Arriving at about the same time was his pal Félix Auger-Aliassime, who is having his first preseason at the IMG Academy. A year ago, the then-17-year-old Auger-Aliassime was in Dubai training with Roger Federer.
Another big crew with Auger-Aliassime, including both his coaches: Guillaume Marx and Frédéric Fontang. Also, father Sam and his wife and her daughter.
Physios, trainers … It takes a village to make a champion these days.
Other Canadians in the house?
Brayden Schnur, Peter Polansky and Filip Peliwo – all IMG habitués this time of the year.
With the weather most uncooperative Friday (you can hear the rain pelting down on the roof of the indoor courts), they headed indoors.
Auger-Aliassime practiced with Martin Damm, Jr., the 15-year-old son of longtime doubles star Martin Damm. (Damm Jr. is a HUGE kid for 15).
Players will get $8,000 just for showing up, $16,000 if they can win a round, $30,000 if they can win two and reach the final round – and $54,000 if they can get through and reach the main draw.
It’s a tournament-within-a-tournament that generates plenty of storylines on its own. And the best is that admission is free, if you can get to New York City.
Former top players still fighting
Four years ago, the Latvian was in the top 10. In July 2017, he was No. 589. But while he has fought back up the ranks, playing the Challenger circuit, he still hasn’t yet broken back into the top 100.
And if it weren’t for his efforts at the last two Grand Slams, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him at all. He qualified and reached the second round in Paris. And then he qualified and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
Since then, he has played two matches, and lost them both.
First-round opponent Christian Harrison qualified at Wimbledon for the first time last month. But he has a lot more experience at the US Open. So when you look at the other players in their section, that’s a tough one to kick it off.
At 39, the big-serving Croat is at his lowest ranking in five years. A year ago in New York, he was in the top 40.
Karlovic played the qualifying back in 2013, when he was coming back from a nasty Achilles injury. And he made it; he then upset James Blake in the first round before losing to Stan Wawrinka.
Before that, you have to go back to 2003.
Karlovic probably has more “big-league” experience than the rest of his section combined. Which doesn’t mean he’ll get through. But you kind of get the feeling he will.
Now, will this be his final Open? That’s another question.
At 36, you wondered if the former world No. 5 was going to make it back to the Grand Slam level, as he enters his third decade on Tour.
Robredo missed most of 2016 after right elbow surgery, something he had been struggling with for quite awhile.
He’s been inside the top 200 for about 14 months now. But he’s not tested himself in the majors beyond the French Open.
Robredo reached the second round of the main draw in 2017 on his protected ranking.
And this spring, he lost in the first round of qualifying to Simone Bolelli of Italy.
(Bolelli went on to get into the main draw as a lucky loser, the record fifth time for him in his career. But more on that later).
It feels though there are a lot of clay courters in this section. Imagine if Robredo and Nicolas Mahut – who is fourtmonths older – ended up the last two standing and played for a spot in the main draw.
Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis
The law of the draw will always turn on someone at a Grand Slam.
And this year, the hammer falls upon former top-20 player Bernard Tomic and former rising star Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Tomic, the ultimate enigma, had a super patch of play in May and June when he put together a nice streak of match wins after hardly playing at all the first four months of the season.
He reached the final of a Challenger in France and qualified for the French Open (where he lost to the feel-good story of the first week in Paris, Marco Trungelliti).
He went from the qualifying to the semifinals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch on grass, then qualified and reached the second round at Wimbledon.
But he lost his first match at his three appearances on the North American hard courts. And in the first round of qualifying at the Rogers Cup against American Bradley Klahn, he literally didn’t even try.
The reason given, after Tomic had played one match in each of the previous two weeks, was “fatigue”. He hasn’t played since, so he should be plenty rested.
As for Kokkinakis, the road back from shoulder surgery (and then an abdominal strain) has been a tough one. In 2015, there were only four teenagers in the top 100, and he was one of them (along with Coric, Chung and some kid named Alexander Zverev). He and Nick Kyrgios were going to be the new wave from Down Under. But the wave crashed, and Kokkinakis is still trying to come up for air.
