Three Canadian boys in the third round of the French Open junior singles event is a first. It’s also noteworthy because all three have at least one year of junior eligibility remaining – Félix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal is just 15 (turning 16 on Roger’s Federer’s birthday August 8th), Denis Shapovalov of Mississauga, Ont., is 17 and Benjamin Sigouin of Vancouver will be 17 on Friday (Rafael Nadal’s birthday – the Spaniard will turn 30).
As well, with the so-called Big Four of men’s tennis (Federer – 6-foot-1, Nadal – 6-foot-1, Novak Djokovic – 6-foot-2 and Andy Murray – 6-foot-3) this new Canadian threesome all fall within or exceed those stats. Auger-Aliassime says he’s 6-foot-2 but is probably an inch taller. Shapovalov is at least 6-foot-1 and Sigouin is 6-foot-3 going on 6-foot-4.
The three are compatible and inspire each other. “It’s nice to see your friends doing well,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think it motivates us all. We motivate each other to try to make Canada proud.”
Though the youngest of the group, Auger-Aliassime was the ground-breaker last year when he won two matches in the Challenger event in Granby, Que., at just 14 – becoming the youngest player in history to record a match victory at the Challenger level.
He has continued to improve and was the runner-up at an ITF Futures event in Spain earlier this month, helping move his ATP ranking to No. 619.
On Court 15 on Wednesday, he got off to a slow start before coming back to beat 18-year-old Orlando Luz of Brazil of Brazil 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
“Maybe I had a little trouble at the beginning, especially returning serve,” Auger-Aliassime said. “But I got adjusted and had better trajectories in the other two sets, and I started to move further into the court. Once I found my rhythm and started to be more aggressive, I was ok.”
Auger-Aliassime hit seven aces in his win.
In the media conference afterward, a French tennis writer asked him if he was aware that the French like to always be up-to-date on the latest hot prospects, and if he had felt that since being at Roland Garros.
“I had heard before I came here that talented young players get lots of attention,” he replied. “Yes I’m aware of that but you try to be concentrated on other things – on the tournament. That’s a secondary thing.
“I’m known a little bit in Canada in the tennis milieu. It’s a nice thing but you still stay the same, be a good person with your head on your shoulders. It’s a long road and there’s lot of work to do.”
He learned something about that back in January when he was the fourth seed in the Australian Open junior event but was upset in the third round 7-5, 6-2 by 15th-seeded Kenneth Raisma of Estonia. It was a surprise result after all the build-up surrounding him. The left-handed, top-spinning Raisma, unseeded at Roland Garros, went out in the first round here in Paris.
“It was a good lesson,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It made me think a bit and it also made me realize that the other players are kind of waiting for me more at tournaments. I have to adapt. I think it’s a good thing in my progression.”
If he is to progress further in the boys singles at the 2016 French Open he will have to overcome Djurabeck Karimov of Uzbekistan, the runner-up at the Australian Open in January.
Junior rankings and seedings can often be misleading – Karimov is seeded 8th to Auger-Aliassime’s No. 11.
“I’ve seen him play a few times but I’ve never played him,” Auger-Aliassime said on Wednesday about Karimov who will be playing on his 18th birthday. “I saw him play a bit today. He goes for his shots, moves well and has a good serve, so he’ll be a good opponent.”
As for his immediate goals, Auger-Aliassime said, “in terms of results, of course I’d like to win a junior Grand Slam title and also to keep accumulating points on the pro tour and maybe win a first Futures title.”
As regards Futures titles, Shapovalov has Auger-Aliassime beaten having won three, all in the U.S., already this year.
On Wednesday he moved into the third round at Roland Garros with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Patrik Rikl of Czech Republic.
“I started off pretty rough (losing the first two games),” Shapovalov said. “I haven’t been playing a lot the past few days because of all this rain. I was a little bit tight on my shots and I went down pretty quick. But I managed to turn it around and gain some more confidence in my strokes and managed to pull through pretty easily.”
Asked about his progress – including reaching an ATP ranking of No. 400 – over the past year, he said, “I think mentally I’m figuring out my problems on the court way better. I’ve matured as a player and also I just think overall I’ve improved my strokes, my all-round game.”
About the terre battue on this side of the ocean, Shapovalov said, “I’m definitely getting better on it, my goal is to improve on clay and it would greatly help my game. I’m hoping to continue to play a lot of red clay tournaments and do well in them.”
One of his Futures titles this year was on Har-Tru, also known as ‘green clay,’ in Florida. “The red clay is a little bit different,” he said. “It’s slower and also in Europe it’s a lot tougher because the Europeans grow up on clay. As for me I grew up on hard courts so it’s different.”
He has to make a conscious adjustment. “You tell yourself to be more patient during the points, ‘don’t try to go for a winner off the second shot,’” he said. “On clay I have to figure out my opponents more whereas on hard courts I can hit a big serve, hit a big forehand and people aren’t going to reach it. On clay courts, because they’re going to reach it, I have to figure out their weaknesses, figure out what’s working for me that day and what’s not working and go from there.”
On his recent trip to Italy, he learned of another obstacle he may have to overcome. “The problem is that when I go to Italy my allergies get pretty bad,” he said. “It’s just the pollen there. I was struggling there a lot. But here I seem to be doing fine with my allergies so it’s all good.”
In the third round Shapovalov, seeded fifth, will play No. 9 Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia.
“He’s a very good player,” Shapovalov said about the 16-year-old Serb who trains in Bradenton, Fla. “I played him once in the Futures final and I beat him 7-6 in the third so it was a very good match. I’m just looking forward to having fun out there and playing a good match again.”
The full score of that final in April was 7-5, 2-6, 7-6(6) and the Futures event was played on Har-Tru in Orange Park, Florida.
Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime won the US Open junior doubles title last year but didn’t play together at the Australian Open in January because Shapovalov didn’t make the trip. So they are on a Grand Slam winning streak and kept it going by defeating Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves of Brazil and Ryan James Storrie of Britain 6-4, 6-4 in the opening-round match on Wednesday.
Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov are the second seeds.
Benjamin Sigouin, who turns 17 on Friday, made it three Canadian victories in the junior boys event on Wednesday when he beat No. 12 seed Jurij Rodionov of Austria 6-4, 6-3.
It was the eighth win in a row for Sigouin as he followed up on his title at the Charleroi, Belgium ITF junior tournament last week.
Speaking about the rain delays earlier in the week and a rain-interrupted first-round match on Tuesday, Sigouin said, “two days was kind of ridiculous so I was happy to go on and play the whole match.”
About his preparation for matches, particularly in rain delay situations, he said. “I have some good friends in the locker room and that kind of keeps my mind off waiting. I try to spend a lot of time with other people, not so much time alone. But when it comes near the match I go in my corner with music and get ready.”
Sigouin has been inspired by Auger-Aliassime’s success. “I’m really close with him and we practice a lot,” he said. “I’m definitely happy for him, not surprised that he’s doing so great because he’s been practicing hard. Hitting with him I can improve a lot, so it’s all good.
“We have really competitive practices so I know that if he can do it in matches I’ve got to find a way to do it myself.”
Auger-Aliassime was equally praiseful of Sigouin, saying, “he’s a really a nice guy and he knows what he wants to do. He works really hard in practice and is a model for all our players at a national level. Like all of us, he’s really motivated and is one of the best players we have in the country at the moment.”
In Thursday’s third round, Sigouin will face unseeded Alexei Popyrin. Before he knew the 16-year-old Austrian had won, he said about his possible opponents, “I’ve never played either of them…maybe in like the 12s but that was a long time ago.”
Sigouin also had success in doubles on Wednesday as he and partner Louis Wessels of Germany defeated Piotr Matuszewski and Kacper Zuk of Poland 7-6(4), 7-5.
An absolutely perfect day for Canadians wound up in the evening when Charlotte Robillard-Millette of Blainville, Que., and partner Claire Liu of the U.S. defeated Anastasia Detiuc of Moldova and Marketa Vondrousova of Czech Republic by a 6-3, 1-6, [10-2] score in an opening-round match.
This was a Saturday afternoon scene at the marché de la rue Cler about 10 days ago before rain invaded Paris and temporarily interrupted scenes of airy domesticity such as this one.