Milos Raonic and Félix Auger-Aliassime reached the third round of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships on Wednesday with solid if unspectacular performances.
Raonic, seeded No. 15, got better as the match went on, defeating No. 76-ranked Robin Haase 7-6(1), 7-5, 7-6(4). It was much the same story with 19th-seeded Auger-Aliassime as he gradually took control to beat No. 84 Corentin Moutet 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
While nothing is etched in stone, those results could possibly signal a changing of the guard in Canadian tennis. For the first time since 2010, Milos Raonic is not the No. 1 Canadian player in the ATP rankings – or at least not in the ‘live’ ATP rankings which are updated round-by-round during tournaments unlike the official ATP rankings which come out year round on Mondays.
At the moment (with last year’s Wimbledon results wiped off), Auger-Aliassime has 1715 points to 1675 for Raonic, meaning he’s ranked No. 19 while Raonic is No. 21. Auger-Aliassime will maintain a better ranking unless Raonic goes at least one round further than him at this year’s Wimbledon.
There’s another result of Wednesday’s outcomes – Auger-Aliassime becomes only the third Canadian – Raonic was the first in 2012 and Denis Shapovalov did likewise in April – to break into the Top 20.
Raonic has been as high as No. 3 in 2016 and Shapovalov reached No. 20 on April 1st three months ago. But no other Canadians have achieved top-20 status since the ATP instituted its computer rankings in 1973. Vasek Pospisil came the closest when he got as high as No. 25 in 2014.
“He’s been playing well and I haven’t been playing (much) tennis,” Raonic said when told that Auger-Aliassime, at least temporarily, has moved ahead of him. “I’ve never concentrated that much on being the No. 1 Canadian because when I was coming up things were nothing like they are now.”
What they are now is that Canada has Raonic as a well-established Grand Slam tournament contender and Auger-Aliassime, 18, and Shapovalov, 20, as the most promising 20-and-under players in the world along with current world No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.
On Wednesday, Raonic, who is still getting over a back problem, started slowly and played a horrible game – four unforced errors – to lose serve at 5-all in the first set against Haase. He was vulnerable but at 15-all in the next game serving for the set, the 32-year-old Dutchman tried a drop shot that Raonic ran down and wound up winning the point. Haase injured himself slightly as he fell near the net but shook it off. He ended up losing the game and seemed to let the lost opportunity linger in the eventual tiebreak as he quickly fell behind 3-0 (two mini-breaks) and finally lost it 7-1. He later told Dutch reporters he regretted the choice of that drop shot at a key moment as he tried to serve out the set.
Asked if he would try a “tricky” shot like a drop shot in a situation like that, Raonic said, “I definitely wouldn’t try a tricky shot – but he has better hands than I do in that respect. I think I stick more to specific patterns. I believe in things I work on.”
Raonic appeared a little stiff early with his ongoing back concerns but he managed it better as the match progressed – dispensing with some tape (see above) after a few games in the first set. “I warmed up,” he said. “I had tape on it just like my first round. But it felt a bit too restrictive.”
He said it took a while to get used to no tape because he had been practising with it on for several days. “It just limits that last range where sort of the shoulder comes forward a bit more on the follow-through of the serve where I was a bit vulnerable last week,” he explained. “It wasn’t really to protect anything, but just as a ‘just in case.’”
The back – taped or un-taped – didn’t seem to affect his serve. He hit 32 aces, had a fastest serve of 142 mph and made 63 per cent of first serves, won 83 per cent of first serve points and 74 per cent of second-serve points.
There was another injury worry for Raonic. Trailing 5-4 in the third set, he had the trainer on court to deal with a lower left leg issue. “I just pulled my calf a bit in that moment,” he said. “I just got it treated and it didn’t cause much trouble after that.” Asked if it might linger, he suggested, “we will see how I wake up tomorrow – but I don’t think it should.”
Next up for Raonic will be Reilly Opelka, the 6-foot-11 American who defeated No. 22-seed Stan Wawrinka 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6 on Wednesday.
The 2015 Wimbledon junior boys champion and Raonic have not played each other. Raonic got a chance to watch bits of the Opelka – Wawrinka match and said, “Stan had, from what I heard, had quite a few chances (only 2/12 on break points) – didn’t make the most of them. But it wasn’t really so much on Stan. It was more Reilly was coming up with the right things in the right moments.
“Hopefully, I can put him in those situations and keep challenging him to do so.”
The former Toronto Blue Jays baseball star Jose Bautista (above hand on hat) of the Dominican Republic was a guest of Raonic in the Court 3 stadium. “It’s the second time he’s come out to a match,” Raonic said. “ He came out to the US Open a couple of years ago when I played that fourth round against (Richard) Gasquet on Court 17 (the Frenchman won 7-5 in the 5th set in 2013). He’s a top-level professional and I respect him a lot.”
Asked if Bautista would be back for his next match as a good-luck charm, Raonic smiled and said, “He’s heading home tomorrow. I don’t know if I’m going to offer to change his ticket for him. Those baseball contracts are a little bit bigger than tennis contracts.”
Auger-Aliassime is never shy about admitting about feeling nerves. In fact he considers it a normal part of playing tennis at any level – including even as far back as when he was 10 years old.
In the first set against Moutet, he was a little tight and fortunate to come out on top as the 20-year-old qualifier had five break points and failed to convert any of them before Auger-Aliassime belted a forcing forehand that got a Moutet backhand reply into the net to give him a break and a 4-2 lead.
Auger-Aliassime served out the set to 30 in the ninth game and began to take control in the second set.
Then he had a rare bit of temper – smashing his racquet down on his racquet bag at a change-over and watching as it deflected into the air. “It was a little bit of frustration,” he explained later. “I had the lead in the second set and I lost it playing badly. I showed my frustration – it’s not ideal but then I was able to get it together and play well. It’s just the kind of thing that can happen.”
The match played on the same Court 3 as Raonic – Haase was thoroughly entertaining. Moutet, a lefthander, is only 5-foot-9 but he is something of a wizard with the racquet. He can hit every shot and at one point showed a bit of magic in the way he disguised a lob he was going to hit – shifting his hand placement at the very last minute before making contact with the ball.
“He’s improved a lot,” Auger-Aliassime said about Moutet. “I played him last year in a Challenger in Lyon (France) and I won 6-2, 6-2. I felt he’s a completely different player. He was holding the ball very well and moving it around and being very aggressive. In the end I was able to maybe serve a little better and find a way to victory. That’s positive.”
As many matches do, the break points stat was important – Auger-Aliassime converting 5/13 while Moutet was 2/14.
The evenness of many of the exciting rallies is confirmed by the stat that both players had 40 unforced errors and were also close on winners – Auger-Aliassime winning that category – 41-36. Most critically he won 56 per cent of second serve points to just 36 per cent for Moutet.
Auger-Aliassime’s ace count was nine, balanced by nine double faults – a number he will want to reduce in his future matches.
Next he will play another Frenchman – 21-year-old Ugo Humbert. The 6-foot-2 Humbert ranks No. 66 and is playing in his third Grand Slam tournament – having lost to No. 36-ranked Jeremy Chardy at the 2019 Australian Open and to No. 109 Alexei Popyrin at Roland Garros in May. To reach the third round of Wimbledon he beat No. 16 seed Gael Monfils 6-7(5), 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 3-0 ret. and No. 105-ranked qualifier Marcel Granollers 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-5.
There was an amusing moment during Auger-Aliassime’s media conference when a French radio reporter asked him where in the Netherlands he had played a junior match against Humbert a few years ago. It almost seemed like a senior moment as Auger-Aliassime paused and thought hard for a full 10 seconds. Then he impressed the assembled reporters by coming up with the name – recalling that it was in Castricum and that he had lost 6-2, 6-2, It was a final of a grade 2 ITF junior event in 2015.
There was a little more joking around when Auger-Aliassime was asked about his piano-playing ability compared to Moutet and Humbert, who are both also adept at the keyboard.
Who’s the best of the three of them? “Humbert is the best – definitely,” he said. “I’ve seem both of them play and Humbert plays really, really well. He plays classical and popular. I saw him play once when we were juniors.”
When a wiseacre reporter asked him if he would be intimidated against Humbert because of his superior piano-playing skill, Auger-Aliassime just smiled and replied, “I don’t think so.”
Two Canadians advanced to the second of the Wimbledon doubles on Wednesday.
Gabriela Dabrowski, seeded No. 4 in the women’s event with Chinese partner Xu Yifan, scored a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Ons Jabeur of Tunisia and Fanny Stollar of Hungary.
On the men’s side in a match-up of unseeded pairs, Vasek Pospisil and Matthew Ebden of Australia beat Serbians Filip Krajinovic and Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Wimbledon Common is a huge park-like area to the west of the All England Club after a good hike up a variety of different roads. There’s a lot of just barren grass on the Common where people to go to rest, relax, play games, eat, bird watch and walk dogs. Combined with adjoining Putney Heath and Putney Lower Common, it totals an impressive 460 hectares.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)