Raonic withdraws before Stuttgart meeting with FAA

It’s not the first time Milos Raonic has pulled out because of injury in the middle of a tournament.

But it’s particularly unfortunate this time.

The No. 1 Canadian was due to meet the teenager who’s nipping at his heels, 18-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime.

So Auger-Aliassime, who saved a match point in an impressive win over grass-court showman Dustin Brown in the quarterfinals Friday, goes directly to the final.

It will be his third ATP Tour final this season, after Rio and Lyon.

He’ll meet unseeded Matteo Berrettini as he tries to win his first career singles title.

On grass – in his first grass-court tournament in the pro ranks.

How about that? New favorite surface, right?

Raonic
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

Raonic’s back barking

The star-crossed Raonic had been out since he lost to Kyle Edmund in his second match in Miami. 

He missed the entire clay-court season. Earlier in his career, Raonic had always managed to pick right up where he left off after an injury absence. But it’s been significantly more difficult for him in the last year.

And the bottom line is that he likely wasn’t at full health when he did come back.

Raonic was the defending finalist in Stuttgart, where he lost to Roger Federer a year ago.

Raonic
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

You could see, even as Raonic managed to get through three-set wins against qualifier Alexei Popyrin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the earlier round, that he wasn’t feeling great. He survived both in third-set tiebreaks.

His match against Marton Fucsovics in the quarterfinals on Friday was more routine (6-4, 6-4). But even then, he had the trainer out to rub some heat creme on his back. And he looked uncomfortable throughout.

Wimbledon the goal

Beyond how … not fun it would have been to lose to a decade-younger compatriot when he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Raonic has had to take a big-picture look at things. He’s got Queen’s Club next week. And then he has Wimbledon. 

Still, if you can respect a player for not taking the court when he feels not fit enough to play, Raonic has done this often enough in his career that he risks being tagged with it.

It’s the 10th time he’s done it – the fourth time in the last 14 months.

Raonic

Great opportunity for FAA

Raonic
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

For Auger-Aliassime, it’s a great opportunity to win a title. His opponent is not much more experienced on grass than he is despite being 4 1/2 years older. And Berrettini definitely prefers the clay even if he beat No. 2 seed Karen Khachanov, Nick Kyrgios and the in-form Jan-Lennard Struff to get there.

Berrettini’s first-ever grass-court season was a year ago. He qualified at both Halle (beating Brown in three tiebreaks in the first round of qualifying, something Auger-Aliassime experienced this week) and Eastbourne. He lost first round in both main draws.

He then came back from two sets to none down to defeat Jack Sock in his first-ever match at Wimbledon, before losing to Gilles Simon.

Berrettini also played a match on grass earlier this year in Kolkata, in a Davis Cup qualifier against India.

A year ago, Auger-Aliassime, then 17, skipped the grass-court season entirely to work on his game. He was grinding it out on the clay-court Challenger circuit.

He had the points from a Challenger title to defend this week, won on clay a year ago in Lyon.

He’s done that. He’ll maintain his career-high ranking of No. 21 regardless of what happens in the final.

Raonic
It was a pretty tough loss for Brown, to say the least. But he couldn’t have been more gracious. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

The kid has grown visibly more comfortable on the surface just through this week. His only previous experience on it was as a junior in 2016. He lost to Alex de Minaur (with whom he’s scheduled to play doubles at Queen’s next week) in the quarterfinals, when he visibly ran out of gas.

He and Denis Shapovalov made the doubles final.

But that was three years ago.

Standout effort against Brown

In Stuttgart, Auger-Aliassime defeated veterans Ernests Gulbis and Gilles Simon in straight sets. 

The match against Brown took three tiebreaks to decide. Auger-Aliassime was down 3-5 in the third set. Brown served for it at 5-4, but the Canadian’s ability to consistently put the ball in play on the return served him extremely well.

He made Brown earn it. And the German was almost, but not quite, up to the task.

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It wasn’t all blue skies and green grass for Auger-Aliassime against Brown in teh quarterfinals, but he hung tough and was rewarded. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime went through the gamut. He received a code violation for angrily firing a ball out of the court. He buried his head in his towel during one changeover. He slipped and fell a few times – surprisingly, not many. 

But he remained resolute. And not only did it pay off in a win Friday, it also will add some terrific experience to his grass-court file.

Berrettini, yet another Italian who has broken through in the last few years on the clay courts, came into the week at a career-high No. 30 in the singles rankings. He’ll be at no lower than No. 24 if he loses. If he wins, he’ll be right behind Auger-Aliassime at No. 22.

(All screenshots from TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime back on court Monday

PARIS – Félix Auger-Aliassime has a little time on his hands, and still in Paris rehabbing his adductor injury.

So on Sunday, he hit Court 12 at Roland Garros Sunday.

The Canadian teen went not to practice, but to cheer on one of his fellow teens from Tennis Canada’s national centre in Montreal.

Taha Baadi, 17, was making his Grand Slam level debut in the first round of the French Open juniors.

And with Auger-Aliassime fist-pumping him every step of the way, Baadi came back from a set and a break down to run away to victory in the third.

Canadians 1-1 on first day of RG juniors

It’s in incredible to think that Baadi and Auger-Aliassime are less than a year apart.

Baadi will turn 18 on July 19. Three weeks later, Auger-Aliassime will turn 19.

But Baadi is probably on an average type of junior track, maybe a little on the late-blooming side. His pal is rocking the ATP TOUR.

Despite having to pull out of his first Roland Garros with the adductor injury, Auger-Aliassime will even move up a spot to a career-high No. 21 next Monday.

The only thing that would prevent that is if Benoit Paire, the man who defeated him in the Lyon final a week ago, manages to come back and beat Kei Nishikori in their fourth-round singles match.

That match was suspended for darkness Sunday night, with Nishikori up two sets to one.

On the way back

Because he didn’t have a match to play, Auger-Aliassime didn’t have to worry about being out in the heat for a few hours and sapping his energy. So he was all-in on Baadi’s match. 

Adductor puts question mark on Félix’s French Open (video)

No fiddling with the phone. No distractions. Just straight-on focus. How awesome is this kid, really.

It won’t be that long before it might be too much of a hassle for Auger-Aliassime to just sit in the stands at a Slam like that. But for now, he only was asked for a few autographs and was able to enjoy a little normalcy with trainer Nicolas Perrotte and some other Tennis Canada people.

He told Tennis.Life that his rehab was coming along on schedule. And that he was planning to get back on court Monday for the first time.

So far, Auger-Aliassime is still entered in the Stuttgart tournament on grass, which begins in a week.

ATP Rankings Report – May 27, 2019

The final tuneup week for a Grand Slam features mid-level players – plus a top-ranked player or two who felt they didn’t get enough matches during the bigger events earlier in the spring.

That was the case last week with Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Stan Wawrinka, among others.

Zverev definitely got the matches he needed, although he had to expend a lot of energy doing it. On the plus side, he got a Tuesday start in Paris.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime passed his pal Denis Shapovalov to take over the No. 2 spot on Canada’s list.

A year ago, entering the French Open qualifying, he was at No. 177.

But Auger-Aliassime paid the price. He reached the Lyon final. But he suffered a Grade 1 tear in his adductor and was forced to pull out of the French Open on Monday.

ON THE UPSWING

Nikoloz Basilashvili (GEO): No. 18 ===========> No. 16 (The Georgian fell to Auger-Aliassime in the Lyon semifinals, but reached a new high in the singles rankings. Unfortunately, he was upset in the first round in Paris).

Felix Auger-Aliassime (CAN): No. 28 ===========> No. 22 (Another career high for the Canadian teenager after the Lyon final. But he’s missing the French).

Benoit Paire (FRA): No. 51 ===========> No. 38 (Paire is back in the top 40 after winning the Lyon event. And he backed it up in the first round in Paris with a four-set win over Marius Copiil – losing just one game in the final two sets).

Radu Albot (MDA): No. 45 ===========> No. 40 (The 29-year-old from Moldova reaches the top 40 with his semifinal effort in Geneva).

Taylor Fritz (USA): No. 46 ===========> No. 42 (Overall, it’s been a successful – and full – clay-court season for the American, who is one spot off a career high reached after this year’s Australian Open and gets Bernard Tomic in the first round in Paris).

Nicolas Jarry (CHI): No. 75 ===========> No. 58 (Jarry reached the final in Geneva, losing to Alexander Zverev in a third-set tiebreak).

Federico Delbonis (ARG): No. 84===========> No. 75

Hugo Dellien (BOL): No. 92 ===========> No. 86

Brayden Schnur (CAN): No. 112 ===========> No. 106 (The Canadian is back on the winning track and ties his career high after a semifinal effort at the new Challenger in Jerusalem).

Jannik Sinner (ITA): No. 229 ===========> No. 215 (The 17-year-old Italian continues to rise after qualifying in Lyon. Ironically (and this happens more often, statistically, than it should), he lost in the first round to Tristan Lamasine, the player he beat in the final round of qualies).

Steven Diez (CAN): No. 262 ===========> No. 240 (The Spana-Canadian rises with a qualification in Lyon and a first-round win over Bernard Tomic – only the second ATP Tour level win of his career. He took Tsonga to three sets before falling in the second round).

Filip Peliwo (CAN): No. 302===========> No. 267 (A much needed good week for the 25-year-old Canadian, who had fallen out of the top 300 but reached the final in Jerusalem).

ON THE DOWNSWING

Milos Raonic (CAN): No. 17 ===========> No. 18 (Raonic’s clay-court season was basically a wash. And no French Open for the second straight year. The two kids, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, are getting darn close to him in the rankings, too. It’s going to be an interesting summer).

Gilles Simon (FRA): No. 29 ===========> No. 33

Cameron Norrie (GBR): No. 41 ===========> No. 49

Marton Fucsovics (HUN): No. 38 ===========> No. 50 (The Hungarian won Geneva a year ago – his first, and so far only Tour title. But he lost his opener this year).

Steve Johnson (USA): No. 59 ===========> No. 65

Tennys Sandgren (USA): No. 87 ===========> No. 100 (A quarterfinalist in Geneva a year ago, Sandgren didn’t play last week as he was battling it out in the French Open qualifying. He made it, but lost in the first round of the main draw).

