What were the chances – five Canadians in the main draw of a non-Canadian Masters 1000 event? Then two Canadian qualifiers separated by 10 years in age to play each other for the first time in the opening round. And more… the winner of that match to play the greatest Canadian player – at least by ranking – of all time.
That’s what happened on Wednesday after Vasek Pospisil and Félix Auger-Aliassime qualified and then drew each other in the first round – with the winner in the second round to face No. 32-seed Milos Raonic after his bye.
The French have a cool expression for an all-French match-up – it’s called ‘Franco-Francais.’ Maybe now Canadians will have to work on coming up with an equivalent.
The whole wild scenario came to pass after Auger-Aliassime qualified for his first ATP main draw with a captivating 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory over Norbert Gombos of Slovakia in front of a rapturous crowd on Stadium 9.
In the middle of the third set, a senior-citizen aged woman could be heard excitedly telling her friends just outside the stadium, “Oh my, it’s amazing tennis – a 17-year-old!”
That 17-year-old is Auger-Aliassime and the enthusiasm for the young Canadian and his huge potential created a decidedly passionate, partisan atmosphere in 1,400-capacity stadium.
“It was fabulous,” Auger-Aliassime said about the feel of it all. “It’s not a big stadium but it’s chaleureux (warm). Everyone is close to you and you could hear them cheering for you, encouraging you between the points. It was really great to play an evening match in front of a crowd like that. And it was quite a match – I started poorly and then I managed to win the second set and play my best tennis in the third set – the complete package.”
Auger-Alassime took a while to get going but hung in and was able to reverse the momentum against the hard-hitting No. 144-ranked Gombos. That particularly pleased his coach Fred Fontang. “It was a match where the other guy was overwhelming him with big hitting and playing well,” Fontang said. “What pleased me was that Félix was able to find solutions by himself as the match went along. He finished strong and had a good attitude – he stayed focused and held up well physically. He found the solutions to get through and that’s very encouraging.”
What were the solutions? “The other guy was finding a good rhythm and Félix was rushing a bit. He knew how to move the other guy a bit more, to vary the height of his shots and, at the back of the court defensively, to keep the ball in play more and be steady. And his serve got better. He survived a lot of deuces in the second set. He hung in there and was rewarded.”
Auger-Aliassime gave a more concise assessment, noting “slowly I was able to get myself into the match to finally be able to explode in the third set.”
Fontang, who is co-coach with Guillaume Marx, both from Tennis Canada, said the alternating coaching arrangement keeps things fresh for their player. The 47-year-old Frenchman used to coach Pospisil and paused with an amused twinkle in his eye shortly after the match when was asked by a reporter who Félix will play in the main draw. He smiled and slowly replied, “Vasek.” “It’s kind of particular for me,” Fontang added. “May the best man win.”
“It was going to happen one day or another,” was Auger-Aliassime’s reaction to the match-up with Pospisil. “He’s already played (losing 6-3, 6-3) Denis in a Challenger (Guadalajara, Mexico) last year – if I’m not mistaken. It’s special – Vasek and Milos are guys I watched play as I was growing up. They were our models when we were young in Canada. Now to be able to play my first Masters is obviously special and very exciting – I’m anxious to play.”
Told that the winner would play Raonic, Auger-Aliassime laughed and said, “I had a funny feeling. It’s a bit unlucky to have three Canadians in the same part of the draw with two who will lose fairly early. But it’s all a bonus and it’s exciting and I’m just happy to be able to play a match like that.”
Before the interview with a Canadian reporter, the reporter suggested to Auger-Aliassime that he seemed to have grown. Listed at 6-foot-3, he said he hadn’t measured himself recently but admitted that he might be an inch taller than last summer.
That would make him the same height as his next opponent – the 6-foot-4 Pospisil.
The 27-year-old from Vancouver didn’t have it easy in his second-round qualifying match with Adrian Menendez-Maceiras. He started slowly and just didn’t look like himself. The 32-year-old Spaniard broke his serve at 5-all in the opening set and then held two set points at 6-5, 40-15. But Pospisil went to the net on the first, forcing Menendez-Maceiras to miss with a passing shot, and then won the second on an unforced error by his opponent. That began a run of seven straight points that took Pospisil to 3-0 in the first-set tiebreak. He eventually led 6-2 but Menendez-Maceiras closed to 6-5 before Pospisil wrapped things up with a service winner on his fourth set point.
