It was ironic that after he won his third-round match 7-6(1), 6-2, 6-1 over Reilly Opelka of the U.S. on Friday at Wimbledon, Milos Raonic was asked how he dealt with an occupational hazard of being a professional athlete – losing.
“Let’s be honest,” Raonic answered, “as tennis players, even if you’re Roger or if you’re Rafa, we are all a bunch of losers many times throughout the year. You sort of cope with these things – try to get rid of them. But they hurt. I think because they hurt is why the players play so well. You do everything in your power to avoid it.”
Raonic is 28 and Félix Auger-Aliassime is 18 and has not been quite as schooled in the hard knocks of winning and losing tennis matches as his older fellow-countryman. Following his 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Ugo Humbert of France of Friday in No. 1 Court, Auger-Aliassime was nearly inconsolable, and at his post-match media interview said about the match, “It’s hard to analyze and find the words. A lot of things didn’t go well today. I wasn’t mentally in a good state of mind. I felt kind of empty – but not physically.”
The match essentially turned in the second set when Auger-Aliassime couldn’t hang onto a 5-2 lead and Humbert ran off five games in a row to win it. For all intents and purposes, the match was over, especially when Humbert broke serve in the opening game of the third set. “I think even when I was ahead,” Auger-Aliassime said about the second set, “I felt that at any moment the match could get away from me. I wasn’t in control. I felt my game was super fragile. Even when I was a break up, every time I served a little worse, he hit a couple of good returns and it was a kind of free fall. It’s up to me to find the solutions. It’s one of the hardest days I’ve been through this year.
“I’ll take some time to see what I could have done better. What I’ve got to do is get back to work. I’ve got lots of things to improve – including how to handle a match like that. It’s a little embarrassing.”
His coach Fred Fontang was able to offer a more objective analysis, saying about the result, “Physically Félix was fine. The first thing you have to do is say ‘bravo’ to Ugo – he really had a good game for grass and played a solid match. As for Félix, he’ll have some regrets about the second set. He could have finished off the second set and then it might have been his match. After that Ugo really loosened up and Felix was a little down. It was tough for him.”
When it was suggested to Fontang that Auger-Aliassime is still only 18 and has lots to learn despite his remarkable accomplishments so far, the 49-year-old Frenchman said, “What you have to remember is that we didn’t expect Félix to have such good results on grass – a final (Stuttgart), a semi-final (Queen’s Club) and a third round here. It’s not really what we expected so it’s very positive. At the same time you’re always disappointed after a loss in the third round of a Grand Slam.”
Auger-Aliassime had nine double faults compared to two for Humbert. Fontang commented about that fairly high number (along with 11 aces), “He served really well at Stuttgart and at Queen’s. Here (at Wimbledon) the courts are a little slower and he got fewer free points on his first serve. So he kind of forced his rhythm, lost his rhythm and that showed in some crucial moments. He had a little doubt. And that was the case in a few other areas of his game.”
Auger-Aliassime double-faulted to set up the break point that Humbert converted for the only break in the second set. He also double-faulted at 5-all to lose his serve for the second time in a row in the second set. His forehand was also shaky at times, with several flying long or being mishit. He had 32 unforced errors to 22 for the 21-year-old Frenchman and was vulnerable on his second serve – winning just 35 per cent of second serve points to 61 per cent for Humbert.
A lefthander with neatly-angled ground strokes, Humbert sensed that Auger was not feeling his best. “At the beginning I felt he was nervous,” he said about Auger-Aliassime. “And during the whole match as well. It made me feel stronger.”
On Thursday, Humbert and his partner Marius Copil of Romania played a doubles match in 12,345-seat No. 1 Court – losing 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-0 to Andy Murray and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. It was a loss that probably played a part in Friday’s win over Auger-Aliassime.
“Going onto the court against Murray and Herbert yesterday (Thursday) really helped me,” Humbert said. “The court was pretty impressive. It’s quite big. But I already had my bearings and wasn’t surprised. That was an advantage. It was really positive to have played yesterday in that stadium.”
There has been a lot of hype about Auger-Aliassime with his fantastic rise up the rankings to his current No. 21 spot. That translated into unrealistic hopes and even London bookmakers putting him in the top-five favourites to win the title this year. Humbert, on the other hand, is playing on grass for the first time in his career and his low, penetrating ground strokes and strong serving have allowed to make a successful transition.
A seemingly bright and personable young man, he was quite poetic afterward about his state of mind during the match, noting, “I felt really serene, even at the end when it came time to close out, I felt serene. It was genuine happiness, real pleasure – hitting hard, making a good shots, finishing off points. There really wasn’t any pressure. It was really a fun sensation.”