Peter Gojowczyk (GER): No. 96 ===========> No. 121 (The 29-year-old, at a career best No. 39 less than a year ago, doesn’t defend a finals effort from a year ago in Geneva. He beat Fognini, Seppi and Ferrer, among others, that week. This year, he lost in the first round to Janko Tipsarevic. He lost in the first round in Paris to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga).

James Ward (GBR): No. 169 ===========> No. 208

Next-Gen standings

No change at the top, although Auger-Aliassime puts himself in even better position to qualify for the Milan event.

You’d expect Stefanos Tsitsipas would be in the ATP Tour Finals in London and skip it. So he and countryman Denis Shapovalov will battle it out for the two top seeds, come November.

high

 

Paire-Félix: a new bromance

LYON, France – Benoit Paire might have felt a little badly beating Félix Auger-Aliassime in the Lyon final Saturday.

Not enough to give him a shot at the title, as the 30-year-old Frenchman had an impeccable tournament.

And if he’s a little tired physically, he now has great momentum going into his home-country Grand Slam.

But when it was over, the Frenchman had almost no reaction.

And he quickly rushed to the net to console Auger-Aliassime, who had clearly been dealing with an injury in the second set.

Only after all that, after the handshakes, did Paire allow himself to leap with joy.

It was really kind of nice. There isn’t anyone around the game that we’ve spoken to about the 18-year-old Canadian – media, other players, tournament staff – who have anything but heaps of praise for the kid.

A shutout in his speech

Beyond all the concern at the net, Paire went out of his way to heap lavish praise on Auger-Aliassime as a human being during the trophy ceremony.

It was enough to make a guy blush. But Auger-Aliassime handled it with the equanimity that has been a major feature of his quick maturing process at the pro level.

Félix looks for maiden title in Lyon

LYON, France – One more win, and Félix Auger-Aliassime will ride into Roland Garros with his first ATP Tour title safely secured.

After a tough, physically demanding comeback win over No. 1 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili in the Lyon semifinal Friday, he’ll face home-country favorite Benoit Paire in Saturday’s final.

Auger-Aliassime was just a few points away from defeat in the second set, before winning 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 in two hours and 16 minutes on a very warm day.

There wasn’t a lot the 18-year-old Canadian could do at the start of the match, as Basilashvili was on a major roll on service return. As hard as Auger-Aliassime was serving, the return was coming back almost as quickly. 

Basilashvili was significantly more engaged in this match than he was in their first meeting, just a couple of months ago in Miami. That one went Auger-Aliassime’s way in two close sets, but it didn’t feel that close.

Here’s what it looked like on Friday.

Tough, physical rallies

On Friday in Lyon, the Georgian was crushing the ball. And the effort it took from Auger-Aliassime to win even a few of the baseline rallies was considerable. He wasn’t being allowed to play his game.

But he stayed the course. Ultimately, he pulled out the tiebreak, and had Basilashvili muttering to himself, in several languages.

But even if Basilashvili can sometimes be less than committed when the going gets tough, that was not the case in this match. He fought until the very last point. And it was Auger-Aliassime who felt the effects physically.

He took a medical timeout as his left adductor started pulling. But he needed to be able to stretch it to the fullest to defend on a number of points late in the match. And it held up.

Lyon

Felix passes Shapovalov in the rankings

With the victory, Auger-Aliassime will pass his friend Denis Shapovalov in the ATP Tour rankings on Monday.

As they say, it’s on – in a rivalry that will make both better players, and which it appears they will handle with great brotherhood.

Here’s what Auger-Aliassime had to say after the match (in French, with Tennis.Life providing the subtitles) on the match, on Benoit Paire, on the adductor issue and on the intra-Canadian rivalry with Shapovalov.

And here are a few reactions in English on some of the more basic stuff.

We’ll have lots more from Lyon after the Canadian’s second final of the season, after the 500 in Rio back in February.

ATP Rankings Report – April 29, 2019

Remember that fabulous match in Rio de Janeiro a little over two months ago, between surprise first-time finalists Laslo Djere of Serbia and Félix Auger-Aliassime of Canada?

It portended the start of good things for both.

And on this Monday, both are in the top 30 and both at career highs.

A few things can still happen. But the rise that began on that humid night in Brazil will culminate in Paris, where both could well be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time.

Auger-Aliassime has 30 points left to defend before Roland Garros. And it’s a very tight little area of the rankings. Dangerous names like Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios lurk just behind the Canadian.

But the 18-year-old has points opportunities himself in Madrid and Rome.

Kevin Anderson is already out of Paris – and Juan Martin del Potro still has not even returned to the court. There’s a little wiggle room.

A year ago, Auger-Aliassime lost in the second round of the qualifying to Jaume Munar of Spain. This will be the first time he’s straight into the main draw of a major in his young career.

For Djere, 23, there’s a 2018 semifinal in Istanbul as well as a final at a Challenger in Rome to defend before Paris  – 145 points.

As with Auger-Aliassime, he will be making his first-ever appearance in both Madrid and Rome – and straight into the main draw.

