Photo: Martin Sidorjak
In Valencia for the Davis Cup Finals group stage this week, Félix Auger-Aliassime was the de facto leader of the Canadian team for the first time in his career – and he came through with flying colours.
After losing his opening match Tuesday against a red-lining Kwon Soonwoo of South Korea, he won two singles, one against new world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz on Friday and a second over Miomir Kecmanovic on Saturday, as well as a pair of heart-stopping doubles victories with Vasek Pospisil, to make it ‘mission accomplished’ for the Canadian team in Valencia, Spain.
His masterful 6-3, 6-4 win against Kecmanovic of Serbia insured that Canada will end up either No. 1 or No. 2 in Group B and therefore advance to the eight-nation Davis Cup Finals in Malaga, Spain, from November 22 to 27.
If Spain wins at least two matches, as expected, against South Korea on Sunday, Canada will finish No. 2 in the group behind the Spaniards. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because Spain – potentially with Alcaraz and Rafael Nadal – would be the strongest team in the Finals. But the winner and runner-up from Group B will be in opposite halves of the draw in Malaga. That means they would only be able to meet in the final.
Rookie Gabriel Diallo, substituting for Pospisil, lost the opening match 6-2, 6-2 to Laslo Djere on Saturday. When Pospisil, partnering Alexis Galarneau, then had to retire with a left knee injury trailing 1-2 in the opening set of the doubles third match, Canada winning enough matches (to have a better won-loss record than Spain) to finish No. 1 in Group B became a remote possibility.
Auger-Aliassime, 22, needed just an hour and 15 minutes to wrap up his straight-sets victory over old junior rival Kecmanovic, 23. He broke serve to 3-1 in the opening set and then again to 4-3 in the second – and saved the only two break points he faced back-to-back in the seventh game of the opening set. The first with an overhead put-away and then with a clever drop shot/forehand volley winning combination.
He had a sublime day serving – 14 aces and no double faults and an impressive first-serve winning number of 91 percent (29/32).
“I was very solid,” Auger-Aliassime said in his post-match interview on court. “I faced two break points but outside of that game it was just straight-forward, winning my serve comfortably and getting one break in each set. I’ve had matches like this before – serving that way, winning that way. But this was a good one and it felt great because yesterday [four hours and 55 minutes on court for a singles (a win over Alcaraz) and a doubles victory with Pospisl], I had one of my best wins of the year. To back it up with a win like this is very important to me.”
There was a bit of an edge to the Kecmanovic match for Auger-Aliassime because the Serb had won their two previous encounters on the main tour as pros – in Cincinnati 6-4, 6-2 in 2019 and last March in Miami 6-3, 6-3. In a moment of candour, Auger-Aliassime gave some background to those results that’s not always heard from ATP players. “I have a bit of history with Miomir,” he said. “It’s too bad I had lost to him in two circumstances when I didn’t play very well. This year in Miami he was in good form and I was lacking some confidence and form. I remember going through some very tough moments when we played this year. And three years ago in Cincinnati, it was a special circumstance on my side. But I know that if I play well I can beat anybody. Even if Miomir is a difficult guy to beat, I know that if I play the way I did today I can beat him and lots of other players.”
After Friday’s memorable doubles victory over Spain from 5-3 down in the final set finished at almost 1 a.m., the Canadian team did not have a media conference. On Saturday, sharing his thoughts about that result, which featured some extraordinary returning by him and Pospisil in their opponents’ final two service games, Auger-Aliassime said, “it’s tough to explain. We were just talking in the locker room with the team about how close it was. I think sometimes it’s normal that you have matches like that that are almost played on a coin toss. We came back twice in doubles, against Korea and Spain, from a break down in the third set. Last night (Friday against Marcel Granollers and Pedro Martinez of Spain), it was epic. We just believed until the very end. I think you lose probably 95 per cent of those matches if you’re put in that situation. But that five per cent went our way yesterday. I’m really happy that we were able to push each other, and the team pushing us, until the end to win the last three games.”
Canada will be one of the favourites in November in Malaga, but that status would be reinforced if Denis Shapovalov, who elected not to play this week, is part of the team. Asked if he would be encouraging the current world No. 24 to play the Finals, Auger-Aliassime replied, “it’s obvious it would increase our chances of winning and in the end that’s what we want – winning as a team. We were able to qualify our team this time. But it’s certain we increase our chances of winning if all our best players play. Canada is a strong tennis country but we’re not a country that has eight or ten players in the top-100 like some others. So every player that we’re missing, we feel it as a team. We’re in the quarter-finals now, but if we want to go all the way to the finals and win, we’ll have to have all our players playing.”
In the opening match on Saturday, Diallo, who turns 21 in a week, made his Davis Cup debut against the No. 66-ranked Djere. At 6-foot-7, last month’s winner of the National Bank Championship Challenger event in Granby, P.Q., has a big serve but it didn’t fire as well as he had hoped against the savvy Djere.
“I would like to have served better, placed it better,” the No. 347-ranked Diallo said after winning just 56 per cent (14/25) of his first-serve points compared to 83 per cent (25/30) for Djere, “and played better behind my first serve. As for the rest, in the rallies I wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t unbelievable but I wasn’t bad. I felt I moved well.”
Added the Montrealer. who has played college tennis at the University of Kentucky, about the 27-year-old Djere, “he’s the best player I’ve ever played up until now. In terms of his ranking, but also his level of play. He’s very intelligent. He put me in positions where I couldn’t hit the shots I wanted to. And returning (serve), as soon as he has his racquet on the ball, he doesn’t miss, hits very deep. Very experienced, managed his emotions well and it’s not an accident that he has the ranking he has.”
As for Djere, he suggested. “today I was the one who had more experience and I think that could be seen on the court. That served me really well. I felt the pressure but I tried to approach the match as any other and I succeeded in that way.”
The day-ending doubles turned out to be an anti-climax when Pospisil felt something in his knee after a fairly innocuous-looking movement in the fourth game with he and Galarneau trailing 2-1 after 18 minutes. He went to his courtside seat and, after a consultation with the team doctor, Nicolas Sauvé decided to retire.
“I definitely pushed the body to the limit both days that I played (singles and doubles),” he said. “I have an issue with my knee. I’m not 100 per cent sure. It’s not severe but probably enough so – according to preliminary tests – I’ll have to take several weeks off. It’s a reality, it’s unfortunate.”
Summing up, the 32-year-old Pospisil, who has now played 24 Davis Cup ties dating back to 2008 with a singles record of 13-14 and 12-10 in doubles, said, “I don’t have any regrets at all. We have an incredible team and qualified for the Finals from such a tough group with Serbia and Spain. For me personally it’s just to see what I’ll do for the next three or four weeks. But right now it’s been an unbelievable experience with a team where every person on the team is incredible. It was super great this week and I’m really happy, and everybody is really happy. We’ll leave Valencia with big smiles and very excited for Malaga.”
As for Auger-Aliassime, he praised the cohesion and spirit of the team under captain Frank Dancevic and explained, “I always like playing in these types of matches, team events, Davis Cup – we won the ATP Cup with Canada earlier this year. I guess I find my best performances when I’m playing for the flag.”
FAVOURITE DAVIS CUP PHOTO
This picture was taken during the opening ceremonies on Tuesday, with one tiny young chap bravely holding up part of a large Canadian flag.