People don’t like to hear that the other guy played well – it doesn’t satisfy supporters of the player that lost but whom they believe should have won.
It’s the case for many Canadian fans that they feel it was logical to think 19-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime, ranked No. 22, should have beaten 31-year-old Ernests Gulbis ranked No. 256. But the Latvian was the winner on Tuesday, defeating Auger-Aliassime 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in the opening round of the Australian Open.
It’s possible to go back over all the plot twists of the match such as Auger-Aliassime breaking first at 4-all in the opening set only to lose his own next two service games and the set 7-5.
And then the second which he won, including coming back from love-40 down in the final game to finish it off. He had done the same saving from love-40 in his previous service game and would again trailing 2-1 at the beginning of the third set. At that point Gulbis looked frustrated with his inability to break serve and to also to be flagging somewhat physically. He missed the kind of shots – forehands long because he didn’t have the energy to properly finish the stroke – that seemed to indicate he was tiring.
But he revived and won the pivotal third-set tiebreak. Probably the decisive point was a deft backhand cross-court passing shot that Auger-Aliassime couldn’t handle on the volley. It gave Gulbis the mini-break to 2-1. Two service holds later he was ahead 4-1 and never looked back.
In the fourth set Gulbis, who ended up with 41 winners to 35 for Auger-Aliassime, got the break at 2-all and it proved to be all he needed although he had to fend off a break point leading 4-2 and was pushed to deuce in the final game.
“Going into the (third-set) tiebreak something was off,” Auger-Alassime would say later. “The first few points I didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like it was going to go my way. I tried. I fought but I guess he was just a tiny bit more aggressive and going for it and I was a bit passive. He served well and I didn’t in that tiebreak and that made the difference.”
Auger-Aliassime came into the Australian Open from reaching the semi-finals of the Adelaide tournament and had barely three days to acclimatize to Melbourne.
“I played almost three and a half hours and I feel pretty good,” Auger-Aliassime said after Tuesday’s loss. “Somehow the conditions maybe I wasn’t used to yet. I don’t know for what reason – the balls are the same, the surface is the same (as Adelaide). It was just not coming off my racquet well. On the serve I couldn’t really find my spots and it felt like the balls were heavy. Somehow he was hitting harder than me and pressuring me. For some reason conditions didn’t suit me today.”
On the other side of the net was a player, Gulbis, who had come through three rounds of qualifying and was feeling settled and comfortable. Auger-Aliassime beat Gulbis 7-5, 6-3 on grass in Stuttgart last June, but this was “good Gulbis” by comparison as the No. 20 seed put it.
The Latvian burst on the scene almost a decade ago when he beat Roger Federer 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 at the Italian Open, but he has had a checkered career, including a wrist injury between 2015 and 2017 that affected is ranking – once as high as No. 10 it plummeted as far as No. 589 in July, 2017.
He’s no longer the young hotshot – he’s married, has a child and has the financial means because he comes from one of Latvia’s wealthiest families. But he’s rededicated himself and has made an effort to improve his fitness. It was revealing to hear him speak at his media conference about his feelings after beating Auger-Aliassime at a big event like the Australian Open and in front of a passionate (mostly-pro-Auger-Aliassime) capacity crowd in 3,000-seat 1573 Arena.
“I was very proud, I was very happy,” he said about the win which moves his ranking up from No. 256 to about No. 200 as he continues a quest to get back to into the top-100. “It was even emotional when I was walking back to the locker room. It’s not easy to come back – it’s not easy to play Challengers. These moments are really worth it. I’m really happy – really truly happy about the win today.”
With many Aussie Open reporters suggesting the ATP Cup the first week of January is a reason for some of the first-round upsets and injuries – suggesting it was two rigorous a competition right out of the gate – the Auger-Aliassime loss could be ascribed to another situation. After a generally poor performance – beating unheralded No. 487 Michail Pervolarakis of Greece before losing in straight sets to No. 48 John Millman, No. 35 Jan-Lennard Struff and No. 34 Dusan Lajovic – at the ATP Cup, he found some good form last week at the ATP 250 event in Adelaide. He beat Aussies James Duckworth and Alex Bolt before losing a riveting semi-final 7-6(5), 6-7(7), 6-4 to Andrey Rublev. The 22-year-old Russian has been the hottest player in tennis of late – going 12-0 in his last three events – 4-0 in Davis Cup in Madrid, 4-0 in winning in Doha two weeks ago and 4-0 in winning in Adelaide – and he also won his first round at the Aussie Open on Tuesday evening.
Last Friday night, Auger-Aliassime and Rublev played electrifying tennis for two hour and 59 minutes and the match really could have gone either way. Waiting in the final was No. 91-ranked Lloyd Harris of South Africa who Rublev tuned the next day by a 6-3, 6-0 score.
So Auger-Aliassime would have been a huge favourite in the final to beat Harris, had he beaten Rublev, enabling him to win his first title.