Djere has played the French Open four times. He was straight into the main draw last year (barely). And he qualified in 2016. But he has yet to win a main-draw match there. 

Two stories unfolding during the heart of the clay-court tuneup season, and into the 16th arrondissement.

ON THE UPSWING

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG): No. 9 ============> No. 8

Laslo Djere (SRB): No. 33 ============> No. 29 (A career high for Djere) 

Felix Auger-Aliassime (CAN): No. 31 ============> No. 30 (It didn’t go his way against Kei Nishikori in Barcelona. But he has a week to rest and reload for the Madrid-Rome double).

Matteo Berrettini (ITA): No. 55 ============> No. 37 (The 23-year-old Italian, who has been steadily rising in 2019, becomes yet another first-time winner on the ATP tour with his victory over Filip Krajinovic in the Budapest final).

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA): No. 49 ============> No. 43 (As doubles partner Nicolas Mahut begins a new adventure with Jürgen Melzer in Munich, Herbert pursues his singles quest after a semifinal in Budapest).

Mackenzie McDonald (USA): No. 61 ============> No. 57 (The 24-year-old American reaches another career high).

Nicolas Jarry (CHI): No. 81 ============> No. 70 (The  lucky loser took full advantage in Barcelona)

Filip Krajinovic (SRB): No. 105 ============> No. 77 (The Budapest finalist remains a long way from his career high of No. 26 exactly a year ago. But he’s headed in the right direction. He’s 15-6 on the season. His problem is that the jump came too late for direct entry into Paris. But he’s two out; he’ll make it).

Roberto Carballes Baena (ESP): No. 104 ============> No. 86  (The little-known Spaniard also was a lucky loser in Barcelona. But he got the first-round bye and rode it all the way to the quarterfinals. He’s right ahead of Krajinovic on the alternates list – i.e., next one in).

schneid
Sandgren’s first big tour of the European clay didn’t go well a year ago. This year, he’s staying at home on the Har-Tru and bumping his ranking up.

Tennys Sandgren (USA): No. 103 ============> No. 93 (It’s been up and down for Sandgren, who backed up his Australian Open effort last year with a final in Houston. He then headed for his first big tour of the European clay, playing six straight weeks. On the negative side, he only one had decent week – the week before Paris, in Geneva. That was actually the only tournament in which he won a patch. We say it’s a plus because this year, as he drops down a notch back to the American Har-Tru Challenger swing, he has little to defend and can work on getting back to the top 100. After losing to Tommy Paul in the Sarasota final last week, he lost to him again in the semis of Tallahassee this week.  The effort has been worth 18 spots in the rankings).

Tommy Paul (USA): No.158 ============> No. 143 (Paul, still just 21, reaches a career best with his title in Sarasota, and his final in Tallahassee. He’s moved up from No. 204 in two weeks, more than 60 spots.

David Ferrer (ESP): No. 155 ============> No. 144 (With Ferrer, we know when the end is. It felt like an appropriate ending when he played Rafael Nadal on Pista Rafa Nadal in Barcelona, playing very well in a straight-set loss. But he’s got one more to go before it’s really over, in Madrid).

Ward, shown here at the 2015 Rogers Cup during his best rankings period, is on the way back after knee surgery. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

James Ward (GBR): No. 188 ============> No. 177 (At 32, the Brit faded from view for awhile. The wild card who reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2015, he had knee surgery in Aug. 2017, and it’s been a long road back. A year ago, he was No. 772. Ward lost in the first round seven straight times this year before reaching the semifinals in Leon, Mexico last week. He came close to more; he lost to Blaz Rola 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (7) ).

Emilio Gomez (ECU): No. 251 ============> No. 197 (At 27, the son of French Open champion Andres Gomez finally breaks into the top 200. Gomez was at No. 369 when he began the season at a $25,000 ITF in California. He lost in the final – and earned ONE ATP Tour ranking point (don’t get us started). Gomez was at No. 309 when he arrived at the Monterrey Challenger in April. A final there got him to No. 258. And the title in Tallahassee (his first Challenger title) finally broke him into the top 200. He has won six of his 10 career Futures titles – the first one all the way back in 2009 – in Ecuador).

Alejandro Tabilo (CHI): No. 497 ============> No. 459 (We mention this 21-year-old from Chile, who reached the third round of the Tallahassee Challenger last week and is at a career high, because when he was a junior, he was a Canadian. His ITF ranking of No. 37 has allowed him to get into some Challengers. And he took advantage of this one. As a junior, he wasn’t one of Tennis Canada’s “chosen ones”. But despite that he was good enough to get into the main draws of junior Grand Slams. 

ranking
Tabilo, then 17, was carrying some extra weight at the 2015 junior French Open. But he also was at his career-high ranking. The transformation in the last couple of years has been both impressive and remarkable. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)
ranking
Tabilo’s mugshot on his ATP Tour page bears witness to the incredible amount of work he’s done since turning pro).

He peaked at No. 29 in the junior rankings after the 2015 French Open. Once he turned pro, he decided to play for Chile, from where his family hails (Tabilo himself was born in Toronto).

The lefty played current top-10 member Stefanos Tsitsipas twice in the juniors and took him to three sets both times.

