That corny headline may be catchy but it’s also both facile and inaccurate. While Botic van de Zandschulp played well in his 7-6(4), 6-7(4), 6-3 second-round victory over Félix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open, the latter definitely was well below the standard that has made him a top-10 player.
In fact, one of the only times Auger-Aliassime played his best was when he faced three match points serving at 5-6 in the second set. On two of them, he served and dispatched forehand winners – and on the other, he hit a deep forcing forehand that van de Zandschulp could barely get a hold of, and his lob attempt sailed high and well wide.
That moment, especially when Auger-Aliassime followed it by winning the ensuing tiebreak 7-4 – finishing with a 131 mph ace – seemed to signal a significant course change for the match.
This observer thought to himself that Auger-Aliassime’s composure in the crunch was exactly what you would expect of a top-10 player.
Sadly for No. 9-ranked Auger-Aliassime, and the great majority of the pro-Félix crowd (above welcoming him onto the court), it was not to be. Both players left the court with the match level at a set apiece and already at the two-hour and 25-minute mark in almost 30-degree heat. After they returned, Auger-Aliassime reverted to the inconsistent, erratic play that typified the first set when he lost his serve in a third game that included two double faults.
This time he lost his serve to love and, when van de Zandschulp held in the second game, he had an advantage and a lead that he would never relinquish.
Auger-Aliassime had a couple of chances – two break points on the van de Zandschulp’s serve in the fourth game and a love-30 opening in the sixth game – but the 26-year-old Dutchman steadied and, as happened too frequently during the match, Auger-Aliassime just couldn’t summon his top form when he needed it most.
“It was a long match so there are many moments that I kind of look back on and regret,” Auger-Aliassime said. “But I think once it was one-set all, I needed to have a much better start in the third set considering that I had the momentum back. It’s very poor for me to lose that first game the way I did.
“I still had some chances to come back. I gave it my all, but, yeah, it wasn’t good enough today. I mean, credit to him, he served well. Yeah, he deserved to win at the end – my game was too poor.”
When the players were off the court at the end of the second set, van de Zandschulp later confided to a Dutch journalist that he had thoughts about his match against Grigor Dimitrov at the pre-Aussie Open event in Melbourne in January. It was one where he lost 6-7(5), 6-0, 7-5 in the quarter-finals after failing to convert two match points.
He later spoke about the effect those three match points in the second set, which he failed to capitalize on, had on him in that third set. “He played three pretty good points so it was a little bit easier for me to come back after that,” van de Zandschulp said about Auger-Aliassime. “I didn’t have the feeling that I missed some chances. I did what I could on the points and he played too good. So it was easier to think about it like that and get on with the third.”
A major factor in the match was how badly Auger-Aliassime served. He made just 52 per cent of first serves, won 74 per cent of them and won only 47 per cent of second-serve points. And he had as many double faults as aces – eight of each.
“I’ve been struggling throughout the week to find my groove on the serve in practice,” he said. “It was getting better and then today again. You can say at the start you’re a bit getting used to the conditions of the court. You’re a bit nervous. But when you’re out there three hours, I need to be better. I need to find a way at some point to serve better. I did for a few games, but not enough.
“The first game of the third set, throughout the third set, I was really serving poorly. I have to figure out, especially here, why I can’t serve the way I serve throughout the year in Australia and other tournaments. I just need to see how to do better here.”
Van de Zandschulp was mainly the guy playing steady, keeping-the-ball-in-play tennis – he had 26 unforced errors to 43 for Auger-Aliassime – but also, often when he needed it most, hitting out and really cracking his forehand, and his backhand cross-court as well.
“He can serve well,” Auger-Aliassime said about his No. 47-ranked opponent. “Actually today I think he also moved pretty well, he was defending well. Some points I wasn’t playing so bad. I was moving him around and he was making me play tough volleys, making me play an extra ball. So he did that much better than the first time we played (a win for Auger-Aliassime in Stockholm last November).”
Van de Zandschulp said after the match that he likes playing opponents like Auger-Aliassime and Andrey Rublev because they don’t come in and pressure him at the net. Actually, he may be selling himself short because he was very precise and timely with his passing shots during Sunday’s Stadium 4 context – jaw-dropping angles that had even pro-Auger-Aliassime spectators applauding. Auger-Aliassime was 21/39 (54 per cent at the net) to 16/23 (70 per cent) for the Dutchman.
The last of those 16 points won at the net was a backhand volley winner on van de Zandschulp’s fifth match point.
All and all there was just too much erratic play from Auger-Aliassime – 36 winners and 43 unforced errors to 27 winners and only 26 unforced errors for van de Zandschulp during the three-hour and 15-minute encounter.
There was no mention of it being three weeks since Auger-Aliassime’s last match – losing the final in Marseille to Rublev. But while that could have been a factor in his performance, van de Zandschulp contacted COVID-19 during the Dubai event two weeks ago and wasn’t sure he was back to being physically 100 per cent.
“I was dominating a lot of rallies that I ended up losing, and it hasn’t been the case for me in the last few months,” Auger-Aliassime noted about the match, “just lack of precision also on my forehand and my approach. I have to see if it’s because of him, his quality of defense today, or me just not being good enough – not being patient enough to hit two or three extra balls or not going for my shot enough. I’m a bit confused about what happened and why it happened this way.”
If there was anything upbeat to take from a down day, it was this simple, succinct assessment from the 21-year-old Montrealer: “the effort was there today at least – but the quality of tennis not as much.”
CAN I GET YOU A DRINK?
Water is a precious commodity in the California desert and also at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Above are people in line to fill up with good old H2O on a recent hot day.