Auger-Aliassime gave the impression of feeling little of that freedom – likely having to do with the weight of expectation. He and Humbert are friends and practiced together before the ATP 250 event in Lyon, France, in May. The Frenchman admitted that gave him a chance to become more familiar with Auger-Aliassime’s power game.
He will now face top seed Novak Djokovic in Monday’s round-of-16 while Auger-Aliassime is going to take a break before the summer hard-court season in North America. “He’s supposed to play Atlanta (July 22nd), and Washington and then Coupe Rogers,” Fontang said. “But we’ll have to see if he might need some more rest.”
As down a day as it was on Friday, Auger-Aliassime received high praise from one of the good guys of Canadian tennis – Vasek Pospisil. Talking to a pair of Canadian reporters, the 29-year-old from Vancouver could not have been more generous in his praise of his younger compatriot.
“Félix is like one of the more genuinely nice people that I’ve met on the tour,” Pospisil said. “People have nice personalities – but personality is very different from character. You can show your personality on camera and everyone is ‘oh yeah he’s great.’ But then they can be very different. But he’s like – he’s Felix. He’s a really good kid.”
Milos Raonic probably deserved to be the lead item in this blog but with Auger-Aliassime losing, and Raonic hopefully to be around for a few more rounds, it seemed appropriate to give the young Montrealer his fair share of attention as he departs.
On Court 12 first thing on Friday morning, Raonic was the better player from the get-go against the No. 63-ranked Opelka. The match started with a long rally on the first point – eventually won by Raonic with a backhand passing shot winner. But that was the exception as the two super-servers went at it. Both had break chances in the first set – Raonic serving out of love-40 in the fourth game and Opelka doing likewise from love-40 in the 11th game at 5-all.
As the tiebreak began, Opelka was incredibly self-critical and could be heard saying, “I made one return and he made 150. It’s a beat-down – a 6-0 set.”
Opelka won only a single point in the tiebreak and then lost serve trailing 3-2 in the second set when he double-faulted. Raonic dropped only one more game the rest of the way, wrapping up the match in an hour and 42 minutes.
Raonic went out and had a brief 10-minute hit with his coach Fabrice Santoro following the match – a reaction to the blunt staccato nature of the match with very little to-and-fro action over the net. “I just wanted to get some rhythm back,” he explained. “(I) hit a few balls with Fabrice – that’s it.”
In terms of giving himself a grade on the match, Raonic said, “I did the things I wanted to do. When it was important, I played as well as I could have.” He was 4/10 in the all-important break points converted category – Opelka was 0/3.
The 7-foot American said later that he was hampered by an adductor issue, which was a carryover from his 8-6 in the fifth set win over Stan Wawrinka on Wednesday.
“My adductor kind of flared up and I kind of hit the wall,” Opelka said, “I didn’t know how much more I had in me.”
Even though he won the Wimbledon junior boys event in 2015, Opelka doesn’t believe that grass is his best surface. “This is the slowest court of the year,” the 21-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida, said. “This is slower than the French Open. I don’t think grass is going to be my strongest surface in the future. I think I’m always just going to play only one tournament leading up and Wimbledon. I don’t think I’m going to put much emphasis on the grass-court season.”
Raonic is certainly not inclined that way – having had the best results of his career playing lawn tennis. On Monday he will try to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon for the fifth time (and the fourth year in a row) when he plays No. 26 seed Guido Pella of the Argentina, a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(4) winner on Friday over last year’s runner-up Kevin Anderson. It will be a first meeting between the two, and Raonic should be wary because, a year ago in the second round at Wimbledon, Pella upset the previous year’s finalist Marin Cilic, 3-6, 1-6, 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-5 in the second round.
“It’s going to be tough,” Raonic said. “He’s been on tour for a long time – and I don’t know if he’s been to this stage in a Slam before (ed note: he has not). But he’s beaten Kevin here – that’s job very well done.”
Raonic has now been to this stage – the round-of-16 – a total of 15 times at Grand Slam events. Asked about having two days off until his match with Pella on Monday, he replied, “I like it. It’s sort of like a new tournament starts on Monday. You play one event throughout the first week, take some time to rest – take a day off and just start up on Sunday as if it would be for another one-week event.”
On Friday, fourth-seeded Gabriela Dabrowski and her Chinese partner Xu Yifan advanced to the third round of the Wimbledon doubles. They defeated Kateryna Koslova (UKR) and Arina Rodionova (AUS) 6-2, 6-1.
Next they will face 13th seeds Duan Yinging and Zheng Saisai of China.
In men’s second-round action, 12th seeds (12) Rajeev Ram (USA) and Joe Salisbury (GBR) beat Matthew Ebden (AUS) and Vasek Pospisil 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(3).
Merchants on Wimbledon High Street like to get into the spirit of the great show going on down Church Road. The clothing store window here features a woman well known around the world and a superstar athlete from the world of sports.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)