The second set was fairly uncomplicated and Pospisil is now in his fifth main draw in a row at the BNP Paribas Open. He lost in the third round of qualifying in his first two tries, in the first round in 2014 (Mikhail Kukushkin) defeated Kukushkin in 2015 before losing to Andy Murray, beat Jared Donaldson and lost to Gilles Simon in 2016 and then last year qualified and beat Yen-Hsun Lu and world No. 1 Murray before losing on a punishingly hot day 6-7(4), 6-3, 7-5 to Dusan Lajovic.
Wednesday was a rare lightly-clouded day in Indian Wells but Friday, when Pospisil will face Auger-Aliassime, is supposed to be sunny and 30 degrees.
It was very pleasant in the shaded conditions on Stadium 4 when Polansky stepped out mid-afternoon for his second-round qualifying match against talented Matteo Berrettini.
The match went reasonably smoothly from the beginning for Polansky against the 21-year-old Italian. He broke serve to 4-3 in the opening set and a frustrated Berrettini smacked a ball onto the court and got a warning for ball abuse. Polansky broke again to close out the set 6-3.
The No. 108-ranked Italian then took a bathroom break and broke serve in the first game of the second set before running away with it.
A talented player with an ability to serve well, volley opportunistically and …try too many drop shots, Berrettini is also eminently combustible. In the third set, Polansky hunkered down, played a steady, relatively error-free game from the baseline and regained control against the temperamental 21-year-old to finish off a 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 victory. He has now reached the main draw in Indian Wells for the third time in his career – although he has yet to win a match.
He will try to do that on Friday when he plays No. 81-ranked Marius Copil of Romania in the fourth match on Stadium 5.
When asked about the first game of what turned out to be a one-sided second set against Berrettini, Polansky said, “I saved a couple of break points and I think I lost two pretty high quality points that I should have won but he came up with shots that were too good. The second break was another kind of close game with a couple of sloppy errors and the third, I didn’t think realistically I was going to come back in that set.
“He’s a tough guy to play – tricky – you never know what he’s going to do and he gets to a lot of balls for a big (6-foot-4) guy.”
Polansky said he wanted to start the third set strong and he did – breaking serve in the third game and riding it out to a win in two hours and four minutes in what he summed up as “a good match overall.”
Asked about playing a temperamental opponent like Berrettini, he said, “I was surprised. He was getting angry on points that weren’t super crucial. It’s actually good for me obviously but you never know because he can pop a serve anytime he wants and his backhand slice is extremely tricky – it seemed like it was going to clip the tape every time.”
About being in the main draw, Polansky said, “it feels really good. It’s always nice qualifying for big events like this. Maybe I can win some rounds here this year. I’m feeling really good about my game so we’ll see.”
That was before the qualifiers were put in their slots in the main draw, but when Polansky was asked about possibility of playing another Canadian, his reaction was, “I think it would be really cool actually – an all-Canadian match-up. It might be on one of the stadium courts. I think that would be fun.”
That was mid-afternoon, little did anyone know then that by early evening a couple of all-Canadian main-draw match-ups had materialized. It will now be intriguing to see just how “fun” they turn out to be.
Denis Shapovalov will play No. 106-ranked Ricardas Berankis in his opening-round match on Stadium 2 at the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday. It’s the fourth match after an 11 a.m. (2 p.m. ET in Canada) start and should be played late afternoon/early evening.
It’s the first meeting between the 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., and the 27-year-old Lithuanian.
Indian Wells is Shapovalov’s fifth ATP Masters event – he has been 5-2 at the Rogers Cup tournaments in Toronto and Montreal the past two years but lost first round at the Shanghai Masters (Viktor Troicki) and the Paris Masters (Julien Benneteau) last fall.
The 27-year-old Berankis reached highest ranking, No. 50, in May, 2016. He has only played Indian Wells twice, winning a round in the main draw in 2011 and losing 6-1, 6-2 to Vasek Pospisil in the second round of qualifying in 2013.
