennis that was solid most of the way and excellent at times, Auger-Aliassime posted the best victory of his career, by ranking.

The Canadian rolled over the 31-year-old Italian veteran 6-2, 6-3, without much of a protest from the man involved.

In the process, Auger-Aliassime likely will break into the top 100. There are a dozen players in play at various events around the world this week who could drop him down a bit, depending on how they do, assuming he can go no further in Rio.

But for the moment, it looks good. And it’s a big milestone. It’s one that many expected to come sooner. But those people didn’t have to go out and do it.

Next up for Auger-Aliassime, for the second consecutive week, is 22-year-old Christian Garin of Chile.

In Buenos last week, Garin defeated him 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the Canadian’s South American debut.

Fognini passive, ineffective

The thing about Fognini is that he can often be like this. He looks like he’s just going through the motions, rather disinterestedly – and then suddenly he can turn it on. He can be a little like Nick Kyrgios that way, although Fognini did it long before the Aussie came on the scene.

Fognini
If Fognini wanted to cause harm to his Babolat, he know well how to do it. So by his standards, this was a tame effort (Screenshot: TennisTV)

So it can be a trap, one that Auger-Aliassime never fell into. But on this occasion, having waited 24 hours to play the match, the Italian never gave off those vibes.

He was annoyed with the condition of the court, especially at the baseline where Auger-Aliassime hit two screamers that glanced off the baseline at 4-2, deuce in the first set.

At least the first of those engendered a reaction. Fognini – a noted transformer of tennis rackets into modern art – halfheartedly bounced his equipment on the court.

Even the lack of full effort on that one was a sign that, on this night, Auger-Aliassime had it on his racket. Assuming he was ready take it.

There may well have been issues with his strings, too. Fognini brought two rackets with him to the other side at the 2-5 changeover. But neither of those options compelled him to move his feet for the last two points of the set, as the young Canadian put it away.

A long set break

Fognini
“Seriously, what is even up with this dude?”

A fair bit of work was done on the court after the first. And in the middle of that, Fognini ambled off for a toilet break.

It felt endless – but was in fact, six minutes – before play resumed. And Auger-Aliassime continued where he left off.

It was warm (29C, even in the Rio evening) and humid, with both players glistening. 

But Fognini still was somewhat perturbed. He looked down on the court after one point, tamping down the clay with his sneaker. His opponent was drop-shotting him, and he wasn’t of a mind to chase them down.

The chair umpire assessed a time violation on his serve, as he was still in the middle of a long series of ball bounces whose purpose was unclear.

Fognini
This was the most animated Fognini was all night, turning a time-clock violation into a 60-second break. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

This woke up the sleeping Italian giant – sort of. His trip to the forecourt to plead his case – “I’m bouncing the ball!”, he said in Spanish, stating the obvious – ended up with him shaking his head as the crowd booed him.

All of that took exponentially more time than the few extra seconds he took before the serve. He then nattered something to the crowd that made them laugh – and was still chuntering at the chair umpire as he grabbed himself in a strategic location.

But only once. By Fabio standards, this was a mild. PG-rated sortie.

Auger-Aliassime just doing his thing

FogniniAs Fognini trudged back and forth behind the court between points, more often than not he was out of camera range. That’s how far back he was.

Meanwhile, Auger-Aliassime was right on the baseline. He was serving well, he was defending well. Basically, he was solid. That was all he needed to be.

The only chink in his effort came when he served for the match. He made three gratuitous unforced errors on his first two match points and at deuce.

Fognini mishit a serve return on the break point and lost his vibration dampener. As he went to retrieve it, he was booed again. He paid no attention; engaging, when he was so close to getting on a plane, seemed pointless.

Auger-Aliassime saved another break point. But on this day, with the task of coming back appearing so onerous and impossible to his opponent, the moment of pressure passed.

Salvaging the swing

Fognini

It would have been discouraging for Auger-Aliassime to leave South America 0-for-3 in his first go-round.

Not so much because of the matches lost. But because he would have spent a full month of his season, and have nothing to show for it other than a deposit into his experience bank.

The win gets Auger-Aliassime on the board. And with the carnage done to the seeds on a very full Tuesday, all is possible.

He also is straight into the main draw of the final tournament on the swing, in Sao Paulo.

Of the seven seeds who completed their first-round matches in Rio Tuesday, only No. 5 Joao Sousa came away a winner. No. 4 seed Diego Schwartzman, playing late night, lost the first thee games to Pablo Cuevas before play was suspended.