The match between Félix Auger-Aliassime and Milos Raonic could be described as being much as expected – Auger-Aliassime being more solid from the baseline and Raonic asserting himself with his serve – up until Raonic walked over to Auger-Aliassime at the end of the second set and extended his hand saying that he was retiring.
It wasn’t entirely a surprise because Raonic has experienced back woes for months and received a courtside treatment after taking a 4-1 lead in the second set followed by a brief consultation when he moved ahead 5-2.
The last three points of the final game saw Raonic hit two aces and then win the set when Auger-Aliassime netted a backhand. The final official score reads Auger-Aliassime winning 6-3, 3-6, retired.
Auger-Aliassime had noticed some restricted movement in Raonic when he served and returned but said he was still shocked by the sudden end – and sympathetic.
“I remember when we crossed after the second set,” Auger-Aliassime said about Raonic, “I could feel he was pretty sad about something. It wasn’t fun to see him like that.
“At the end of the day I hope it’s not too bad because it’s tough to see him go out like that.”
Raonic was clearly distraught when he met with the media well over an hour after the match ended.
Last week in Washington, he was treated on the court for the lower back during a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Peter Gojowczyk in the second round, so the back has been a constant concern recently – and required a cortisone shot before the Queen’s Club tournament in London two weeks before Wimbledon.
“I felt generally sore in my back before the match started, but it wasn’t something I was too concerned about,” he said. “It started sort of going down my leg pretty early into one of my service games. That started to progress more and more as the match went on.”
He added, “it felt good in the first match (a 6-4, 6-4 win over Frenchman Lucas Pouille). It wasn’t that taxing of a match.
“I started having pains during the night last night. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is at this point. I just keep trying to pinpoint, figure out what the right step is. I keep getting assured there’s nothing extensively serious about the back. I feel like I just try to adjust the exercises I do with training. Hopefully I can sort of figure it out.”
He has spared nothing in trying to get to the bottom of the problem, saying about MRIs when he was asked, “I think I’ve had four this year on my back – as recently as before Queen’s. More than enough, let’s say.”
Giving a sense of how gutted he felt in Court Central on Wednesday night, he said, “the last 30 minutes of that match, just because of the situation we’re playing in – being a prime time night match here in Montreal – was probably the least enjoyable 30 minutes I’ve spent on a tennis court.”
Raonic is automatically entered in next week’s Masters 1000 in Cincinnati – but that event and the US Open, with its demanding three-out-five sets format, certainly must be in doubt at the present time.
“It’s a recurring problem for him,” Auger-Aliassime said reacting during his media conference about a man he calls a friend. “He doesn’t want to put his season at risk.
“As for my side, these are things that happen and I’ve had to stop in a few matches. It’s part of the game. The positive that I take from it is that I played a very good first set and I hope to play at that level tomorrow.”
On Thursday, he will be in action in the afternoon session – not before 2:30 p.m. – against No. 8-ranked Karen Khachanov. The 6-foot-6 Russian defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-2 on Wednesday night. It will be a first time meeting for Auger-Aliassime and Khachanov, whose big breakthrough came at the Paris Indoor Masters 1000 last November when he won the title defeating Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-4 in the final.
“He’s won at this level before,” Auger-Aliassime said about the 23-year-old Muscovite. “It’s going to be tough – again a pretty big guy, big serve, pretty explosive. I think if I give him time to get behind the ball and dictate the points, it’s going to be tough for me.
“The main challenge is to dictate the points from the first few balls, from the serve, the ball after, and on the return like I did today in the first set. I think the two first matches (Vasek Pospisil and Raonic) prepared me well for the type of player I’m going to play tomorrow.”
In Wednesday’s afternoon session, Denis Shapovalov stretched No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem to three sets but came out on the losing end – 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
It’s not that common to pick out two points (and two double faults) that likely changed the outcome of the match but that was the case with the Shapovalov – Thiem second round. The first came in at 30-all, 4-all in the first set when Shapovalov missed a make-able forehand volley into the net (see picture above) and then double-faulted to give Thiem the service break and the opportunity to serve out the set which he did on four quick points.
In the third set, Shapovalov served again at 4-all, 30-all and hit a double fault to set up break point. He seemed to have successfully defended the break point when he had Thiem out of position with a well-placed volley. But the 25-year-old Austrian lofted a desperation lob that Shapovalov, positioned near the net, appeared ready to put away. But he botched the overhead into the net and, even though Thiem later suggested he could have been bothered by wind or the lights coming on, Shapovalov would have nothing of that. “I missed it,” was his blunt explanation.
Summing up the match, the No. 32-ranked Shapovalov, who may drop to No. 34 after the loss, said about the match, “(Thiem) was definitely the better player in the first set, no questions about that. He did a good job of holding, serving big when he had to. I didn’t take my chances. Then he played a good game to break me.
“The second set was (a) good kind of change-up. I think we both picked up our game, raised the level. Third set was also very good. He really started serving a lot better in the second and third. He managed to play pretty clean in the last set.
“It’s a tough one. But just going to take this… I think it was a great match for me confidence-wise. I showed myself that my level’s there, that I’m able to compete against a player like this and have chances to beat him.”
Shapovalov will now play Cincinnati next week and has taken a wild card into the ATP 250 tournament in Winston Salem, N.C., the week before the US Open.
While he moves on, his friend Auger-Aliassime will bid to make the quarter-finals of the Coupe Rogers in his home town on Thursday – his 19th birthday.
“I was young but I remember that there was a birthday cake for Federer and I knew my birthday was the same as his,” Auger-Aliassime recalled about his tennis youth. “I thought it would be cool if someday I play on the centre court on my birthday and that I get a cake.”
He laughed, “but at eight years old it would be pretty incredible to get a cake on the centre court at the Coupe Rogers.”
There was a touching moment as Auger-Aliassime made his way through the crowd on his way to the locker room following the match. He stopped to sign autographs and to take selfies. And at one point the assembled fans broke out into a “bonne fete…” (happy birthday…) chorus for him. That was followed by the singing of the familiar Quebec anthem with the words, “mon cher Félix, c’est a ton tour de te laisser parler d’amour (my dear Félix, it’s your turn to be talked to about love.)”
He was obviously touched and clapped his hands (see picture below) in appreciation.
Wednesday afternoon, Auger-Aliassime will be playing for a spot as high as No. 18 in the ATP rankings if he can beat Khachanov. On Canada, July 1, at Wimbledon, he won his first Grand Slam match as a professional. Now on his own birthday, he has a chance to break into the top-20 and also become the highest ranking Canadian, moving ahead of Raonic.
Asked if he might exchange birthday greetings with Federer on Thursday, Auger-Aliassime just smiled and replied, “maybe, but I don’t have his contacts.”
MONTREAL POST CARD
One of the fun things about the Coupe Rogers in Montreal is the activities going on around the grounds and even after matches on court. Above, top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal has a little fun hitting autographed balls into the crowd after his 7-6(6), 6-4 win over Dan Evans his opening-round match on Wednesday.
(Feature Photo: Paul Des Ormeaux/Tennis Canada)