Genie Bouchard played her first match since the week after the Australian Open – and since the settlement of her two-and-a-half year old lawsuit against the United States Tennis Association – on Wednesday and it was not a good performance as she as beaten 6-3, 6-4 by No. 100-ranked Sachia Vickery of the U.S.
There were moments when she was able to boss the rallies, but overall the 22-year-old American was the sharper player and played solid, accurate tennis that an erratic Bouchard had no answers for.
Following the match, Bouchard was notably talkative about her tennis and especially about all that she has been through with her legal case in New York City.
Here are several of her comments on a variety of subjects:
Wednesday’s match against Vickery: “I don’t think it was all terrible. I was trying to do the right thing. We’re (with coach Harold Solomon) working on trying to be a bit more physical. I play my best when I’m physically in every shot, in every point. That something we’ve been working on recently and I was just trying to do that. Her off-pace shots troubled me a little bit – a couple of unforced errors. I felt pretty unprepared coming into this event so it was actually a little bit better than expected I think.
Does the unpreparedness relate to the trial and everything? Yeah, of course. I’ve had a lot on my plate the past month. I didn’t get enough practice time for sure. I had to get my wisdom teeth taken out last week as well and lost more practice time. There’s just been a lot going on. I hadn’t played a tournament since Taiwan (third round in the first week of February). For me I wanted to come here and play a match no matter what. I need to get back to playing a lot of matches so I didn’t just want to sit this one out. Coming in, I battled today and that’s all I could really do for myself.
What have you learned from the whole legal case experience? It’s been a very long process. It was two and a half years so it’s not something you can get over overnight. I still feel like I’m processing it. Obviously going to court was a crazy experience – quite traumatic. I still feel like I’m getting over it emotionally, mentally considering it’s been so long. I learned about how the justice system works in the United States. I’ve been patient. I fought for what I believe in. I think you have to stand up for yourself in this world and that’s what I did. I felt very vindicated with what happened. I do want to move on but it’s been two and a half years and so it’s hard in just a week to just forget about it. So I’m in the process of trying to be happy, comes to terms with it and move on. Lots of lessons that will probably come to me as the weeks go on – a crazy experience for sure.
Was it traumatizing because of the event itself or what you had to face in court? The accident itself was a horrible accident and something I never want to live through again. Just the experience of the past couple of weeks, actually going to court and dealing with lawyers, dealing with the judge, dealing with the jury – all these things you kind of see on TV – but as a 23-year-old tennis players it’s not a normal thing to go through. Not many other 23-year-olds have been in court so – it’s just eye-opening. It’s this whole other world that I’ve never thought about up until obviously this thing happened a couple of years ago. To actually go through and be in court was so interesting. It’s kind of like TV – it’s a little bit slower. It’s not like dramatic every minute. But there are some dramatic moments and…craziness.
Did having to face the media all these year help you when you were on the stand? Totally (surprised reporters laugh)… no for sure. It helped me in my deposition two years ago. I’m so used to being in front of the camera and talking to people. Also being asked tough questions… you know my lawyer said it was like ‘the best deposition he ever saw’ two years ago. And he thought I was great on the stand as well. I’m just used to it so…you guys helped me out – thank you.
What’s the plan from now on? I have doubles here with Sloane (Stephens) and then Miami – qualies unless I get a wild card. And then the plan is Charleston and Bogota (both in the main draw). I’m just trying to play some tournaments – just trying to get back into the swing of things – get a lot of training and get a lot of matches in.
Will you play Fed Cup (vs. Ukraine April 21-22 in Montreal)? I want to play actually. It would be right after Bogota. I actually really want to play. So if Tennis Canada wants to have me – then I’ll play.
Palm Springs, Indian Wells and all the other cities in the Coachella Valley are said to be in the California desert. But you won’t find any camels or sand dunes there. Above is a picture – of Highway 15 on the way from Las Vegas to Palm Springs – that is typical of the landscape. While there are expanses of sagebrush and sand, there are also magnificent mountains in the vistas all around.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz