Photo: Martin Sidorjak
When you’re playing a guy who has won Wimbledon in doubles (Vasek Pospisil in 2014) and a guy who has ranked in the top-10 in singles (Félix Auger-Aliassime), and you and your partner are around 30 years old and currently rank about 225 in doubles, it’s normal that there could be an intimidation factor.
That may be as good an explanation as any for why Song Min-Kyu, 32 ranked No. 224, and No. 236 ranked Nam Ji- Sung, 29, were not able to hold onto a 3-1 third-set lead and wound up losing the crucial doubles match 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 to Auger-Aliassime and Pospisil, in Canada – South Korea Group B action at the Davis Cup group stage in Valencia, Spain, on Tuesday.
The Koreans were controlling play and looking more cohesive as the fifth game in the third set began against a tired and disheartened Canadian pair – Pospisil after a draining 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(5) victory over Hong Seong-Chan in the first singles match and Auger-Aliassime following a disappointing 7-6(5), 6-3 loss to Kwon Soonwoo in the second. It was later learned that Pospisil gave a pep talk to Auger-Aliassime when they trailed 3-1 in the final set, using some off-colour language that reinvigorated the Canadian duo and spurred them on a five-game run to give Canada a 2-1 victory in the best-of-three match tie.
When asked about the fact that he and Pospisil were clearly superior players and whether that might have been in the heads of their South Korean opponents, Auger-Aliassime said, “that was the idea. We had a bad first game (of the third set). I felt like from the middle of the first set and in the second set we were the better team on the court. Vasek’s results in the past, and my results as well, on paper we are the better team. So I think knowing that in the back of our minds, even though we were down, we never lost belief. We knew that if we stepped up the energy and played our best tennis that we could eventually win the match.”
The South Korean captain, Park Seung-Kyu, summed up about his game players, “it was a challenging match and I’m very, very proud of my guys. They gave everything until the end.”
There were nonetheless some worrisome signs on the day for the Canadians. Just as he did in his singles, Pospisil lost his serve in the opening game of the match in doubles and, just as in his singles, he and Auger-Aliassime then struggled to turn things around. Song and Nam, who had lost just two points in their first four service games of the opening set of the doubles, suddenly dropped eight points in their final two to lose the opening set.
In singles, Auger-Aliassime double-faulted to lose the opening-set tiebreak and then did likewise to lose his serve at 5-all in the second set of the doubles, leading to the eventual third set.
The two singles matches were singularly strange – both seemed at times to be headed the opposite way to the eventual result.
Auger-Aliassime won the first 12 points of his match with the big-hitting Kwon, but then saw the No. 74-ranked South Korean play what Canadian captain Frank Dancevic described as “really incredible tennis” to turn the match around from 4-1 down and outplay Auger-Aliassime.
As for Pospisil, he trailed 4-1 in the final set and things looked bleak before he got back to 4-all. Then at 5-all he got a poor game from Hong to break to 6-5. But attempting to serve out the match he returned the favour – missing two forehands and hitting two double faults to send the match to a deciding tiebreak.
A contest that was full of momentum shifts, wild points and high and low-quality tennis, finally came to crunch-time at 5-5 in the tiebreak. No one could have imagined at that moment that the long and winding saga of the two-hour and 35-minute match had but three strokes remaining in it. The first was a Pospisil ace down-the middle to set up match point at 6-5. The second was a second serve by Hong and the third, the coup de grace, was a glorious, inside/in, forehand service return outright winner by Pospisil.
“At 1-4 it was actually pretty interesting,” Pospisil would say later about that dicey juncture in the third set, “I was serving and at the start of that game I was actually enjoying that moment for some reason. I just felt like ‘okay, I’m going to try to fight back and I’m going to win this match.’ And I was trying to be very positive. A few points later I was down break point (to trail 5-1). But I think that kind of mentality that I had at that stage helped me get through that game. It’s very cliché – but I was just trying to play point by point.”
As for Auger-Aliassime, he said about his performance against the red-lining Kwon, “I was still happy with my level generally. I started the match winning the first 12 points. It’s tough to do better than that. But then at a certain moment, with the conditions and the balls here, things were a bit complicated. There were only a few rallies. It was tough for me to hit winning serves. And then my opponent from 2-4 (first set), started to play much better. I did have a chance to lead 4-0 and it was close in the tiebreak. It was a very good first set from both sides and then for three or four games in the second he just played too well. I know about levels on the tour these days and my opponent played at a very, very high level. I’m just going to continue like this and we’ll see for Friday’s match (against Spain). We’ll see what happens in the moment. But for sure I’ll be ready to give my all.”
Like Auger-Aliassime, Pospisil found the conditions, and particularly the slow court speed a challenge. “It’s not easy, you have to stay aggressive but you also can’t rush,” he said. “It’s not any easy adjustment to make. At one point you have to really play with your body because you just can’t use your arm because the ball wouldn’t go anywhere – it doesn’t go through the court. Small adjustments, but at the end of the day the court dictates the tennis a little bit. The points are just longer. It’s tough for a guy like me who likes to play short points.”
Regarding a back and shoulder issue, which required a medical time-out and work by the trainer at 4-5 in the first set of the doubles and again during a change-over near the end of the second set, Pospisil said, “just some tightness, pain in the back and shoulder from a very long singles match and just some maintenance work. Weirdly enough my first serve was pretty good but I just really didn’t have a very good sensation on my second serve. (It’s) just a bit of fatigue and some issues in the back of the shoulder that are very temporary – 24, 36 hours and everything’s 100 per cent.”
In a bit more than 48 hours – at 4 p.m. on Friday (10 a.m. ET), Canada will face Spain in its next round-robin match before playing Serbia in its final one on Saturday. The match-up with Spain raises the question of whether recently-crowned US Open champion Carlos Alcaraz will play Wednesday against Serbia or on Friday versus Canada. “I don’t know,” Auger-Aliassime commented about his sense of the chances of the 19-year, current world No. 1 getting into action. “I don’t know how he feels physically. He’s had a long run in New York. They have depth in their team. I think most likely he won’t need to play tomorrow (Wednesday). But I think he’ll try to play Friday (Canada) and Sunday (South Korea). It’s also close to his hometown town so I kind of feel like he wants to try to make the effort and play.”
As the No. 1s of their respective teams, Auger-Aliassime would be matched against Alcaraz. When asked about facing the precocious Spaniard while having his Canadian teammates behind him for support, Auger-Aliassime said, “I’ve always loved playing in situations like this with the whole team. We’re a really together team. Everyone sees the big picture. They know it’s not individual victories. In the end, it’s to try to win each match – try to win two points no matter who wins them. To have a together team like that, to have all their support, that’s what will make a difference when we play Spain.”
US OPEN REAR VIEW
When Arthur Ashe Stadium was opened in 1997, there was a stroke of genius – aligning it directly with the Unisphere, the 43-metre high, stainless steel globe constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Located in a park and surrounded by a large fountain, it’s just outside the south entrance to the tournament grounds. In the picture above, taken during this year’s tournament, a rainbow from the fountain spray can be seen on the left.