That came out in his final answer at Tuesday’s media conference. He said, “it’s funny, the loss to Rublev is almost more difficult than the loss today. Today it’s just okay that I’m starting to play better in Grand Slams and I missed a chance again. But winning a title is a big goal for me and Adelaide was really close. I think I reacted well to the loss to Rublev but I don’t know if it might have left some after effects. But there’s definitely a double disappointment today.”
Auger-Aliassime has earned respect from near and far for his level-headedness, especially for 19-year-old. “I feel like I’m not far from playing well and winning matches,” he said Tuesday putting things in perspective. “My game was really coming along well in Adelaide – I lost a close one there – and today it’s the kind of match where you win ugly and then who knows what happens. I hung in there so I just I don’t want to lose too much belief over the results of these first tournaments and keep my head up and keep doing what I’m doing well and we’ll see what will happens next.”
His next scheduled event is the ATP 500 event in Rotterdam the week of February 10th.
Side note: Auger-Aliassime wore a really cool shirt for his first match – too bad it won’t be seen on him again at this tournament.
The excellent effort it took for Gulbis to beat Auger-Aliassime shouldn’t be forgotten, and that the luck of the draw plays a huge roll in tournaments every week. Milos Raonic got lucky loser Lorenzo Guistino in the first round and took care of business 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. Had Auger-Alissime had the No. 150-ranked Italian, something of a lightweight, in the first round, he would likely still be in the event.
As it was on Tuesday, Raonic needed just two games and three match points to finish of a match with Giustino that he led 5-2 in the third set on Monday when rain forced postponement.
He learned about two hours before his match Monday that his original opponent No. 48-ranked Radu Albot was pulling out. Although the exact reason is not fully known Raonic said he heard that the Moldovan was unable to serve.
“You know, to start off in that way,” Raonic said about Tuesday’s victory, “especially not having played a lot of matches, to play a pretty clean match and obviously to come back today and be efficient – all of those things are positive.”
He has only played one match – a 7-6(4), 7-6(4) loss to No. 81-ranked Corentin Moutet of France in Doha two weeks ago – since October 30. “It’s something I can build off of,” he said.
On Wednesday, back on Court 19, he will play No. 36-ranked Christian Garin of Chile.
About his expectations, Raonic said, “one match at a time. When you look back at it, it’s almost like (I’ve been) playing sporadically for the last three years. In its own way it’s like a hiatus.
“I have to build myself back up and get some momentum, get some consistency, and then give myself an opportunity. Luckily I have a chance to go out again tomorrow (Wednesday) hopefully with good health and everything and see where I’m at. Then take it day by day that way.”
Leylah Annie Fernandez, just 17, had a terrific run through the qualifying to reach the main draw of the women’s event but she was beaten 6-4, 6-2 on Tuesday by No. 62-ranked Lauren Davis, 26, of the U.S.
Fernandez led 4-3 in the opening set but the 5-foot-2 Davis, who ranked as No. 26 in 2017, had a little too much power and consistency for the Montrealer, now resident in Boynton Beach, Florida.
“She’s a very good player, very powerful for a very petite stature,” Fernandez said about the 5-foot-2 Davis. “She played amazing and I gave away one too many points during the match. I’m happy with the tournament but a little disappointed that I lost in the first round. It’s a good improvement to go through qualies and to be in the main draw for the first time.”
Canada’s Fed Cup team plays in Biel, Switzerland, in two weeks, hoping to earn a spot in April’s Fed Cup Finals in Budapest. Ranked No. 207, Fernandez is currently Canada’s No. 2 player behind No. 6 Bianca Andreescu and ahead of Genie Bouchard No. 212. It’s uncertain now whether Andreescu and/or Bouchard will be available.
“We’re not sure yet,” Fernandez said the possibility of playing Fed Cup. “We’ll see what Heidi (El Tabakh) our captain decides. Hopefully I’ll be able to be going to Fed Cup. If she does call up, I’ll definitely go and represent Canada.”
It would be a second Fed Cup tie for Fernandez. Last April, at just 16, she played in Prostejov, Czech Republic, and lost 6-4, 6-1 to Marketa Vondrousova, who two months later would be the runner-up at the French Open.
In a match that started at 9:45 on Tuesday night and finished two hours later at quarter to midnight, six-foot-11 Ivo Karlovic defeated Vasek Pospisil 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 on Court 22.
Pospisil had won his previous four matches with the 6-foot-11, super-server from Croatia. He actually ‘out-aced’ Karlovic 14-13 and led the winners category 49 to 34. But the key stat was break points converted and the Croat was 2/5 while Pospisil was 0/1.
He’s still in the doubles partnering Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.
Looking for something to do in the next few days in Melbourne? How about checking out ‘The Rise and Fall of St. George’ about the late British pop singer George Michael. Or next month paddling across Port Phillip Bay on the 29th of February – which reminds us that 2020 is a leap year!