Still not out of his teenage years, Félix Auger-Aliassime learned lifetime lessons on Thursday when he was beaten 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-3 by Karen Khachanov in the third round of the Coupe Rogers.
He will never again not know what it’s like to return to his hometown of Montreal and experience fans cheering for him to the point of frenzy. The most delirious moments of the Court Central match on Thursday occurred when he saved two set points trailing 6-4 in the opening-set tiebreak. The first was on a glorious running backhand passing shot winner that had spectators out of their seats and roaring. The second was a less dramatic a 192 km/hr service winner down the middle.
When the players crossed over at 6-6, and after a frustrated Khachanov had belted a ball out of the stadium, the noise level was deafening. “I’ve never heard a stadium shout like that, a sound like that, an atmosphere like that,” Auger-Aliassime would say later. “It was incredible. And when we changed ends at 6-6, I looked around at all the people and there was an energy that came into my legs – it’s the first time I’ve ever felt something like that. It was absolutely incredible.
“I didn’t look at anyone in particular in the crowd except in my team I might see my coaches or my parents. They’re the only ones I look at directly but sometimes I’d come across someone I don’t know at all but you can tell that they’re motivated and sometimes they’re standing.”
Auger-Aliassime would go on to win the tiebreak 9-7 and then break the sixth-seeded Russian in the opening game of the second set on the way to leading 2-0.
At that point it seemed likely that the birthday boy (turning 19 on August 8) would get the present the jammed packed, SRO stadium of 11,715 was hoping for. But gradually Khachanov regained his composure after what he would self-critically describe post-match as “I was doing some bullshit, honestly.”
He got a warning from umpire Mohamed Lahyani for that “b.s.” at the change-over in the first-set tiebreak. But he wasn’t entirely wrong to complain about crowd members yelling “out” from the stands as they almost jumped out of their skins hoping that Khachanov shots would miss. The excitement level was intense and, though the Russian would later say it was more like a soccer crowd, it wasn’t really that bad in comparison to Davis Cup partisans in some nations.
The second set was essentially the turning point of the match. Even though Auger-Aliassime was twice ahead a service break – at 2-0 and 3-2 – the topsy-turvy set eventually went to Khachanov. It was a set with seven of the 12 games being breaks of serve.
The momentum had shifted and when Khachanov broke serve to 3-1 in the third set and then stretched the lead to 4-1, it was pretty obvious who the winner was going to be.
“He played better than me in the third set,” Auger-Aliassime conceded. “I had some trouble getting over the way things worked out in the second set. The day that I’ll be able to mentally get over that as quickly as possible and close out, then maybe I’ll be able to win the third set. But I think the match was mostly decided in the second set when I was twice ahead by a break and I couldn’t hold them.”
The stats were not flattering on a hot afternoon with windy conditions that made things challenging for the players. “I think it was more emotional and mental game than really tennis-wise,” Khachanov commented. “I think we did a lot of unforced errors today due to conditions, windy conditions. That was the reason why maybe we couldn’t play our best tennis.”
The winners to unforced errors ratio was 24/46 for the Russian and 29/52 for Auger-Aliassime in the two hour and 50-minute match.
Both players had 11 aces but Khachanov was in better control of his second serves – hitting just three double faults to 12 for his 19-year-old opponent.
“The whole tournament, previewing his matches, we were wondering if his second serve might become a factor,” said Daniel Nestor, who was inducted into the Montreal Coupe Rogers Hall of Fame on Thursday and also did some television work for Rogers Sportsnet during the week. “It wasn’t really in the first two matches (against Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic), but I guess it was a little bit more today (Thursday).
“I think we can all see that outside of that, Felix is a top-10 player – playing great. He’s knocking on the door whoever he plays against. Too bad because we anticipated he would make a Denis-style run (Shapovalov reached the semi-finals in 2017) in this tournament. If he would have won today, I think his confidence would have only grown. He beat two Canadians in the first rounds. That’s huge for his confidence. Today he was in a position to win.”
Summing up the match, Auger-Aliassime said, “in spite of the difficulties, lots of wind that wasn’t easy for either of us, in spite of everything I think I played well at times in the first set and at the start of the second. Obviously the loss is disappointing but I faced some challenges and I got through some – there were ups and downs. But after these three matches, I can take away some positives. I’ll continue to work on what I end to improve. The journey continues.”
It appears that Auger-Aliassime will remain ranked No. 21 in next Monday’s new ATP rankings, effectively just 25 points (1810 to 1785) behind No. 20 Milos Raonic. But with the 28-year-old Raonic questionable to play in Cincinnati next week – and with him defending 180 points from a quarter-final a year ago and Auger-Aliassime defending none at all – there’s a decent chance the Montrealer could hit the top-20 and replace Raonic as the Canadian No. 1 in two weeks.
At No. 21 currently on his 19th birthday, here’s how Auger-Aliassime stacks up against the four active players, on their 19th birthday, who have ranked No. 1 in their careers.
Novak Djokovic – No. 63 (May 22, 2006)
Roger Federer – No. 40 (August 14, 2000)
Rafael Nadal – No. 3 (June 6, 2005)
Andy Murray – No. 46 (May 15, 2006)
While it’s very possible Murray felt a similar pressure playing at his home tournament at Wimbledon as he rose up the ranks, none of the other three former No. 1s has probably ever been through what Auger-Aliassime has experienced at this year’s Coupe Rogers. He was announced three months ago as playing his opening match on Tuesday afternoon and the session sold out. And media requests and appearance requests have been endless. Fans on site have treated him with an admiration and love similar to what they showed for Roger Federer when the great Swiss played in Montreal two years ago. Mature well beyond his years, Auger-Aliassime has handled himself with impeccable grace and patience through everything.
But still what he has just been through was well beyond even his imagination. “Now that the tournament is over, I can say that the pressure has been enormous,” he admitted. “I can’t hide it, everybody was talking about it. It’s a huge tournament for me. I wanted to play well and not disappoint. There’s big pressure and I think I’ve grown a lot this week. I’ve gotten to know myself better. It’s been an enriching experience and I think it’s good for the rest of this season – and for the years to come. I’ve had a good first week here.”
In April, after he reached the semi-finals of the Miami Open and lost a close match to John Isner, Auger-Aliassime appeared on the wildly-popular Quebec talk show – Tout le monde en parle (everybody’s talking it about it) on Radio-Canada – at just 18 years old and handled himself with remarkable aplomb and intelligence.
At the end of his interview, as is the custom, Dany Turcotte, known as the fou du roi (court jester) on the programme, handed him a small card with pithy words on it and asked him to read it. The words were as follows, “every time you hit a ball, there are millions of Quebeckers who are hitting it with you – together we’re unbeatable.”
That was certainly reinforced by the fantastic support he received over the past three days at the 2019 Coupe Rogers.
Denis Shapovalov and his Indian partner reached the quarter-finals of the Coupe Rogers doubles event on Thursday with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over American Taylor Fritz and Kyle Edmund of Great Britain.
The Coupe Rogers is the fourth event Shapovalov and the 39-year-old Bopanna have played together this year. They have an 8-3 record and reached the final of the ATP 250 in Stuttgart in June.
On Friday, not before 6:30 pm on the Banque Nationale Court, they will face great friends Benoit Paire and Stan Wawrinka.
On a rainy afternoon this week, this group of kids were headed for a swim despite the inclement weather.
(Feature Photo: Sara-Jade Champagne)