On an opening day of Wimbledon 2019 when getting through to the second round was job one, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Milos Raonic advanced while each fighting their own battles.
Auger-Aliassime kept his cool to defeat compatriot Vasek Pospisil 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 while Raonic reached the second round for the ninth consecutive year with a businesslike 7-6(1), 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 93-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India.
Monday’s result was big for Auger-Aliassime – after 32 wins on the main ATP Tour, the 18-year-old from Montreal finally earned his first main-draw victory at a Grand Slam event.
Asked about getting his first Grand Slam win, the eminently-rational Auger-Aliassime kept it light-hearted. “I think people have to relax,” he said. “Like, I mean I’m 18. It’s a relief just for any player to get his first Grand Slam win. It’s a good achievement for me. At the same time, with the level that I’m playing at now and my ambitions, I look to go even further than that.”
With Pospisil coming into the match with no matches since last October and following back surgery in January, there was a possibility of a one-sided affair against a decidedly in-form Auger-Aliassime. That looked to be on the cards when Auger-Aliassime broke serve to 3-2 in the first set and led 40-15 to consolidate the break. But he missed with the ‘tweener’ attempt (above) and then doubled-faulted to make it deuce. A second double fault – one of seven in the first set – and a hard-to-handle return of serve by Pospisil and the set was back on even terms.
Auger-Aliassime didn’t look comfortable and Pospisil was playing surprisingly well – serving big, returning solid and occasionally mixing in an effective drop shot.
But once Auger-Aliassime bolted to a 4-0 lead in the second set and then Pospisil took a medical time-out at the end of the set to treat what he described as “my knee and my hip” (see above), the match began to have a certain fateful feel to it.
“I played well,” Pospisil said. “To be honest – it’s probably what I expected a good case scenario would be.” He said he now plans to play the doubles event with Matthew Ebden of Australia and then likely a few Challenger events to improve his current No. 187 ranking.
Pospisil is 29 and has always been one of the more obvious ‘adults in the room’ among professional tennis players – but Auger-Aliassime, who doesn’t turn 19 for another 38 days, is remarkably precocious and already seems to be the ‘adult in the room.’.
Questioned about whether he was nervous for the match, he replied: “For sure. I don’t know if you looked at the scores – (Alexander) Zverev is down 2-sets to-1 and (Stefanos) Tsitsipas is down 2-sets to-1 [both lost]. I think it’s normal for any player. First rounds are tough and they’re even tougher in Grand Slams. On grass, things can go fast if you don’t return well – don’t serve well.”
Auger-Aliassime has become the latest ‘can’t miss’ rising star in men’s tennis and his mature way of handling himself was evident when one British reporter asked him about being the fifth or sixth favourite, with the legal London bookmakers, to win the Wimbledon title.
“I think that was a bit exaggerated in my opinion,” he answered. “I think I understand the excitement – it would be a nice story to write about. It would be a cool story. At the same time that’s never something I’ve thought of. I think the first thing was just to get my first win. I’m not saying I’m here to lose, if I can go all the way, I’ll go all the way. It’s a bit exaggerated to put me as the fifth or sixth to win the title. It’s a bit crazy.”
Monday’s match was just his ninth on grass as a professional, and he gave the following assessment of the Wimbledon lawns compared Stuttgart and Queen’s Club where he played in the lead up. “The grass is a little different than it was at Queen’s or Stuttgart,” he said. “It’s a little bit longer so the bounces ate a little lower – in a way it’s like a carpet that’s slower whereas the others were a little harder and the bounce was higher. But the grass will get worn out as players play on it. But for now it’s a bit different so you have to adjust.”
Pospisil is a big Auger-Aliassime fan and said afterward: “I love Félix. I think he has such a good approach. He has a good team around him and a good approach – I think the sky’s the limit. Over the next couple of years, we’ll see how he progresses but honestly I think he could do amazing things in this sport.”
An example of Auger-Aliassime’s ability to problem solve (with the off-court help of members of his team and support group above) was his poor serving early in the match – including twice hitting consecutive double faults in the first set. “I had two solutions,” he said about those serving woes, “I can just say I’m serving badly today and accept that that’s the way it is and just keep doing that. Or I accept that it’s more complicated and try to find solutions to make things better. That’s basically what I did. The more the match continued, the more I found my rhythm and I’m pleased with the progress I made during the match.”
His next decision making will be against No. 84-ranked Corentin Moutet, 20. On Monday the 20-year-old French lefthander rallied to beat struggling (shoulder) Grigor Dimitrov 2-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-1. In their only previous meeting at a 2018 Challenger event in Lyon, France, the 6-foot-4 Auger-Aliassime won 6-2, 6-2 over 5-foot-9 Moutet.
As for the Raonic – Gunneswaran match, after a first 12 games with no break points either way, the No. 15-seeded Canadian ran off six consecutive points to win the tiebreak 7-1 and was in control the rest of the way for a one-hour and 48-minute victory.
It appears that going forward managing back issues may be Raonic’s biggest challenge. He revealed in his post-match media conference that he had a “procedure” – a cortisone shot – for his lower back before the Queen’s Club tournament two weeks ago. “Then I started having troubles with my upper back throughout this week,” he added, “where I had to do everything from acupuncture, massage anything to try to get it calmed down. Luckily none of it is, let’s say, serious that it can lead to something much worse. It’s sort of just managing sort of the tightness, the pain – trying to get through with it as much as possible.”
On the court, the 28-year-old, who is an impressive 21-5 at Wimbledon over the past five years – including being runner-up in 2016 – was pleased with a performance that had a solid stat-line that included 67 per cent of first serves made, 82 per cent of first-serve points won and 68 percent of second-serve points won. He also had 38 winners (Gunneswaran had only 13) and 32 unforced errors. He saved both break points he faced and converted on three of seven on the serve of the 29-year-old Indian.
“I was efficient out there,” Raonic summed up. “It’s always been tough for me in first round matches here at Wimbledon. I think I did a better job of sort of creating some distance, getting ahead – giving myself a little more freedom to swing.”
In the second round he will be swinging against No. 76-ranked Robin Haase of the Netherlands. They have only played once before – at the Paris Indoor in 2013 with Raonic prevailing 6-3, 6-4.
There was a good contingent in the Raonic courtside seats on Monday – including his coach Fabrice Santoro front row extreme left and father Dusan front row extreme right.
Raonic’s media conference began with a fun exchange as a reporter asked about what had happened to the now basically dormant twitter accounts dedicated to “Milos’ Raonic’s hair” and “Milos’ Arm Sleeve.”
“I guess I grew up,” was Raonic’s repartee in response, accompanied by a little grin.
Whether he’s grown up enough as a player to have his best Wimbledon will be interesting to follow over the rest of the fortnight.
Three more Canadians get into action on Tuesday – with Genie Bouchard and Denis Shapovalov playing back to back on Court 14, which only has a seating capacity of 318. The opening women’s match at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET in Canada) will be followed by Bouchard’s first-rounder against No. 61-ranked Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia and then 29th seeded Shapovalov versus No. 77-ranked Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania.
It’s a first meeting for Bouchard and the 21-year-old Zidansek but Shapovalov is 1-0 with Berankis – having beaten him 6-3, 6-3 in the first round at Indian Wells in 2018.
Lucky loser Brayden Schnur, 23, makes both his Wimbledon and his Grand Slam tournament debuts when he plays retiring Marcos Baghdatis in the second match on 170-seat Court 8. The 34-year-old Cypriot, ranked as high as No. 8 in 2006 and a runner-up at the Australian Open that year to Roger Federer, has been given a wild card for his final event. He told reporters that he has been working hard for six weeks to get ready for Wimbledon, where he reached the semi-finals in 2006. “I want to go out and give everything on the court as I have done my whole life,” Baghdatis told a group of reporters on Saturday.
He is married to former player Karolina Sprem of Croatia. They have two children and are expecting a third on November 13.
Baghdatis said he had seen Schnur, who played college tennis at the University of North Carolina, play in practice and also at events in Asia.
The Day True architectural interiors firm on High Street in Wimbledon Village went all out for their Wimbledon display window – focusing on the four words that helped made 1970s and 1980s star John McEnroe famous.
(Photo by Mauricio Paiz)