Photo : Martin Sidorjak
The fifth day of the 2023 Australian Open was one when Félix Auger-Aliassime got closer to finding his top form, and also one with a devastating five-set loss for Denis Shapovalov.
Auger-Aliassime got off to easily his best start of the event so far on his way to a 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Francisco Cerundolo while it was the opposite with Shapovalov. He had chances in both the first and second sets and then mounted a stirring comeback only to fall short 7-6(3), 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 against No. 10 seed Hubert Hurkacz.
Back in the friendly confines of John Cain Arena, where he defeated Vasek Pospisil in four sets on Monday, Auger-Aliassime jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead on his way to taking the first set 6-1 against the No. 28-seeded Cerundolo. In the second set the 24-year-old Argentine settled in and took advantage of a drop-off by Auger-Aliassime. Still he had to push it too the max just to finish off the set – saving four break points serving at 5-4, each with a jaw-dropping winner.
But Auger-Aliassime quickly reasserted control in the third set, breaking in the fourth and sixth games with some deadly shot-making. Another break to 3-2 in the fourth was all he needed to cruise to victory in two hours and 35 minutes.
“I’ve been playing well the last three years here,” Auger-Aliassime said in his post-match, on-court interview, “third time in a row in the round of 16.”
About the match, he noted, “I had a great start compared to my two first rounds (Pospisil and Slovak Alex Molcan in round two) so it was better and kind of gave me a little cushion. Against tough opponents there’s going to be ups and downs I was playing a bit tight and not going for it in the second set, and he did. So credit to him. But I’m happy with the way I turned it around in the last two sets. They were some of my best ones so far this tournament. Some good stuff.’’
Auger-Aliassime, now the last Canadian in singles, finished with 38 winners and 30 unforced errors to 22 and 38 for the No. 30-ranked Cerundolo. Most significant, in terms of the pressure he put on the Cerundolo serve, was his break point chances and a conversion ratio of 6/20 to just 2/6 for the Argentine.
Auger-Aliassime showed some frustration while struggling through a sub-par stretch in the second set and later explained, “I wasn’t happy with how the second set was going, and it kind of carried on a bit after that. Maybe it was my ego that was a little upset because things weren’t going as I wanted them, compared to how I had started. I was mad at myself but then later that changed and I was in a calmer space, more concentrated. It was just a frustration with how things were going – but it was actually a good frustration to help me stay concentrated, Sometimes it’s not that kind of frustration like when you’re just complaining or whining That’s the difference and today that was the right way for me.”
Auger-Aliassime is still struggling with the AO balls, but is making progress getting acclimatized to them. “I just did a bit with my stringing – had a lower tension,” he said. “And that especially helped with my serve. Nothing has changed with the balls from the first matches. It’s for sure they favour players who hit flat. When it’s colder than it was last week it favours guys more like Jenson [Brooksby] than Casper [Ruud]. (The American upset the second-seeded Norwegian in the second round.) I tried to adjust as the match went on. I tried a few drop shots and backhand slices to keep the ball low hoping that the guy might miss the ball or hit it up so I can do something with it. I tried to do what I do with my forehand – going forward and hitting through the ball. If you have too much spin with those balls, it’s not the best idea. So I tried to hit through the court. I adjusted and it worked well.”
In Sunday’s round-of-16, Auger-Aliassime will not face No. 11 seed Cameron Norrie as expected after the he seed was upset in five sets by No. 71-ranked Jiri Lehecka. Auger-Aliassime’s round-of-16 against the wiry 21-year-old Czech will be a first meeting for the players. A win Sunday for him and for third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas would set up an mouth-watering quarter-final.
The Auger-Aliassime – Cerundolo match finished before the night session and before Shapovalov faced No. 10 seed Hurkacz. Both are good friends of Auger-Aliassime and he spoke about the match-up. “It’s a tough third round for both of them. It’s a difficult match because Hurkacz is Top 10 and has to play Shapovalov in the third round, and for Shapo too. It’s the kind of match that will be tough for whoever loses. For one of them it will be difficult to accept [the result] when they to go home tonight,”
He was certainly prescient about that because his Davis Cup teammate Shapovalov took the defeat hard. Particularly because he lost the first set after serving for it at 5-4 and the second set after leading it 2-0, 40-15 and serving.
His head was down and he looked disconsolate, mushing with his blond hair while answering questions about the loss after midnight before a cozy group of reporters. He used the word “heart-breaking” in describing the loss.
“I was up in the first two sets,” he said, “getting one of those would have changed the match for sure. It’s a little bit difficult trying to win three sets against a guy who’s a Top 10 player – tough that I wasn’t able to close out the first set and hold the break in the second.”
In a more reflective vein after finishing his sixth Australian Open, and a year after losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal in the 2022 quarter-finals, Shapovalov said about facing Hurkacz, “I felt good about my chances going in. Obviously he’s got the better of us [me] in the head-to-head (now 4-1) but I feel pretty good whenever we practice against each other. I usually get the better of him.
“I think just nerves played a big part in the match today. So unfortunately I just wasn’t able to control the emotions too well. That’s something that I’m working on – so I’ll keep working and try to get better at that. I think today was a little bit just nerves. I have all the tools. I have all the weapons. It’s just about being able to put them together and playing big in the big moments.”
As is often the case with the 23-year-old Shapovalov, the match had its fits and starts – including times in the third and fourth sets when his superior firepower simply overwhelmed Hurkacz. At times it made it hard to imagine how he could lose. But there was also inconsistency and a number of double faults – 16 (to go with 20 aces) – that has to be high on his list of issues to work on.
While Shapovalov’s shot-making was breath-taking in most of the third and fourth sets – hitting 26 winners to 11 for Hurkacz – the 25-year-old Pole did make a successful effort to pick up the pace in the decisive fifth set. “I knew I needed to be more aggressive to compete with Denis because obviously he’s a great front-foot player,” Hurkacz said. “You don’t want to let him dictate.”
It looks like the No. 22 Shapovalov will drop to at least No. 25 in the next ATP rankings in two weeks.
In doubles action on Friday, the No. 3-seeded team of Gabriela Dabrowski and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico (picture above) advanced to the second round, and Dabrowski also got off to another good start, winning in mixed doubles with Australian partner Max Purcell.
Two other pairs involving Canadians weren’t as successful – Leylah Annie Fernandez and American partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands (above) and Rebecca Marino and Madison Brengle of the U.S. both lost their first-round matches.