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Félix fever in the desert

Mar 10, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

There was little doubt who the crowd was cheering for when Canadians Félix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil played each other in the first round at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on Friday.

But the volume of the roar that went up, when Auger-Aliassime saved a set point with a 127-mph ace trailing 6-5 in the second set, was still startling and remarkable. It was as if all pent up pro-Félix sentiment had suddenly erupted in a single moment.

“In one sense it’s scary and stressful,” the precocious 17-year-old Montrealer would say later. “But it’s exciting to play in front of so many people. And it’s incredible that it (Stadium 2 – 8,000 spectators) was packed. It was a beautiful experience.”

Having won the first set, and after saving that set point in the 12th game of the second set, Auger-Aliassime would go on the win the ensuing tiebreak – separating himself at 4-all as Pospisil smothered a forehand into the net followed by his own 122 mph service winner and finally a forehand winner on the ultimate point to wrap up a 6-2, 7-6(4) victory.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

“It’s not easy to play a compatriot but everyone has their career and wants to win the match,” Auger-Aliassime summed up about facing a friend and compatriot. “It’s a battle. Both of us want to get the win. I put my emotions aside. I had a player across from me to beat but it’s obvious it wasn’t easy because it was Vasek.”

The 27-year-old Pospisil said he struggled with windy conditions and the slow court – the slowest on the tour he claimed. And right from the get-go he dug himself a hole – losing his serve in the opening game after leading 30-love, dropping the last two points on a double fault and an errant forehand into the net.

After that it seemed like Auger-Aliassime took flight in the set – whaling his forehand, serving big and generally bossing the rallies. The second set was a different story – very competitive and, had Pospisil converted that set point in the final game, things could have changed. But Auger-Aliassime was still the superior player – serving better and making the big shots when he needed to. Numbers don’t necessarily tell the story but he won total points played in both sets – 25-17 in the first and 47-42 in the second. He also had 11 aces to just two for Pospisil and was more opportunistic, converting two of four break points while his older opponent went 0/3.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

“Of course I had all the pressure,” Pospisil said about the dynamic of the match-up. “I’ve been playing well all year – winning tons of matches on the Challenger tour and I played well in Australia. He had a bad start to the year and was low on confidence. He won two matches here, he’s relaxed and had nothing to lose against me obviously. He’s a great player. He’s 17 years old and he’s playing extremely well – very fit and he was always going to be tough to beat. And there’s a little bit of added pressure…and so things didn’t go my way.”

Auger-Aliassime, who turns 18 on August 8th, Roger Federer’s birthday, has long been viewed as a prodigious talent by Tennis Canada officials who have made a conscious effort not to rush his development. But those days are likely over and he has made a leap. Denis Shapovalov said after his opening round win on Thursday that he has be hammering at his good friend – telling him he can be a top-100 player and that he can play with anyone.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Having now won his first ATP match and beaten No. 75 in the world, Auger-Aliassime was asked why he has done so well this week. “I think coming here early and playing the (Oracle) Challenger,” he said. “Even though I lost in the first round (to No. 192 Ricardo Ojeda Lara of Spain), I got in a good week of training, getting used to the conditions here that aren’t so easy. I think that’s one of the things that paid off.”

Asked about the bigger picture, why this transition to the pro ranks has happened so quickly at such as young age, he replied, “there’s been a certain physical maturation and good work with my coaches in Montreal. Physically I feel ready to compete with the very best at tournaments like this one. I think that’s what explains my quick transition. I think also the confidence I have in my game.”

It would be negligent not to mention the experience he had practicing with Federer in Dubai last December – at least until he injured his knee. “I really appreciated all the time we spent together,” Auger-Aliassime said. “The fact of playing with Federer and seeing what he does close up – to see the speed and power he plays with. At the start I wondered about being able to keep up but at the end I started to get used to the rhythm and that’s something that helped me.”

Despite the win over Pospisil, Auger-Aliassime’s current No. 169 ranking has actually fallen to about No. 178 for the moment because he’s defending 27 points from reaching the semi-finals of the Drummondville (Que.) Challenger 12 months ago.

And it has to be remembered that he’s still just 17 years despite being about 6-foot-4 and having a remarkably athletic physique. “It’s not easy,” he said about how he manages expectations with the help of those around him. “Everything goes pretty fast. There have been a lot of new things in my life in the past few months – on the tennis court but also outside of the tennis courts.

“As a kid, there are some things you’ve got to get used to – all the contracts and even the media and everything,” continued Auger-Aliassime, pictured above in what is surely the first of many major tour media conferences in his career. “It’s quite a learning process.

“I think that’s why you don’t see the consistency that the top players have because you’re still kind of adjusting.

“The best advice I get is just to stay in the present, take your time and enjoy the moment.”

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Some of that advice comes from Fred Fontang (above), the Tennis Canada coach who is with him in Indian Wells.

“Félix raised his level of play compared to his other matches,” said Fontang, who is also close to Pospisil after coaching him for nearly three years, following Friday’s match. “He served really well in the match. Vasek didn’t start well. He was a little tight. It was the opposite in the second set, Félix was a little more nervous and I’d say Vasek missed some chances, and overall Vasek couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities he had. For me it was hard to watch because it was win/win. If Vasek won it was good for him and if Félix won…well he’s my player.”

Fontang said he wasn’t concerned about his player and the hype surrounding the match as well as the full-house in Stadium 2 that was eager to really get into the all-Canadian contest. “Frankly, with Félix’s maturity, I knew he’d have a good match,” Fontang said. “After playing a tough match in the final round of the qualifying – 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 against Norbert Gombos of Slovakia – that sort of helped him get rid of all the stress. He was comfortable with his game. I knew he’d be a little tight when it came time to close out the match, but I also knew he’d have a good match.”

Neither was he surprised by the crowd reception which was so strongly pro-Félix. “He has a natural charisma, that’s pretty obvious,” Fontang said. “Ever since he’s been young, he’s had this natural charisma. He’s not that outgoing, more disciplined. But at the same time, his game, the way he moves is spectacular – you see it in his body language.”

The next hurdle for Auger-Aliassime will be on Sunday against another Canadian, the top dog – Milos Raonic, who had a first round bye as 32nd seed.

They have never played or really even worked out on court together. “We’re not from the same generation at all so we haven’t practiced together except for a few warm-ups at tournaments,” Auger-Aliassime said.

While he’s on a three-match winning streak and seems to have found his form, the No. 38-ranked, injury-rattled Raonic has only won a single match since last October – 6-1, 7-5 over No. 105 Taro Daniel of Japan in Delray Beach last month before losing 6-2, 6-4 to No. 51 Steve Johnson of the U.S.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Pospisil is fairly bullish on Auger-Aliassime’s chances against Raonic. “Honestly I think Félix can give him trouble here,” Pospisil said. “He has a great game for these conditions. He’s very physical, he moves well and it’s very tough to create anything – to hit winners and really hang (with him) physically. He’s serving well. He can definitively give Milos some trouble especially if he goes in like he did against me – swinging free, confident and with nothing to lose. I think he has a chance to win.”

As for himself, Pospisil, whose ranking will drop from No. 75 to about No. 79 after Indian Wells, was expected to next play the Miami Open beginning in two weeks. But a couple of Canadian reporters were surprised when he informed them, “I might go to Drummondville (next week’s National Bank Challenger). I’d have a Wednesday start there which would give me some days off to recover a bit. So I’m looking at that right now.”

Auger-Aliassime is entered in the $75,000 event but would definitely not play if he beats Raonic on Sunday, and might even be doubtful even if he loses.

It has, after all, already been a pretty amazing week for the 17-year-old.

While Pospisil was downcast after the loss Friday, it didn’t prevent him from providing perspective on interesting times. “We have young guys coming up,” he said. “That’s great for Canada and great for tennis in the country.”

BOUCHARD OUT IN DOUBLES

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Genie Bouchard’s 2018 BNP Paribas Open is over after she and partner Sloane Stephens were beaten 7-6(3), 3-6, [10-7] by the wild card Belorussian pairing of Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka in the first round on Friday.

Bouchard, currently ranked No. 116, will next play at the Miami Open where it appears likely she will not receive a wild card and have to compete in the qualifying event.

For the record Bouchard, who played with a Babolat racquet in her singles first round, was using a Wilson frame in her doubles on Friday

PALM SPRINGS POST CARD

We’re not exactly sure what to expect if you accept this guy’s offer. On Friday he was offering his services on Palm Canyon Drive, the main street in Palm Springs.

Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz