For months tennis-loving Montrealers had circled August 6 on their calendars for the return of their prodigal son, Félix Auger-Aliassime, to the Coupe Rogers. Centre Court at Stade IGA had been sold to capacity – 11,715 spectators – as well as accommodating several dozen more who bought standing room and stood above the 300-level.
What they saw was Auger-Aliassime defeat fellow-Canadian Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 6-7(3), 7-6(3) in two hours and 33-minutes of a confrontation that was more great battle than great match. That was two years after Auger-Aliassime was unable to make his Coupe Rogers debut because of a left-wrist injury.
Both players served well – Auger-Aliassime making 69 per cent of his first serves and Pospisil 70 per cent and then respectively winning 83 per cent and 75 per cent of those points.
That was especially the case in the last two sets when there was not a single break point either way after Auger-Aliassime was 3/3 on break chances in the first set and Pospisil was 1/1.
Auger-Aliassime started well but Pospisil was probably a little hesitant on the backhand side after a left-wrist injury had restricted his preparation. “I didn’t hit a backhand for three weeks,” he said. “I mean, just two days ago was the first time. I had a wrist issue. I need to work on that side a little bit. The first set I was afraid to hit the ball. Kind of cost me some quick breaks there. I was a little bit defensive. I tried to impose my game a little bit more in the second and third sets.”
The lack of extended rallies gave the match a bit of a disjointed feel, with many rallies almost over before they began and the Montreal crowd not quite as passionate and vocal, on the hot, muggy afternoon, as it can often be for a home favourite.
It was also windy but Pospisil looked elsewhere for an explanation for the somewhat choppy action. “I think we were both serving pretty well,” he said. “I think it’s more the serves than the wind.”
Pospisil stepped up his game in the second set and it was impressive for a guy just playing only his second ATP Tour level match since back surgery in January. He took the tiebreak with some good serving and bit of misfortune for Auger-Aliassime after he lost a point midway through when one of his strings broke.
The third set seemed inexorably headed for a tiebreak until the eighth game with Auger-Aliassime ahead 4-3 and Pospisil serving. The 29-year-old from Vancouver landed awkwardly after a serve and looked to be struggling with cramps. Later he would reveal that at times he had cramps in the calf, quads, wrist and upper hamstring.
Auger-Aliassime got to deuce from 40-15 when Pospisil double-faulted and missed a forehand, looking particularly vulnerable. But an Auger-Aliassme misfire on the backhand and Pospisil summoning the energy to belt an ace, made it four games apiece.
The main crisis point in the match for Auger-Aliassime then occurred when he fell behind love-30 in the next game and it looked like Pospisil’s misfortune might turn out to be a distraction that rattled Auger-Aliassime. But a couple of misses by Pospisil and an ace and a service winner from Auger-Aliassime and he won four points in a row to get back in the lead at 5-4.
In the eventual tiebreak that decided the match, the players traded early mini-breaks before an inspired passing shot by Auger-Aliassime gave him the separation he needed to go on and win it 7-3. He was up 3-2, with Pospisil serving and approaching the net, when he hit a glorious backhand passing shot that rocketed straight down-the-line for a winner. The crowd went wild, revved up by Auger-Aliassime’s brilliant shot. He only lost one more point in the tiebreak.
“When your back is against the wall, you usually show up with something good,” Auger-Aliassime would later say about that nervy moment when he trailed love-30 at 4-all in the final set. “I think in any case in life, that’s what you do.
“If you look at a lot of players, especially great players, whenever they need to, they usually play good points…serve well. I think I found that extra energy in me to serve well those four points and get that game. I think you don’t really think about it, but instinctively you play good points.”
As for Pospisil, his view of the denouement of the match was, “he (Auger-Aliassime) played a good breaker at the end, to be honest. I mean physically I could have been better. I think he was better physically than me – that’s for sure. That definitely made a difference at the end of the match. I mean, he also stepped up, played a little bit more aggressive that last breaker – that last five minutes of the match.”
Regarding his cramps, Pospisil explained that he took Hotshot – an organic anti-cramps sports drink. “I could feel it coming in the middle of the third set,” he said about the cramps. “I took one, I don’t know, it was like 2-all or something. I started cramping anyway, so I took another one. Then I started, like, throwing up, so…yeah, it’s tough on the stomach.”
Despite the loss, Pospisil, having gotten over the left wrist problem and a knee issue that hung around during Wimbledon and even a back niggle that he was treated for during his doubles match with Auger-Aliassime on Monday afternoon, played at a very impressive level – as well as he has in the last three years he suggested.
He will head west for the VanOpen Challenger event at the Hollyburn Country Club in Vancouver next week.
Next for Auger-Aliassime will be a 6:30 Wednesday evening match-up with No. 1-ranked Canadian Milos Raonic. Currently No. 19, Raonic won the only previous meeting between the two – 6-4, 6-4 in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells (after Auger-Aliassime’s first career ATP Tour match win in the previous round over Pospisil.) That was 17 months ago when Auger-Aliassime was ranked No. 169 and Raonic was No. 38.
Looking ahead to the match, on the eve of his 19th birthday, Auger-Aliassime said, “I wasn’t at this level – it was my second main draw and my first in a Masters 1000. I just wasn’t at Milos’ level, and he mostly dominated me. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is a completely different scenario and I’m a different player. He’s a player that’s very difficult to play – he doesn’t give you very much rhythm. Sometimes you’ll go through a whole game without touching the ball or not making many returns. What’s good is that I had a good match against a similar style of player when I beat (7-foot Reilly) Opelka (6-4, 3-6, 6-4) in Washington last week. If I can make use of some of that as bearings, then maybe that can make a difference.”
Also in action Wednesday will be No. 31-ranked Denis Shapovalov as he plays No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem. The 25-year-old Austrian won their only previous meeting 6-2, 6-3 on hard court in Acapulco in February, 2018.
Thiem comes in after winning the Kitzbuhel ATP 250 title in his home country of Austria on Saturday. He told a European reporter that it was a tough challenge to play before 13,000 compatriots trying to win his first tournament in his own country. He felt the pressure and suggested Shapovalov could feel a similar pressure when they meet in the second match of the afternoon session at Stade IGA on Wednesday. Thiem has serious baggage when it comes to the Rogers Cup event – he has a 0-5 record in five previous appearances at Canada’s premier event. It’s something he’s all too aware of.
Shapovalov has been buoyed by his impressive 6-3, 7-5 victory over Pierre-Hugues Herbert on Monday evening – a win that ended his five-match losing streak. He further got his spirits boosted on Tuesday when he and partner Rohan Bopanna of India upset fourth-seeded Frenchmen Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin 4-6, 6-1, [10-6] in a first-round doubles match.
On Wednesday, Montreal spectators will be solidly behind Shapovalov – many of whom were present when he had his sensational run to the Coupe Rogers semi-final in 2017.
His good friend Auger-Aliassime certainly had their support on Tuesday against Pospisil. “In the important moments, I was able to get the crowd behind me,” Auger-Aliassime said, “so that was positive. But you’re just proud and happy to see two Canadians giving everything they had for two and a half hours. I think we had a good battle and I thought the crowd was very fair with Vasek, which was nice to see.”
Post-match on Tuesday, Auger-Aliassime spent about 20 minutes fulfilling various obligations on court and then 10 minutes signing autographs and doing selfies before he finally made it to the shelter of the locker room.
It’s a pleasant walk through Jarry Park next to Stade IGA where the Coupe Rogers is played. The park is large and a playground for many activities – including just sauntering along as these people were doing on Tuesday on their way to the tennis.