The second Monday of the Wimbledon fortnight is widely viewed as the greatest day in the tennis year. It features the round-of-16 in both the men’s and women’s singles draws – so all the remaining players in the competition are in action.
On Friday, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Milos Raonic will play for a spot in the Monday madness. Raonic has been involved in that frantic activity four times, including in each of the last three years. For the 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime, it would of course be a first because he will only be playing his fourth Grand Slam match when he faces No. 66-ranked Ugo Humbert of France in the third match on No. 1 Court. Raonic plays American Reilly Opelka first match at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET in Canada) on Court 12 in a first meeting between the two massive servers.
Auger-Aliassime, already ranked No. 21 and up to No. 19 in the ‘live’ ATP rankings, is the darling of Wimbledon 2019, especially with the early exits of No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem, No. 6 Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Things have gone a little crazy – a word that Auger-Aliassime himself used to describe it after his first-round win on Monday – and now he is actually the fourth favourite to win the title with prestigious London bookmaker Ladbrokes. On Thursday, Novak Djokovic was top favourite at 10/11 followed by Roger Federer 3/1, Rafael Nadal 13/2 and Auger-Aliassime 25/1. The other player he’s equal with at 25/1 is none other than his compatriot and the 2016 Wimbledon finalist, Raonic.
It’s always dangerous to look ahead but, examining the possibilities for Centre Court matches on Monday, there’s a strong chance Auger-Aliassime could be in one of the two men’s matches expected to be played on the hallowed grass of the ne plus ultra tennis stadium in the world. If they both win on Friday, it would be top seed and defending champion Djokovic against Auger-Aliassime – with the other possibilities for Monday’s marquee men’s singles Centre Court matches likely being Roger Federer vs. Matteo Berrettini and Rafael Nadal vs. Joao Sousa.
It’s obvious that Auger-Aliassime’s rapid rise at such a young age has created a lot of buzz. With both he and Djokovic on No. 1 Court on Friday, logically the defending champion Serb would be back on 14,979-seat Centre Court on Monday – meaning Auger-Aliassime would make his main Grand Slam stadium debut then if both players advance on Friday.
The biggest court Auger-Aliassime has played on so far in his Grand Slam career is the 8,125-seat Grandstand at the US Open when he had to retire in the third set of his first round last year against good friend Denis Shapovalov. He did defeat Tsitsipas in 16,100-seat Stadium 1 at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March.
Raonic is likely not a candidate for Centre Court if he gets past Opelka on Friday. The ‘sexiest’ match-up for him Monday would be against last year’s runner-up, 4th-seeded Kevin Anderson, who has a Centre Court date on Friday against Guido Pella.
First things first – it’s Auger-Aliassime playing Humbert on Friday. The left-handed Frenchman is 6-foot-2 and plays an aggressive game. He hits the ball flat and one veteran French reporter claimed his style resembles former top French player Guy Forget, a serve-and-volley, net-rushing competitor who’s now the French Open tournament director.
Humbert, 21, had never played on grass before this year and has now accumulated nine singles matches and three doubles matches on the surface so far in 2019.
He has a stylish game with a good serve and a strong backhand. In a year, he has made quite a rise up the rankings, from No. 290 just 12 months ago to his current No. 66 – having peaked at No. 61 in May.
Auger-Aliassime and Humbert know each other well, having played in the juniors and practised with each other before the Lyon ATP 250 clay-court event in May – where Auger-Aliassime finished as runner-up and Humbert lost to Shapovalov in the second round.
Humbert will be a tricky opponent for Auger-Aliassime who played well in the same situation as a favourite in his last match on Wednesday against another left-handed Frenchman, Corentin Moutet.
After beating the No. 84-ranked Moutet 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, Auger-Aliassime was asked by a reporter if he was the kind of player who looked ahead – and if he knew who he would play if he won his next match. “I know who I play if I win, but not further than that,” he replied. “So I know if I win I could play Novak.”
Then with the precocious common sense that is very much a part of in his make-up, he added with a smile, “I think once the match gets going you’re already in enough trouble on the court – you don’t really think of what could happen.”
A Monday match-up on Centre Court against the four-time champion and world No. 1 would be quite something – but Djokovic still has to beat impressive 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz of Poland to keep his end of the bargain.
While most of the excitement focuses on Auger-Aliassime at this Wimbledon, the 28-year-old Raonic has moved into the third round without losing a set in matches against No. 93-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran of Indian and No. 76 Robin Haase of the Netherlands.
Hopefully with his back and left calf issues under control, he’s now prepared for his clash against the 6-foot-11 (possibly 7-foot) Opelka. The 21-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida, has beaten Cedrik-Marcel Stebe and No. 22 seed Stan Wawrinka – by a roller-coaster score of 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6 – in his two previous rounds.
The No. 63-ranked Opelka and No. 17 Raonic are second and third respectively in the ATP Tour serving statistics against top-20 players. Opelka has won 90.3 per cent of his service games and served an average of 23.3 aces per match while Raonic has won 87 per cent of his service games and hit 20.7 aces per match.
Of all the 6-foot-10 and taller big belters – Ivo Karlovic and John Isner are charter members of the club – Opelka looks the most natural moving on the court. Many Canadians are familiar with him after he beat Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., 6-1, 6-7(7), 7-6(7) to win the final of the indoor New York Open in February.
“He goes for it,” Raonic said about Opelka. “He tries to keep you off balance. He’s hard to get a rhythm on because not only does he finish things off pretty quickly with his serve and getting ahead that way, but he’s constantly swinging for his other shots. He doesn’t really hold back.”
Raonic (above carrying out grass-court shoes before Wednesday’s match) is 26-8 at Wimbledon while Opelka, the 2015 Wimbledon junior boys champion, is playing for the first time at the All England Club in the men’s singles and has won his first two matches.
Raonic will go with his tried-and-true mantra as his approach to the third-round encounter. “It’s going to be about who can be the one that can control the centre of the court and find a way to effectively be the aggressor first in the points,” he said.
Talking about his victory Wednesday over Wawrinka, Opelka said, “It’s a huge win. More so the situation of the match being down two sets to one against him (Wawrinka). Break points the first game in the fourth set – that’s tough obviously. He easily could have walked away with that in four sets. But I’m just proud of how I competed and how I handled the big moments of the match.”
Opelka was 3/10 on break-point conversions while Wawrinka was 2/12 – small margins.
About playing Raonic and his vaunted serve and overall big game, Opelka said, “Fortunately I have seen it a few times already playing Anderson, Isner, (Sam) Querrey. There so many guys now that are similar, similar styles, big guys, big serves.
“Obviously he’s been a really good player on grass and he’s done well, especially at Wimbledon. He’s the favourite. He’s has more experience here. Just allows me to play free – you know, trust my game.”
There remains some question of exactly how tall Opelka is – and he didn’t do much to shed light on the matter Wednesday when he said in reply to a question, “I have answered this question, like 150 times. It’s the same as it was yesterday, and I don’t know – close 6′-11″, 7′-0″. Not sure.”
A walk around the roads, streets and avenues of Wimbledon – London SW19 – will afford a visitor a look at a lot of pricey homes and, like the one here, many are located behind brick walls or iron gates.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)