He’s had his moments – beating Milos Raonic at Queen’s, Roger Federer in Miami this year. There have been plenty of “lowest-ranked player to beat so-and-so since … forever” type of milestones. But starting back without a ranking in May 2017, the best Kokkinakis has been able to reach is No. 148.
Kokkinakis won a Challenger in California two weeks ago, then pulled out of the Vancouver Challenger last week before his second-round match. The official reason was an abdominal strain.
Who will win this one? You’d expect a few Aussies to be watching even though Lleyton Hewitt, the Davis Cup captain, is busy playing doubles in Winston-Salem. You hope they’ll at least finish it.
The two played three times in 2015 – before both their careers stuttered. Tomic won both matches played on hard courts.
All eyes will be on Félix Auger-Aliassime, the newly-minted 18-year-old who upset Lucas Pouille in the first round of his first Rogers Cup main draw two weeks ago.
He nearly pulled off the next match, as well, before falling to Daniil Medvedev in a heartbreaker.
A year ago, as the defending US Open junior boys’ singles champion, Auger-Aliassime ran into veteran Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of the qualifying.
This year, he returns as the No. 9 seed, at a career-high ranking, and you’d think he has a pretty good shot.
He doesn’t give up a ton of experience to the other players in his section, with the exception of Australian lefty Jürgen Melzer, who is twice his age.
As it happens, Auger-Aliassime ran into Antoine Hoang twice during his spring clay-court Challenger tour, and defeated him 6-3, 7-5 on both occasions.
Another Canadian, Filip Peliwo, drew No. 5 seed Marcel Granollers in the first round. Granollers, a top doubles player who also has been a very good singles player, has been playing all over the place this summer to try to raise his ranking.
Peliwo is capable – he posted a nifty straight-sets win over Malek Jaziri in the first round of the Rogers Cup.
This is Peliwo’s fourth attempt to qualify at a Slam this year. He lost in the first round the first three times although at Wimbledon, he had a tough draw in Gulbis.
Will Polansky be the luckiest loser?
As for the third Canadian, No. 12 seed Peter Polansky, all tennis fans with an eye for minutiae will be anxiously looking to see if he can pull off the quadruple-impossible: get into the main draw of a Grand Slam as a lucky loser for the fourth time in a season.
Polansky squeaked in in Australia, Paris and Wimbledon.
Let’s just say he’d rather get in by winning his final-round match. But he’s not unaware of what an anomaly that is.
As it happens, should Polansky get through to the final round and meet the other seed in his section, it will be lucky-loser central.
Simone Bolelli also made it into Roland Garros and Wimbledon as a lucky loser. They were the fourth and fifth such moments of luck in his career. And that’s a record.
Other than Donald Young, who has a fairly high ceiling, you’d have to think these two are the favorites to get to Friday.
Notes from here and there
**If Jürgen Melzer and Gerard Melzer win their first-round matches, they will meet.
That has happened just twice before, and never on a hard court.
**There are two players from the Dominican Republic in the draw, which probably has not happened before.
Victor Estrella Burgos, now 38 and ranked No. 265 (he squeezed into qualifying because his ranking was higher than that at the deadline), made his big splash here four years ago.
At 34, he was playing his first US Open main draw. And he got a whole lot of attention. He also defeated Igor Sisjling (then in the top 75) and a young Borna Coric in the second round, before putting up a lively fight in a loss to Milos Raonic.
He hasn’t won a match in New York since.
Right below him in the draw (but they’re not playing each other) is No. 227 Roberto Cid Subervi, who is playing in the first Grand Slam qualifying event of his career. It would have been too much, had they ended up meeting in the first round.
***An all-Brit affair between Liam Broady and Jay Clarke should be a good one.
*** The former top junior bowl: Miomir Kecmanovic vs. Reilly Opelka
The American Opelka, who turns 21 next week and is 6-foot-11, has had a pro career has been a slow-developing storm so far.
He was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2015. But after closing out his junior career the following month in New York, he’s been beset by some injuries and so far, his career-best ranking is No. 125. He currently stands at No. 173.
As for Kecmanovic, who turns 19 next week (three days after Opelka) he reached the junior boys’ final in New York two years ago (losing to Auger-Aliassime).
