Félix Auger-Aliassime will play for the French Open junior title on Sunday but it will not be against a fellow Canadian after Denis Shapovalov was beaten in the semifinals by Geoffrey Blancaneaux of France on Saturday.
Auger-Aliassime steamrolled Nicolas Kuhn of Spain 6-4, 6-2 in a bravura performance while Shapovalov came out on the short end of a roller-coaster 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-3 scoreline with Blancaneaux.
In winning the second game of the Court 2 semifinal, 15-year-old Auger-Aliassime belted three aces (out of an eventual total of four) in what appeared to be an ominous sign for Kuhn. But the 16-year-old Spaniard (five months older) hung in as Auger-Aliassime seemed a bit tentative in the baseline rallies.
Both were clobbering the ball hard and deep and there was only one trip to the net (by Auger-Aliassime) in the first six games. In that sixth game, the Montrealer broke serve and from then on took complete control of the match.
He was pounding the ball with resounding thwacks off the racquet on both the forehand and backhand and Kuhn was simply being outhit in a match that lasted just an hour and 12 minutes.
Juan Carlos Ferrero (above on right), the 2003 French Open champion who is involved with Kuhn, was one of three prominent former players (also Carlos Moya and Nicolas Kiefer) who were courtside witnessing the match.
“I think Felix is very physical and a little bit stronger than Nico,” Ferrero said afterward. “Maybe he’s a little bit better from the baseline with powerful shots. And also the difference today was maybe that Felix got one to two free points every game with the serve. That’s a big difference at this age. There’s a big difference physically between them. Nico has to work to get stronger and more physical.”
Tennis Canada vice-president for high performance development, Louis Borfiga, was almost dumbfounded after the sensational display by Auger-Aliassime. “Unbelievable how he played – unbelievable,” he repeated. “There’s nothing to say. Everything was great. And the other guy is a pretty good junior player.”
“It’s been a great week overall and of course I’m really happy to be in the final,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think I played a really good match today and I’m proud of it. I was very solid from both sides and I pressured his weaknesses (the forehand among them). That was the key today – and my serve also.”
Kuhn had won their previous meeting 6-3, 6-3 – at Junior Davis Cup in Madrid last October – but it was a different story Saturday. “I was better prepared and clear-thinking today and had a good game plan, so everything worked,” Auger-Aliassime said about the two encounters.
Asked if he could play any better than he did on Saturday, Auger-Aliassime smiled and said, “maybe, but you never know at what level you’re going to play. There are days when you play well, and not as well. Everything was clear in my head, I was serene and calm and everything flowed. So I’m happy that it happened today.”
There’s a buzz about Auger-Aliassime at the French Open and with that comes attention that involves signing autographs and doing selfies. “In the last year there have been new things happening,” he admitted, “and you have to make adjustments. But you have to stay the same person and concentrate on your tennis. But I think it’s important to do those things but then you have to concentrate on your game.”
Shapovalov was leading by a set when Auger-Alassime did his post-match media conference and he was asked about possibly facing his compatriot on Sunday. “That would be the perfect final for us,” he said, “who would have imagined that happening? It would be really awesome to have a final with Denis.”
Auger-Aliassime went out on Court 1 and watched Shapovalov’s third set, supporting him all the way – but it was not to be.
The first set was a seesaw affair with Shapovaolov being the aggressor and often forcing play at the net. He was broken at both 4-all and 5-all but immediately broke back both times and eventually took the tiebreak 7-4 when Blancaneaux misfired with a forehand into the net.
Down 1-2 in the second set, Shapovalov ran off three games in a row, leading 4-2 and 15-30 on the Blancaneaux serve. On the next point the 17-year-old Frenchman went for broke and hit a forehand winner that just as easily might have hit the back-screen. Hindsight is 20-20, but Blancaneaux was looking discouraged at that point and a 15-40 deficit on his serve would not have helped his spirits. But he did make it and then won three games in a row and broke Shapovalov for a second time in three service games to take the set.
Shapovalov seemed to be fighting it a bit at that point. He had said he felt “sore” after his quarter-final on Friday. But he made one final push from 1-2 down and broke serve to lead 3-2. Sadly for him that was pretty well all that was left in the tank and Blancaneaux, hitting big, well-angled, and timely shots from the backcourt was able to take control and finish.
Shapovalov is likely the better player but full marks to Blancaneaux for lifting when he had to – had he not then even a subpar Shapovalov probably would have pulled off the win.
“I had had my chances, so did he,” Shapovalov summed up about the match. “The first set he should have had it for sure – serving for it at 5-4 and 6-5. He was playing incredible tennis and I managed to break him twice at the end and win the tiebreaker. Second set, again I was feeling good – I think I had 15-40 (leading) 4-2 and he played some good points and managed to break back. Then at 6-5, I was down love-40 and crawled back somehow – played a couple of good points there. But he managed to stay strong mentally and break me there to win the second set.
“And then the third set was just a coin toss and he played very good tennis.”
It was apparent that Shapovalov wasn’t as spry as he would have liked to have been. “I’ve been feeling it in my legs the whole time,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of tough matches. No one here can say that I had an easy draw coming into the semis. (He had beaten the No. 9 seed Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia and the No. 1 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in his two previous rounds).
“Physically I’m very fresh, maybe I’m a little bit sore with my body.”
That body looked a lot older than 17 years when it got up in a very stiff manner from his six or seven minute sit-down media conference, giving away that he didn’t have his usual teenage flexibility.
Looking ahead to Wimbledon in four weeks, Shapovalov said, “I think the surface today suited Blancaneaux very well, he was going defence to offence very well, caught me off guard a couple of times. I’m pretty excited to be going back on grass. Last year I had a pretty good run (third round) for being 17 at that time – or no I was 16 – and I beat a Top 5 in the world so I’m pretty excited to go back.”
Shapovalov is an upbeat, outgoing guy, and he was that way in his media conference. But when he was asked how much it hurt to lose, he said thoughtfully, “it hurts a lot. But I’m just happy to be in the semis. Every match I played was very tough and I’m not going to win always. So I’m very happy with my result.”
Shapovalov has been given a main draw wild card into an ATP Challenger event on clay in Moscow next week. He will not be leaving Paris until Monday and could play as early as Tuesday, which would make the Challenger a decided challenge.
After that it will be a return home to Richmond Hill, Ont., to, as he put it, “visit my family, my dog (‘Lucky’) who misses me a lot. Now that my mom left (to travel to Paris) he’s just going nuts. So I’ll visit him and then go to Roehampton (junior warm-up on grass) and Wimbledon.”
Auger-Aliassime will follow that same Roehampton-Wimbledon route, but first he will try to win the first junior Grand Slam title by a Canadian boy since Filip Peliwo of Vancouver triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012.
Both he and Blancaneaux called Sunday’s final on Court 1 (second match after the girls final at 11 a.m. – or about 7 a.m. EDT in Canada) the biggest match of their careers.
“I’ve never played him but I’ve practiced with him a lot at tournaments,” Blancaneaux said about Auger-Aliassime. “He’s a big-time player, really good with lots of talent and who hits hard. It should be a good match and I hope to put the tactics in place to win it.”
Blancaneaux came in about 45 minutes late to his media conference after getting treatment from a physio – rumoured to be for a calf issue. But he denied that and simply said, “no, no physically I’m ok. It’s normal to have a little fatigue after a long match and you need some recuperation. Tomorrow all will be in top form and I’ll be able to play my best game.”
Blancaneau is only 5-foot-10 and many observers believe Auger-Aliassime may be able to hit him off the court as he did with Kuhn on Saturday.
Time will tell but in the meantime Blancaneaux and Auger-Aliassime have something they will always share – the same August 8th birthday. A birthday made most famous in tennis by a man twice as old as the 17-year-old Blancaneaux – 34-year-old Roger Federer.
“August 8th is a good date and I think it brings you luck,” Blancaneaux smiled. “My physio and two or three of my friends were born on that day.”
It remains to be seen whether it’s Auger-Aliassime or Blancaneaux who gets to celebrate his next birthday two months from Tuesday as the 2016 French Open junior boys champion.
If Auger-Aliassime wins, he will beat Richard Gasquet, winner of the 2002 Roland Garros junior title at 15 years and 11 months, and become the youngest French Open boys winner at 15 years and 10 months. But he still is nowhere near the girls record – Martina Hingis won in 1993 at Roland Garros when she was a ridiculous 12 years and nine months old.
The flip side of all the well-dressed folks styling at Roland Garros these past two weeks are these chaps – who at least have furry friends to keep them company.