But the biggest shock was seeing his new mugshot. He was a pretty pudgy kid when he was a junior – tall, but heavy. Now, he’s barely recognizable and listed at 6-foot-4 and 176 pounds. He’s been on the Davis Cup team for Chile already. But he’ll have to wait his turn. There are couple of kids named Cristian Garin and Nicolas Jarry ahead of him).

ON THE DOWNSWING

Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE): No. 8 ============> No. 10 (It’s been sort of a nondescript season so far for Tsitsipas – at least since he lost to Roger Federer in the finals of Dubai. But he’s still hanging in the top 10).

report
A semifinalist at the French Open last year, these next few weeks will be a stern test for Cecchinato.

Marco Cecchinato (ITA): No. 17 ============> No. 19 (The 26-year-old has done well to hang inside the top 20, especially as there hasn’t been much clay-court tennis to be played until now. He won Buenos Aires on the dirt back in February. Cecchinato made the third round in Monte Carlo, recovering from a 0-6 first set to shock Stan Wawrinka in three in the second round. He survived not defending his 2018 Budapest title (he went from the qualifying to the trophy, and didn’t play this year). 

But the big one is coming up. Then ranked No. 72, Cecchinato was a shock semifinalist at the French Open last year. He defeated Pablo Carreño Busta, David Goffin and Novak Djokovic before to Dominic Thiem. Without those 720 points, he’s just inside the top 40. Which isn’t too bad. And he has some to gain in Madrid and Monte Carlo – assuming he’s healthy).

David Goffin (BEL): No. 22 ============> No. 25 (It’s official, Goffin is struggling. He’s 7-9 on the season. And this is the lowest his ranking has been since Oct. 2014. He even played a Challenger the second week of Indian Wells, after losing his opener to Filip Krajinovic in the desert. Goffin is the No. 4 seed in Estoril this week).

Pablo Carreño Busta (ARG): No. 29 ============> No. 38 (The 27-year-old Spaniard, who sneaked into the top after the 2017 US Open, is finally back from a back injury. He was out from the beginning of February until he returned last week in Barcelona, where he lost his opener to Benoit Paire, 6-1 in the third. Carreño Busta was a semifinalist in Estoril last year, and a quarterfinalist in Rome. So he needs to get back at it as he may already have put himself out of contention for a seed in Paris. A late entry into Estoril, a wild card and No. 7 seed, Carreño Busta has a tough first round in Jérémy Chardy).

Ranking
Dimitrov is scuffling a little bit, not helped by a shoulder injury early in the season. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL): No. 43 ============> No. 49 (The Bulgarian is 9-5 on the season. But his ranking is going in the wrong direction. He started the year at No. 19 and right now, he’s the lowest he’s been since Oct. 2012. Dimitrov had brutal draws in Madrid and Rome a year ago. After first-round byes, he drew a pair of returning players who both were ranked No. 24 at the time: Roanic in Madrid and Nishikori in Rome. Unseeded himself now, he’ll have to hope for better luck).

John Millman (AUS): No. 39 ============> No. 50 (The 29-year-old Aussie made the Budapest final a year ago, so that’s where the rankings fall comes from).

Ivo Karlovic (CRO): No. 95 ============> No. 103 (We haven’t seen the big guy since he lost in the first round in Houston to Ryan Harrison. Last year, with his ranking only slightly better, he played Barcelona, Munich and Geneva before the French, with not much to show for it. Karlovic has entered the Rome qualies, but he’s unlikely to get in. And we don’t see anything else at first glance. So perhaps he plans a little drive by to pick up his cheque in Auteuil).

Feliciano Lopez (ESP): No. 93 ============> No. 105 (We don’t know when the end will be for the 37-year-old, who drops out of the top 100 for the first time since …  (hold on a sec, we’re scrolling). Okay, since he first entered the top 100 in June, 2002. He might want to play this week, but he’s got another gig. It’s his first year as the tournament director in Madrid, after interning last year. Too bad he’s not likely to he able to sneak a wild card for himself past the rules police. Tommy Haas (the Indian Wells TD) already tried it).

Auger-Aliassime prevails in match of contrasts

Félix Auger-Aliassime and Juan Ignacio Londero were in a very different place nine months ago.

While the tennis world was focused upon the manicured lawns of the All-England Club, the two were getting their socks dirty at a Challenger in Marburg, Germany – for very different reasons.

For the Canadian, then 17, it was part of the development curve.

Ranked No. 185, the phenom’s rise to the top 100 had plateaued a little.

He had been playing on red clay every single week since his heatstroke-fueled, third-set tiebreak elimination by Mackenzie McDonald in the first round of Miami Open qualifying.

There was a Challenger title in France, a final the next week and the occasional dip into the ATP Tour – notably a wild card into Monte Carlo.

Londero
Two radically different-sized players met on an even playing field in Monte Carlo Tuesday. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

There was a loss to Jaume Munar in the first round of qualifying in Paris, a day when Munar was impressive and Auger-Aliassime was all over the place.

After 10 straight weeks on clay, with more planned in July, it made little sense to stop, adapt quickly to a completely different surface – then come back to it after a few matches.

If Auger-Aliassime was going to go Wimbledon for the first time as a pro, he was going to be ready. And so – even though it was Wimbledon – he skipped it.

In week 13 of the 16-week dirt odyssey, he arrived in Marburg.

And in the semifinal, he met Londero.

And he lost: 7-5, 1-6, 6-1.

On Tuesday, on Court 2 at the picturesque and historic Monte Carlo Country Club, Auger-Aliassime got even.

Londero
Court 2 at Monte Carlo is a long way from center court in Marburg, where the two players last met for far different stakes. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

A long-awaited breakthrough for Londero

The Argentine, at 24, was ranked No. 170 that day in Marburg. That was good for him; he was hovering around his career best. At the start of 2018, he had been ranked No. 362.

But Londero appeared to be destined for a career grinding it out on the clay-court Challenger circuit. It’s an honest, brutal living, but it’s not living the dream.

In his entire junior career, Londero had left the South American clay once – to play his final junior match, at the US Open. It was only the second hard-court singles match of his junior career, with the exception of junior Fed Cup.

He played his first clay-court Futures at 14. His speed and his clever hands were good enough to compete at the Challenger level. But he’d played 28 clay-court tournaments in 2017 – and his ranking had actually dropped 30 spots, outside the top 370.

Londero
Londero not only won his first career ATP main-draw match in his Cordoba hometown in February – he won the whole tournament.

Worse, his earnings had dropped 30 per cent from 2016. And he’d earned less than $25,000 in prize money in 2016.

But in 2018, there was hope.

He’d left the Futures circuit behind. He’d won his first career Challenger title – his first title of any kind in four years – by going from the qualifying to the trophy in Mexico City. 

By May, he was finally in the top 200. He could head to Paris and play in the French Open qualifying for the first time. Londero got to the final round, where had the misfortune to face Martin Klizan. The Slovak had long been a consistent top-50 performer. But he was making his way back up the rankings after injury. 

Londero came achingly close to his first Grand Slam main draw as he fell in a third-set tiebreak. Had the final set been played out, as it had in the qualifying until 2017, he might well have outlasted him.

The breakthrough elusive

Unlike Auger-Aliassime, who could afford the luxury, Londero had made the quick side trip to Wimbledon to pick up the badly-needed $6,500 for losing in the first round of qualifying. No grass-court tuneup. Just go and give it a shot, use the special shoes for an hour or so, grab the cheque, back to the dirt.

It was straight to Marburg, where he beat the kid. And Londero won the tournament, going through Dustin Brown, countryman Carlos Berlocq and Auger-Aliassime, among others, to hoist the trophy.

A few weeks later, Londero seemed poised to finally win his first ATP Tour-level main draw match, in his 11th attempt. He defeated Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen to made the main draw in Bastad, Sweden. And there he faced … Laaksonen again, in as a lucky loser. He lost 7-5 in the third.

Still, Londero broke the $100,000 mark in earnings in 2018. It was still a fraction of what Auger-Aliassime earned for his Nike sponsorship deal alone. But it was six times what he had earned in 2018.

Londero
Auger-Aliassime was a little “woe is me” after failing to serve out the match in the second set. But he bounced back quickly and took it in the tiebreak. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Breakthrough in 2019 – finally

Londero made the long trek to Melbourne for the Australian Open qualifying in January. Again, a no-brainer for a player in his circumstances. He defeated veteran Tommy Robredo, lost in the second round, and put $25,000 AUD in his pocket.

With a ranking of No. 114, the break-even point was coming.

And then it was right back to the dirt, to the South American clay-court swing he – finally – was in a position to play because of his improved ranking circumstances.

Londero had taken advantage before of the few wild cards he had ever been given. He won a Futures back in 2014 on a wild card. With a wild card into a Challenger in Buenos Aires in 2015, he defeated Diego Schwartzman.

Schwartzman was exactly a year younger and had an eerily similar junior career. But he had risen more quickly, and would break into the top 100 a few months later. 

With an ATP Tour event newly relocated to his hometown of Cordóba, he received his first main-draw wild card at the top level.

Londero made the most of it. He didn’t just win his first career ATP Tour main-draw match by upsetting No. 41 Nicolas Jarry of Chile.

He won the tournament. A total game-changer.

Triumphs on the South American circuit

Auger-Aliassime took advantage of a wild card himself on that swing. And he nearly accomplished the same thing, falling in the final of the 500-level event in Rio two weeks later.

Auger
Auger-Aliassime was on a steep learning curve during a 16-week clay-court odyssey last year at this time. But it paid off on Tuesday in Monte Carlo.

Both were ranked just outside the top 100 when they hit the South American swing. Both emerged from it different players.

And so, nine months later, they met again in Monte Carlo

So the two took radically different paths to their 11 a.m. meeting on Court 2 at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

Auger-Aliassime had been there before. His precociousness and potential got him a wild card last year, when he took Mischa Zverev to three sets before losing in the first round.

He received another wild card this year, even though he would have earned his way in on his ranking, had Gaël Monfils pulled out a few hours before he did.

Londero breezed through two qualifying matches.

But the teenager Londero met was a far more polished product than the kid in Marburg last summer in his 13th straight week on clay. From No. 185 to No. 33 in nine months. From the qualifying to the semifinals in Miami. Auger-Aliassime’s confidence was high.

And in a hotly-contested match in which the second set alone took 71 minutes, the kid prevailed 7-5, 7-6 (5).

Londero
From fist pump to million-dollar smile as Auger-Aliassime moves into the second round of Monte Carlo. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Auger-Aliassime’s livelihood and future aren’t at stake nearly in the same way Londero’s are. And yet, he battled as if they were. Which is why he’s here, on the cusp of being seeded in his first French Open main draw next month.

The teenager had some hiccups along the way, notably in failing to serve out both the first and second sets when he had them on his racket. But he kept his cool, kept going for the lines. When he needed to defend, he backed up as far as he could and ran, and ran.

It was the first main-draw victory in a clay-court Masters 1000 for the Canadian. With two more big events coming up, you suspect it won’t be the last this season.

But next up for Auger-Aliassime is a tough ask. He’ll face No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany, just a few years older but already a champion in Rome (in 2017) and in Madrid (last year).

For Londero, time to defend

Auger-Aliassime has some points to defend from last year’s clay-court odyssey: 245 in all. And he’ll have to do it playing the biggest tournaments against the most illustrious opponents.

Londero
Pulling a move right out of 11-time champion Rafael Nadal’s playbook, Auger-Aliassime shucked the shirt, and immediately pulled one the Nike warmup jacket. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

But for Londero, so long in the trenches and far less comfortable on the other surfaces, it’s a different journey.

He was defending that Mexico City Challenger title last week. But he was defending it at the ATP Tour level. in Marrakech. He lost second round – and dropped 13 spots in the rankings.

This week a year ago, he reached the semis of a Challenger in Sarasota. Again, more points to defend. But when you’re at the Masters 1000 level, if you win qualifying matches, it’s easier. Despite the first-round loss, he covered those points (and instead of earning $5,000, he’ll take home over $21,000).

He’ll have many weeks like that in this, his transition season. But on the plus side, he’ll make his French Open main draw debut next month. And he’ll be guaranteed main-draw money at Wimbledon and the US Open.

And the Argentine already has earned far more in just four months in 2019 than he made in his first six professional seasons combined.

This match, compelling on the court, was one of those tennis matches where the back story, for both players, was equally compelling. Tennis is sport with no weight classes; the playing field is the same. And if there are class distinctions, they fade to the background once the first ball is hit.

Londero
Already the consummate pro, Auger-Aliassime quickly slips on his Tag Heuer watch before going to do a post-match TV interview. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

The much younger, richer, much taller, more powerful kid with the full support team behind him (including two coaches) was the one who carefully put on his sponsored watch before doing a television interview after the victory.

Tag Heuer – Next Gen timepiece

But the scrappy, hard-working, persistent little guy from Argentina whom most people probably wrote off a few years ago gave him everything he could handle. 

Oh – that Marburg Challenger? It is no more, replaced by one about 100 miles away in Ludwigshafen.

Londero
The smiling face of the victor, who can speak to French TV in their own language, too. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Contrast in reactions after Miami Open SF defeats (video)

Canadian kids Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov had contrasting reactions to their semifinal defeats at the Miami Open.

Which makes complete sense, given how differently both of those matches played out.

Auger-Aliassime had an opportunity to serve out both sets against American John Isner.

So it was an big opportunity lost. Isner had been broken just twice in all his previous matches. And the 18-year-old did it twice in one match.

Shortly after the match, Auger-Aliassime still almost couldn’t believe how the nerves hit him at just the wrong time.

Shapovalov has joked before the match against Federer that his best tactic would be to put on a pair of sunglasses that would blur the opponent on the other side of the net so he couldn’t see who he was playing. 

So you could almost see it coming. Still, he took it beautifully.

You know that the next time Shapovalov has the opportunity to play Federer, he will be far less … star-struck and will give a much better account of himself.

Here’s Auger-Aliassime.

And here’s Shapovalov.

Qualifier Auger-Aliassime into Miami semis (video)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The dissection of the Miami Open men’s singles draw by the Canadian twin terrors continued Thursday night.

Your move, Denis Shapovalov.

(No pressure, kid. 😂)

Félix Auger-Aliassime, all of 18 and out of the qualifying, knocked off another seeded player in No. 11 Borna Coric, to become the youngest semifinalist in Miami Open history.

The 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory was a tight tussle in the first set.

And in the second, the far more experienced Coric (still just 22, doesn’t it feel as though he’s been around a decade?) just … capitulated.

He began spraying errors everywhere after the Canadian broke him to open the set. 

And the Croat never remotely looked as though he might offer resistance. Given the fact that he had an inexperienced 18-year-old across the net, and a Masters 1000 semifinal at stake, it was a little shocking.

But a lot of that had to do with Auger-Aliassime, who had an answer for every Coric question.

“I was a bit surprised. The points went quickly. He was missing early, which is not his habit. Normally, you’re used to seeing rallies more like we saw in the first set,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I don’t know, he looked a little out of rhythm. So yes, I was a bit surprised that I won the second set so easily. But then, the way I was serving, the way I was putting pressure on him, it made sense, too.”