A few months later, he won the Eddie Herr – Orange Bowl double.
Currently at No. 199, Kecmanovic’smelze career high was No. 176, reached in Feb. 2018.
TORONTO – Some of the players were preparing for the qualifying. But most of the players practicing in the late afternoon on Friday were still a few days away from their first-round matches in the main draw.
Diego Schwartzman (The No. 11 seed, who plays unseeded Kyle Edmund) and David Ferrer (who plays a qualifier or special exempt) took the court together.
Dominic Thiem (Bye, then Tsitsipas or Dzumhur) was on the stadium court. While Pierre-Hugues Herbert (the No. 7 seed in the qualifying, vs. Hubert Hurkacz) practiced with doubles partner Nicolas Mahut (No. 12 Tim Smyczek).
Félix Auger-Aliassime had a hit with Grigor Dimitrov, then stayed behind to hit some more serves.
Also on court was Marco Cecchinato, who will face Frances Tiafoe in the first round of the main draw.
Vasek Pospisil practiced with coach Rainer Schuettler. The Canadian wild card drew Borna Coric in the first round. Not an easy task under any circumstances. But Coric has already been here so long, he practically has stock in the place.
Unlike the women, there were three top-20 players in action last week.
And there will be seven this week both on the clay in Europe and the hard courts of Atlanta, where the US Open Series gets under way on the ATP side.
John Isner’s decision to skip Newport after his long run at Wimbledon cost him a spot, as he dropped down to No. 9 and allowed Dominic Thiem to slip past him. Last year, the American won Newport – and Atlanta, where he returns this week.
The players ranked between No. 12 and No. 20, with less than 700 points separating them top to bottom, are going to be jostling for position to get among the top 16 seeds for the US Open over the next couple of weeks.
And players like Steve Johnson, Gaël Monfils and Karen Khachanov are going to push it to try to squeeze into the top 32 and get a seed at Flushing Meadow.
So there will be plenty at stake over the next few weeks.
ON THE UPSWING
Marco Cecchinato (ITA): No. 27 ————–> No. 22 (The 25-year-old who made all that noise at Roland Garros won Umag, and jumped to a new career high).
Steve Johnson (USA): No. 48 ————–> No. 34 (A great effort by the American on the Newport grass puts him in line for a US Open seed).
Felix Auger-Aliassime (CAN): No. 144 ————–> No. 139 (Another career high for the 17-year-old, who remains in Europe on clay this week, in Gstaad).
Marco Trungelliti (ARG): No. 188 ————–> No. 148 (The infamous Roland Garros road-tripper jumps 40 spots as he goes from the qualies to the semis in Umag).
Daniel Brands (GER): No. 252 ————–> No. 217 (And we thought the man was retired. But after making the Astana Challenger final, he’s on the upswing).
ON THE DOWNSWING
Andrey Rublev (RUS): No. 35 ————–> No. 46 (The 20-year-old didn’t defend his Umag title. But in his first tournament since Monte Carlo because of back problems, his quarter-final effort mitigated the rankings damage).
David Ferrer (ESP): No. 39 ————–> No. 62 (It’s been awhile since Ferrer has dropped this low, since May 2004, in fact)
Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR): No. 63 ————–> No. 78 (Dolgopolov has been a ghost on Tour in recent months, and his ranking is beginning to reflect it. He has played just two matches since he last won one, at the Australian Open. And none since he lost in the first round of Rome to Novak Djokovic).
Matteo Berrettini (ITA): No. 75 ————–> No. 84 (Berrettini is finding himself in that netherworld, in the transition from the Challenger level to the ATP level. He won a Challenger this week a year ago, when he was ranked No. 229).
Paolo Lorenzi (ITA): No. 88 ————–> No. 109 (After a late-career surge into the top 40, Lorenzi, at 36, has dropped out of the top 100).
Peter Polansky (CAN): No. 122 ————–> No. 134 (After being a couple of matches away from the top 100 las month, Polansky finds himself with a lot of Canadian Challenger points to defend).
Frank Dancevic (CAN): No. 296 ————–> No. 328 (Ouch for Frank the Tank, who is trying to make another run but lost the points he earned in Newport last year after losing in the first round of qualifying).
With a brief pit stop at home after the French Open, he piled up eight Challengers, the Estoril ATP event and the French Open qualifying.
The Russian, surprisingly, didn’t look rusty or tentative. And Auger-Aliassime was right there with him.
He was even up a break early in the third set, before Rublev broke him back to tie the match at 3-3.
But the Canadian was broken at love in the 3-4 game, which included a couple of angry racket tosses. And Rublev (not without difficulty), served it out.
Rublev was pretty emotional about it. And Auger-Aliassime shook umpire Damian Steiner’s hand before crossing over to the other side of the court to hug Rublev.
The kid turned very 17 after that, punching his fist repeatedly towards the stands, and throwing down his gear once he returned to his chair.
(That’s Auger-Aliassime’s mother, Marie, above his right shoulder).
Auger-Aliassime had a full Tennis Canada support crew in Umag, in addition to his mother.
The two coaches he works with, who usually trade off travelling with him, both were on hand: Guillaume Marx, who is the head coach for the national program boys, and Frédéric Fontang, longtime coach of Vasek Pospisil who is now a coach with the Canadian Davis Cup team.
It’s a delicate balance, the reining in of a tennis thoroughbred that everyone – including himself – wants to gallop to the top like, yesterday.
Generally, the team around Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime has done a masterful job of taking these fledgling moments of his promising career one step at a time.
But perhaps a wild card at this week’s Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo might have been a step too far, too quickly.
That, of course, is in retrospect, after the Canadian went down 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1 to experienced lefty Mischa Zverev in his first-round match on Sunday.
If he pulls it off, and faces No. 7 seed Lucas Pouille in the second round, maybe you can say, “Okay, he was ready.” But coming in, through two Challenger-level clay-court events, the teenager had won just one match, to a player very close to his age. And even that one wasn’t easy.
So he wasn’t exactly on a roll of clay-court confidence as he entered the picturesque environs of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
No rhythm against experienced lefty
You could see Auger-Aliassime learning on the job with every passing moment against Zverev. But in the end, much of the outcome was in the hands of his 30-year-old opponent.
Zverev flinched once. But he didn’t flinch twice.
“Experience is sometimes good, sometimes bad. In the second set I was getting a little too defensive,” Zverev said during an on-court interview after the win. “He was playing really, really well. He has a great future – he’s 12-13 years younger than me, so he has many more years to go.”
Overall, calm and cool
The biggest step up Auger-Aliassime has taken in the last year is on the emotional side. His competitive temperament is far more even-keeled now. And when Zverev took his foot off the gas in the second set, he kept his cool and got on a roll.
The young Canadian was having all kinds of trouble holding serve. Three games into the second set, the clock was pushing 25 minutes – and Zverev only needed about two minutes to hold serve in the middle game.
Zverev was up 6-2, 4-2 and had three break points in that seventh game. Somehow, after more than 14 minutes, Auger-Aliassime managed to hold. And break. And then hold again.
After a flurry of points against serve in the eventual tiebreak, two unforced errors by Zverev gave the kid the set.
Those errors came when the German was trying to pull the trigger too early. And, in retrospect, they set the tone for the decider.
Zverev came back from a bathroom break with his mindset back to what had worked so well in the first set. He stepped into the court a little more again. And Auger-Aliassime began to display his first signs of frustration.
That second set had taken nearly an hour and a half. And the tension surrounding those monumental holds of serve may finally have shown.
Auger-Aliassime was broken at love in the final game, after one final too-hasty backhand went right into the net. And so Zverev went through. He was helped by 62 unforced errors by his younger opponent – far too many even if, having made 35 of them in the second set, Auger-Aliassime still won the set.
The teenager then enjoyed another new experience – an on-court interview after a defeat.
A year ago, he might well have cut a disconsolate figure. But he handled this with impressive grace, helped by the fact that he shares a language with the majority of the Monte Carlo crowd – the majority of which was firmly behind him during the match.
“Thank you to everyone, thank you for living this moment with me – a really nice first,” he said. “I would have hoped to keep it going in the third, but I’ll get back to training, and I’ll come back stronger next year.”
More matches needed
The downside of the Masters 1000 upgrade for Auger-Aliassime, of course, is that now he must wait more than a week before he can play another match.
Given he only began his season in February, after rehabbing a knee injury suffered during off-season training in Dubai with Roger Federer, he’s a little behind in that area.
It’s a different scenario than his appearances at Indian Wells and Miami last month.
There, he maximized. Auger-Aliassime defeated two solid players in qualifying and earned his way into his first ATP Tour main draw – at a Masters 1000, no less. He posted his first top-100 win against countryman Vasek Pospisil, and he showed well against the top Canadian, an inspired Milos Raonic.
The kid learned his lesson there, cutting it a little close in arriving for the Challenger the week before and losing in the first round.
Sunday in Monte Carlo, another lesson learned as he adjusted to his crafty opponent’s game, and upped his patience level. Still, he had to save 6-of-7 break points in that second set. Had Zverev, who’s had a rough six months, been more confident in closing out matches these days, it might well have gone 6-2, 6-2.
But Auger-Aliassime made Zverev earn it. He gave himself a chance.
More dirt for Auger-Aliassime
Next up for the young Canadian is a return to the Challenger circuit, where he played events in Alicante, Spain and Barletta, Italy (with just one victory) before coming to Monte Carlo.
He is entered in a Challenger in Francavilla, Italy, where he may well be seeded. The week after that, he could play another ATP Tour event.
Auger-Aliassime is a few spots out of making the qualifying in Estoril, Portugal on his own ranking.
And as he learned at Indian Wells, the sweetest opportunities are the ones not given, but earned.
Auger-Aliassime was first up on the Monday morning of qualifying. He faced 22-year-old Mackenzie McDonald, who went to UCLA and is just starting his pro career in earnest.
It was really hot, and very humid, during the two days of qualifying. And Auger-Aliassime, after the cool, dry temps in the desert, really struggled.
Still, Auger-Aliassime had a match point in that third-set tiebreak. But in the end, McDonald pulled it off.
A little heatstroke
As you can see at the end of the video, Auger-Aliassime was in fairly bad shape at the end of the match. But it was even worse afterwards.
Some 45 minutes later, your Tennis.Life correspondent opened the door to a hallway leading to the photographers’ and press conference rooms, on the ground floor of the Miami Open stadium.
And there was poor Auger-Aliassime, lying on the carpet in the narrow hallway, just inside the door, still trying to recover from a marathon match in very tough conditions. He was there a long time, and joked later that he definitely wasn’t at his best.
He didn’t wear a cap, or use the ice towel during the match. You’d have to think he won’t make that same mistake again, although you’d think his coach would have insisted. (Perhaps he did, and the kid went his own way).
So much for Miami.
Two weeks later, on the tierra
After returning home to rest and reload, the 17-year-old finds himself in Valencia, Spain at the Juan Carlos Ferrero Challenger, already making the transition to the red clay. He plans to play several Challengers in Europe this spring.
There, he met 18-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the first round.
The temperatures in Valencia this week are far more moderate: around 70F, low humidity.
A year older than Auger-Aliassime, at No. 455 in the ATP Tour rankings, Davidovich Fokina is about at his career best. But he’s ranked about 170 spots below Auger-Aliassime.
The two had met before – twice, in fact, during a one-month period.
Davidovich Fokina defeated the Quebecer 6-4 in the third set in the semifinals of the big junior tournament outside Montreal, the week before the US Open juniors in 2016.
Auger-Aliassime got his revenge in Flushing Meadow, winning 6-4, 7-6 in a pretty dramatic test and eventually winning the title to cap off his junior career.
It was very hot that day, as well. But Auger-Aliassime was wearing a cap.
The Spanish kid wasn’t without his drama …
The outcome in Valencia was somewhat similar.
Auger-Aliassime won, but it was a tight one – 7-5, 7-5 in more than two hours. It ended on an ill-advised drop shot from Davidovich Fokina, followed by an angry racket smash.
Auger-Aliassime will play Guido Andreozzi of Italy in the second round. Andreozzi, a 26-year-old from Argentina ranked No. 167, upset the No. 3 seed Stefano Travaglia of Italy in the first round.
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Félix Auger-Aliassime, the 17-year-old from Quebec who won his first ATP Tour main-draw match this week at Indian Wells, didn’t start his trip with very much promise.
He admitted he cut it a little too close in terms of his arrival to prepare for the ATP Tour Challenger the week before the main event.
And, as everyone who comes to the desert for the first time finds out, the combination of slow, gritty courts and desert air takes quite a bit of adaptation.
As a result, Auger-Aliassime was already into the second set of his first-round match against an alternate, Ricardo Ojeda Lara of Spain, at the Oracle Challenger before he even found his bearings.
The 6-0, 6-4 loss was a disappointment. But as it turned out, Auger-Aliassime would them have a full week to acclimatize.
Here he is talking about various topics – including what it’s like to train with Roger Federer and how his serve and forehand feel when you’re on the other side of the net, during his practice week.
(It’s in French – we’ve subtitled his answers).
Heavy training week pays off
He took full advantage. It seemed as though a regular diet of two-a-day practices was on the regular menu. And Auger-Aliassime hit with – among others – Mirza Basic, Sebastian Korda, Yuki Bhambri, Reilly Opelka (and a few others dispatched to the haze of Tennis.Life’s short-term memory).
The desert air was a different beast. And Auger-Aliassime, at times, had his fingers taped like Rafael Nadal as the blisters appeared because of the dry climate.
But all the practice paid off.
The teenager defeated quality players in Bjorn Fratangelo and Nobert Gombos (in an impressive comeback win that had the large group of Canadians in the crowd going crazy) to make the main draw.
It wasn’t Auger-Aliassime’s first ATP Tour main draw; he received a pair of wild cards in Europe last month. But it was the first time he had earned his way into the qualifying on his own ranking. And it was the biggest tournament he has ever played in.
The draw wasn’t kind. Slots No. 89 – 92 in the men’s singles draw featured three Canadians. Auger-Aliassime played Vasek Pospisil. And the winner was to play Milos Raonic.
Auger-Aliassime’s physicality and Pospisil’s below-average affection for the slow Indian Wells courts combined to help the 17-year-old to his first career ATP Tour-level win.
He was rapidly brought back to reality in the second round in a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Raonic, the former top-five player whose ranking has fallen due to extended injury absences. But everything seem to unfold as it should.
“Against Milos, I think it proved that he’s back to his best level. He was very solid,” Auger-Aliassime said during a conference call with the media back home Thursday morning. “Beyond that, I look at it a few days later, and I tell myself that maybe I’m not so far from that level.”
And then, as many eliminated players do, Auger-Aliassime stuck around.
He was automatically withdrawn from this week’s Challenger event back home in Quebec (although it’s hard to imagine he’d have played it anyway, given the week he had).
And so he stayed on to practice.
Shapo, Air Felix and the Fed
By his last full day on site Tuesday, he had an hour session with his good pal and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
And then, he headed through the player’s field and onto Practice Court 2, where he had a date with … Roger Federer.
Federer had texted his new training partner, a player he had invited to Dubai last December for two weeks to hit with him during his offseason training block, to warm him up for his match that night.
Who says “no” to the Fed?
Federer was late – about 20 minutes late. The crowd had already been there for an hour and a half, or more, waiting for him.
The 20-minute cool-off in the shade after the earlier hit wasn’t great, but probably not an issue for Auger-Aliassime, who waited patiently. (And, you parents will love this – didn’t even get on his cellphone once while he waited).
A half-hour with Federer, with the crowd loving every minute, was a nice cap on the best week of Auger-Aliassime’s career, in his first of what surely will be many trips to Indian Wells.
The Indian Wells – Miami double
Next up will be a similar tournament in Miami, – but with very different conditions – and another opportunity to try to qualify for a Masters 1000-level event early next week.
“I’m attacking Miami with more confidence than I had at Indian Wells. After each tournament, it’s a bit of a new start,” he said. “I have to put the lid on it. Not quite start back at zero, because I have the confidence I accumulated over the last few days. There will be good players I have to beat to qualify, but I’m confident I can do what I did at Indian Wells.”
Here’s a photo gallery of some of Auger-Aliassime’s moments.
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.”
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.