Friday was an idyllic day at the All England Lawn Tennis Club – lovely, sunny weather with players spread out all over the grounds tuning up for the biggest event of the tennis year.
On Court 11 in the late morning, Félix Auger-Aliassime practised with Alex de Minaur, the 20-year-old Aussie who actually was the last player to beat him at Wimbledon – in the junior boys quarter-finals in 2016.
They played games and Auger-Aliassime didn’t always seem pleased with his performance – getting a little angry at himself at times. The points were often decided by a big serve or a missed return and extended rallies were the exception rather than the rule.
The 2002 Wimbledon champion, Lleyton Hewitt, was keeping an eye on his Aussie compatriot de Minaur as can be seen in the picture above. Hewitt, 38, is in the men’s doubles playing with compatriot Jordan Thompson, 25.
Auger-Aliassime knew while practising that he had drawn his fellow-countryman Vasek Pospisil as a first-round opponent this year. Pospisil, who has not played since last October when he retired with a back injury from a match at the Paris Indoor against Benoit Paire, had back surgery in January. He was supposed to return, using a protected ranking, to action last week in Eastbourne but had a little knee issue which his camp says has since been taken care of after some sessions with his physio.
There will be a certain irony if Auger-Aliassime is able to defeat Pospisil. Last year, at 17, in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open, he got his first victory on the ATP tour, beating Pospisil 6-2, 7-6(4) in the main-draw opening round after qualifying. If he eliminates the 29-year-old from Vancouver in the opening-round match on Monday, Auger-Aliassime will also have earned his first victory at a Grand Slam event – again over Pospisil.
And here’s a question for ATP Tour stats guru Greg Sharko – has a player ever reached No. 21 in the ATP rankings or been seeded No. 19 at a Grand Slam event, as FAA is at Wimbledon, without having completed a single match in a Grand Slam tournament main draw? Auger-Aliassime qualified and played in the first round of the US Open last August but had to retire in the third set of his match against Denis Shapovalov with the score 7-5, 5-7, 4-1 ret. Since then he has skyrocketed up the rankings – but has done so with only 35 of his 1,654 ranking points coming from qualifying at a Grand Slam, namely that 2018 US Open.
Late Friday, Sharko said it’s tricky to do all the research about Auger-Aliassime’s achievement but added that he would try to “mull it over.”
The 2019 draw ceremony on Friday – conducted by referee Andrew Jarrett and club chief executive Richard Lewis above – also determined the fates of two other Canadians.
While Auger-Aliassime is seeded 19, Milos Raonic is seeded 15th and will play No. 94-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran. The 29-year-old Indian is more a baseliner than a net player so Raonic will hope to impose his big-hitting game with the accent on moving forward. Asked about where his tennis is at the moment, Raonic replied, it is “getting there’ in a brief conversation on Friday. As in the past, the 28-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., is again residing in Wimbledon, not much more than a block away from the club.
Raonic, who practised with Rafael Nadal early on Friday, is playing his ninth Wimbledon and has a record of 24-8 highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2016 and a semi-final in 2014.
Shapovalov, the 2016 junior boys champion, won a round a year ago before losing to Benoit Paire in four sets after winning the opener 6-0.
For what it’s worth, the 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., has won three matches at the Boodles exhibition in Stoke Park west of London this week – beating Fabio Fognini on Tuesday. Novak Djokovic on Wednesday and Tomas Berdych on Thursday.
The first-round opponent for the 29th-seeded Shapovalov on Tuesday will be No. 74-ranked Ricardas Berankis, 29, of Lithuania. In the second round, Shapovalov could face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with third seed Nadal possibly looming in the third round.
Genie Bouchard, currently ranked No. 79, is playing her seventh Wimbledon. The 25-year-old’s best previous performance was five years ago when she lost in the final to Petra Kvitova. Bouchard will play her opening match on Tuesday against No. 59-ranked Tamara Zidansek. The 21-year-old Slovenian has lost in the qualifying the past two years at Wimbledon but earlier this month she won the WTA 125K event on clay in Bol, Croatia.
There could be another Canadian in the singles draws. Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., lost in the final round of qualifying 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 to No. 125-ranked Salvatore Caruso of Italy. But his name came out first in the draw of the four highest-ranked last round of qualifying losers so he will be the first player into the draw if there are one or more withdrawals.
Schnur, pictured here with his coach – Elliot Carnello of Sweden – was asked if he knew of anyone who might be pulling out. “The only one I can think of is (Cedrik-Marcel) Stebe, a German guy. No one really knows him that well that I’ve talked to, so I’m not really sure what his status is. Besides that, everyone that I thought ‘maybe’ has been here.”
Now he has to wait around until the end of Tuesday and hope that someone elects not to play. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed until then and hope that someone pulls out a little bit earlier than Monday or Tuesday so I’ll know what’s happening before (playing),” Schnur said. “But if it happens Monday or Tuesday I’ll just be grateful to get in.” It would his first Grand Slam event in the main draw.
Asked about the seemingly one-sided score in his final round of qualifying loss to Caruso, Schnur said: “He’s good, but I definitely didn’t play nearly my best. It was a rough day yesterday (Thursday) for me. He’s been playing really well – obviously had a very good Roland Garros (qualified and beat Jaume Munar and Gilles Simon before losing 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 to top seed Novak Djokovic). The grass courts are playing very slow – not like the other grass courts I’ve played on here before. That’s why there were a bunch of surprise results in the qualies actually. A lot of clay-courters or grinders are coming though qualies.”
Schnur reassured that he is “100 per cent fit right now.”
Most of the players practice at the Aorangi courts at the north end of the Wimbledon grounds, but some use the front courts at the AELTC as Auger-Aliassime and de Minaur did Friday on Court 11. Above that’s Sloane Stephens on the near side on Court 8 practising with Maria Sakkari of Greece.
A trip up to the Aorangi courts revealed that the first two courts on the upper level have been converted into a warm-up, workout area – something along the lines of the grass lawn at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Djokovic spent a lot of time there on Friday, being helped by his trainer Gebhard Gritsch. Here he’s mimicking the overhead motion.
Alongside the new workout area, Andy Murray was seated unobtrusively on a bench casually doing an interview. Murray will play men’s doubles with Pierre-Hugues Herbert but has still not made up his mind about the mixed event. Apparently some members of his team aren’t convinced playing the mixed would be the wisest decision for the 32-year-old, two-time Wimbledon champion. On the subject of doubles, Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner Xu Yifan of China are seeded fourth in the women’s event and the only other Canadian in doubles is Pospisil – teaming up with Matthew Ebden of Australia.
New WTA No. 1 Ashleigh Barty got in two practice session on Friday – the second was at Aorangi and in the background here you might spy Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan on a lower level behind her court.
In case you wonder how they calibrate a court for the Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling system – it involves putting these markers all over the court, as is being done Friday on Centre Court.