Big game at 4-5

Auger-Aliassime had all the chances in the first set, at 4-5, to break Coric and start serving the second.

Seven deuces from a 40-15 Coric lead, and one set point, went by before the Croat held after 11 minutes, 31 seconds.

It took Auger-Aliassime more than 22 minutes to get his second set point in the tiebreak. And that one, he converted.

“It was a bit frustrating to lose that 5-4 game. But the best chance for me to win the first set, to give myself a chance, was to find ways when my back was to the wall to win the important points. That’s what I tried to do, and once again it worked,” he said. “There are nerves, there is stress. But it’s about how you manage it. For me, it’s about concentrating on the game, on the strategy – and to serve well.”

Second set a rout

qualiifier

At one point, early in the second set, Coric had one winner and … 12 unforced errors. He didn’t get on the board until he was down two breaks at 0-4.

He wasn’t just missing by inches, although he did barely miss a couple of passing shots. He was missing by feet. He would try a serve-and-volley without much conviction. By the end, some in the notoriously tough Miami crowd were whistling.

At times, he looks sheepish, as if it couldn’t end soon enough. Auger-Aliassime’s confidence – with the first set already in the bag – only grew. So he did what he needed to do end Coric’s suffering as quickly as he could.

“It’s rarely happened that I’ve won so many matches in a row – especially at this level. But I don’t think I was playing above my level. I think I was playing very good tennis, but I don’t think I was playing above myself at any moment in the match,” he said.

Positive vibes to Shapovalov

Shapovalov makes it two in the quarters (video)

Auger-Aliassime’s good friend Shapovalov will try to join him in the final four when he plays another young up-and-comer, No. 28 seed Frances Tiafoe, Friday afternoon.

“I’ll probably run into him (Thursday). Already, seeing me win today, that’ll motivate him as well to go further and win the match,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I hope I can motivate him in some way. But beyond that, it’ll be up to him to get the job done on the court.”

Auger-Aliassime’s parents, Marie Auger and Sam Aliassime, will fly down for Friday’s semifinal against big-serving American John Isner.

“I don’t quite realize it, but I’m trying not to get too emotional about it because there are still matches to play,” he said of his effort this week.  

Having his parents on hand will be less intimidating than having NBA legend Chris Bosh in the house.“It’s pretty special to play in front of people like that. I was a little nervous at the beginning,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Zooming up the rankings chart

The 18-year-old began the season ranked No. 108. After reaching the final at the ATP 500 event in Rio last month, he zoomed up to No. 60.

He’s currently at No. 57. But with his efforts the last 10 days in Miami, he’ll be at No. 33 when the new rankings come out on Monday, even if he goes no further.

In that theoretical race for one of the 32 seeded spots at the next Grand Slam, which will be the French Open in late May, Auger-Aliassime is one point out of the No. 32 spot.

As it happens, that No. 32 is Serbia’s Laslo Djere, who defeated him in the Rio final and again in the quarterfinals in Sao Paulo a few days later.

A perfect 5-0 vs. the top 20

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

As if he were ready for his closeup years ago, the Canadian kid has seized every opportunity against the top players so far in his young career.

Auger-Aliassime defeated No. 18 Lucas Pouille at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last summer. In Rio, he upset No. 16 Fabio Fognini of Italy in the first round.

At Indian Wells, he rolled over No. 10 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round.

And this week in Miami, he already has victories over No. 19 Nikoloz Basilashvili in the fourth round, and Coric (currently No. 13) in the quarterfinals.

That’s 5-0 against top-20 players.

Isner, at No. 9, will be the highest-ranked player Auger-Aliassime has ever faced. And he will be only the second “big server”, after Ivo Karlovic defeated him 6-4, 7-5 in the first round of the ATP event in Pune, India to open the season.

No rap duet with Shapo in store: FAA

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Félix Auger-Aliassime is happy his “big brother” Denis Shapovalov is expressing himself through his music.

But no, he has no plans to join him in a Canadian teen rap duet any time in the near future.

These two have a big 24 hours coming up, with Auger-Aliassime playing a late-night match against No. 11 seed Borna Coric Wednesday to reach the Miami Open semis.

Shapovalov has a doubles quarterfinal against the legendary Bryan brothers with partner Rohan Bopanna Wednesday afternoon.

And then, he will face another rising young star in Laver Cup teammate Frances Tiafoe in a quarterfinal on Thursday.

But for the moment, he is a solo act on the rapping.

Although you do hope – in the improbable scenario where the Miami Open final is an all-Canadian teen affair (the two are on opposite sides of the draw) – they might consider coming up with a little special edition.

Shapo getting some grief

It all started when Shapovalov made good on a promise in Indian Wells that if he won his next match, he’d come up with some rhymes on court.

He’s a teen of his word.

(The expiration date on the word “teen”, for Shapovalov, is April 15).

He got some social media expert musical criticism for it.

But he doesn’t care.

Meanwhile, quarterfinal foe ‘Foe chimed in on that as well.

Tiafoe could contribute the “Silencer” thing.

Anyone else looking forward to ‘Po vs. ‘Foe?