Félix Auger-Aliassime moved into the second round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday with a comprehensive 6-3, 6-2 victory in 62 minutes over No. 48-ranked Cameron Norrie.
There really wasn’t much to the match, and Auger-Aliassime never seemed threatened after he broke serve to lead 2-0 in the opening set. His serving was impeccable on the day – 80 per cent first serves made, 80 per cent first-serve points won and 60 per cent second serve points won. He also was 3/3 on break point chances while the 23-year-old Briton was 0/2.
More important than the match was what the result meant for the second round on Saturday – a blockbuster meeting between old junior rivals Auger-Aliassime and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who broke into the ATP top-10 this week at No. 10.
Asked about his player’s transition from the clay in Sao Paulo (a quarter-final) last week to the hard courts in Indian Wells this week, and Thursday’s match against Norrie, coach Fredéric Fontang said: “Making the transition from clay to hard is helped because Felix has the weapons. He served well and when you do that the transition is a lot easier. And he has a sound base to his game.
“He played well start to finish and he likes the conditions here because the ball bounces high and he hits with good spin.”
Auger-Aliassime lost on Friday last week in Sao Paulo to Laslo Djere of Serbia and then took Saturday and Sunday off – travelling Saturday and then arriving Sunday in Indian Wells.
“The transition was fine,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Hard is still the surface I grew up playing on so it was natural for me to come back and play here. From the first practice I felt great.”
Saturday’s encounter between Auger-Aliassime and Tsitsipas will be a highlight of the weekend as the top-32 seeded men get into action.
Here are the three meetings between Auger-Aliassime, 18, and Tsitsipas, 20, in the junior ranks – all Auger-Aliassime victories:
2016: US Open semi-final – Auger-Aliassime def. Tsitsipas 6-4, 7-5.
2015: Eddie Herr (Florida) – Auger-Aliassime def. Tsitsipas 7-5, 6-4.
2015: Canadian International (Repentigny) Auger-Aliassime def. Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
“I remember it was very hot, very humid,” Auger-Aliassime recalled about his last meeting with Tsitsipas, in the 2016 US Open junior semi-finals. “I felt like physically I was a little bit better than him back then. Now he’s improved a lot, he’s a whole different player. I just remember that I was able to pressure him, to make him move and again I served really well that match as well – that really helped. Every time we played in juniors it was tough matches, really close. I’m expecting the best from him and we’ll see what I can do on my side.”
There’s a kind of mystical parallel plot to the match – Tsitsipas was born on August 12, 1998, in Athens, Greece, while Auger-Aliassime saw the world’s first light on August 8, 2000, in Montreal. That puts them almost exactly two years apart.
But the eerie significance of those dates is that Tsitsipas’ August 12th is the birthday of the great Pete Sampras, a man of Greek ancestry – while Auger-Aliassime’s August 8th is the same birth date as Roger Federer. There was a seemingly pre-destined link between Sampras and Federer because the American was born in 1971 while the Swiss was born uncannily close to 10 years later in 1981. Of course, they memorably played just once in probably the greatest ever cross-generational match in history with Federer, 19, upsetting the 29-year-old, four-time defending Wimbledon champion 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5 in the 2001 round-of-16 on the grass at the All England Club.
It’s unlikely Tsitsipas or Auger-Aliassime, or any young player for that matter, will someday mature into a legend like Sampras or Federer. But for the time being these precocious next-geners are living large on the tour – and enjoying it. “It’s fun because now there’s a lot of these guys who are in the top 100, top 50, top 30,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Guys like (Alex) de Minaur, Denis (Shapovalov), Casper Ruud and Tsitsipas – all these guys. We’ve played in juniors and in junior Slams. It’s fun to see us grow together and push each other.”
This year Tsitsipas, who memorably upset Roger Federer in the round-of-16 while reaching the semi-finals at the Australian Open in January, has improved his ranking from No. 15 to No. 10. Auger-Aliassime, runner-up at the ATP 500 in Rio de Janeiro two weeks ago, has moved up from No. 109 to No. 58.
A year ago during Indian Wells, when Auger-Aliassime was 17, he was asked about his height and wasn’t quite sure he had reached 6-foot-4.
On Thursday, to a question about whether he has finally stopped growing at 6-foot-4, he joked: “I’m not sure – the hair’s still growing.” Becoming more serious he added: “Hopefully I won’t grow any more. I think I’ve got the perfect height now.”
Coach Fontang (above on the left with fitness trainer Nicolas Perrotte, Felix’s mother Marie and sister Malika) added his two cents about the looming ‘popcorn’ clash between his man and Tsitsipas. “It’s interesting because Tsitsipas is an in-form player, a top-10 player and they played several times in the juniors so it’s a good challenge for Felix,” Fontang said. “They’re two young, confident guys – it should be a fun experience.”
Auger-Aliassime has been on the rising-stars-of-tennis radar for several years – basically since reaching the French Open junior boys final in 2016 and then winning the US Open junior boys title that same year. But his recent exploits in being runner-up in Rio and a quarter-finalist in Sao Paulo have boosted his profile to new heights and the tennis media has become somewhat Félix-obsessed.
Giving his perspective on his player’s newfound prominence, 48-year-old Frenchman Fontang, a former tour player, said: “We stay calm. Félix has a good head on his shoulders, his family too and us (the team) as well. You have to stay concentrated on the tennis but at the same time you have to have some enjoyment because good things are happening. You can’t let yourself be overwhelmed.”
BOUCHARD: BATTLES ON MANY FRONTS
Taking on both a breathing problem and a crafty opponent, Genie Bouchard was beaten 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 by Kirsten Flipkens in the first round at Indian Wells on Thursday.
Strong blustery conditions made for an uneven first set as both players fought the wind with Flipkens being a little less erratic and winning it. In the second Bouchard, who was treated for a breathing issue, turned the tables and outplayed the 33-year-old Belgian.
Flipkens took control early in the third set as the match reverted to the patterns of the first set – and Bouchard received another visit from the trainer and the tournament doctor about her breathing issue.
Trailing 4-2 and then 5-3, the Montrealer saved a match point with Flipkens serving at 5-4 and evened the set at 5-5. But two games later – after a second match point was saved by Bouchard – the Belgian belted an inside/out forehand winner to wrap up the two-hour and 30-minute match played in chilly temperatures that had dropped to 10 degrees by the end of the contest.
There was far from a full house present in Stadium 1 but the competitiveness of the final set made for a thoroughly entertaining contest.
Tennis Channel broadcaster Lindsay Davenport provided a good summary when she said: “I loved the variety of Kirsten Flipkens, loved the fight of Genie Bouchard. In the end it was the ability of Flipkens to finish points at the net that was too much for Bouchard.”
There were many examples of the 33-year-old Belgian’s skillful shot-making. This is probably the best one – check it out HERE.
— wta (@WTA) March 8, 2019
“I was going to the net and, the way the ball was coming at me, it (between the legs) was the easiest shot to hit,” Flipkens explained. “I wasn’t showboating it was just what I could do at that moment. It’s fun to play a shot like that – and it’s nice if you can win the point as well.”
Speaking about the match and the wind, Flipkens said: “It was very difficult at the beginning for both of us. It was impossible to play tactically and all you could do is try not to make mistakes – just get your first serve in. Finally, in the third set there wasn’t any wind and it was better for both of us and we could have a good match.”
After the match Bouchard said she felt “not great” and then explained what was going on. “I’ve been coughing for like a month and a half,” she said. “So I don’t know.”
About the challenge of performing when she was in a bad way health-wise, Bouchard said: “It was pretty brutal because I felt like conditions didn’t help when I feel that way – very windy, very cold. So I was really struggling like between every point.
“When I called the trainer out I had a little asthma pump and some like cough suppressant and a nose spray and stuff – and that actually helped. I was battling my opponent and also my own body today – so pretty rough.”
About a possible diagnosis, she said late Thursday: “I saw the doctor now and there’s a couple of options what it can be. I think I’m going to see a specialist tomorrow.”
Assessing her form on the night against the No. 56-ranked Flipkens, Bouchard said: “I think I played okay. It’s the first match in a couple of weeks for me and I didn’t have the best preparation because of my ‘ab’ (abdominal) injury, which may or may not have been coming from my cough. So it’s been this whole kind of rough couple of weeks. I didn’t have the most ideal preparation. I think I served well and I played well. I could have been a little more aggressive but I really fought until the end. I’m exhausted and I just gave everything.”
Asked about her next tournament, Bouchard said: “I signed up for Guadalajara (a $125K WTA event starting next week) so I don’t know.” She sounded more optimistic about the Miami Open starting the week of March 18th.
DABROWSKI / XU ADVANCE IN DOUBLES
Gabriela Dabrowski and her Chinese partner Xu Yifan moved into the second round of women’s doubles with a 7-6(3), 7-5 win over the Romanian pairing of Irina-Camelia Begu and Mihaela Buzarnescu on Thursday.
The fifth seeds now will face Monica Niculescu of Romania and American Abigail Spears in the second round.
ANDREESCU IN ACTION FRIDAY
Bianca Andreescu hopes to continue her run of fine form when she takes on No. 35-ranked Dominika Cibulkova on Friday in the second round. The match will be played in Stadium 5 – fourth on after an 11 a.m. start (2 p.m. ET in Canada).
It’s a first meeting for the No. 60-ranked Andreescu with the 29-year-old Slovak, who ranked as high as No. 4 in March, 2017.
The winner advances to the third round to play either fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens or Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland, a 28-year-old qualifier ranked No. 109.
In another match involving a Canadian on Friday – Milos Raonic plays doubles with Frenchman Jeremy Chardy against Novak Djokovic and Fabio Fognini in the third match after 11 a.m. in Stadium 3. This has all the hallmarks of a not uncommon early-round Indian Wells doubles trend where the idea is more about top singles players getting in match practice on court and less about them actually advancing in the draw.
INDIAN WELLS POST CARD
Many of the roadways in the California desert – and some would say the residents as well – are pretty well frozen in the 1960s and 1970s. Above is Frank Sinatra Drive in the city of Palm Desert. Other grand old American entertainment stars such as Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, Ginger Rogers as well as U.S. President Gerald Ford (1974-1977) also have roads, drives, boulevards, avenues and streets named after them.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz