auger-aliassime leaps volley at Australian Open

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

A day, with constant rain and chilly temperatures (15 degrees) that made it feel like autumn in Flin Flon or Baie Comeau in their homeland, was kind enough to Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov and they advanced to play another day. But not so for Bianca Andreescu who saw her 2023 Australian Open come to an end against qualifier Cristina Bucsa.

Auger-Aliassime played a lot of poor tennis in the first two and a half sets before turning around his match to defeat Alex Molcan of Slovakia 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Shapovalov stretched his record with Taro Daniel to 3-0 with a hard-fought 6-3, 7-6(3), 7-5 victory over the Japanese in a contest that ended in Arena 1573 after midnight.

Andreescu, still on the comeback trail after missing all of 2021 and only playing from April onward in 2022, got as far as match point against Bucsa before a mishmash of fits-and-starts tennis resulted in a 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-4 win for 25-year-old Spaniard.

Bianca Andreescu scrambles as she follows through on a forehand.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

Following her 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 25 seed Marie Bouzkova in the first round, Andreescu said about her level, “I think it was definitely very solid. Having these kind of matches really helps with my confidence because it was kind of just very level throughout. There weren’t any ups and downs, which can kind of happen in my matches.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what did happen in KIA Arena on Wednesday evening against Bucsa, a competent player with a good competitive temperament but not someone who would be expected to trouble an Andreescu in full possession of her dynamic tennis.

After a she whisked away the opening set in just 29 minutes, making it look like Bucsa was over-matched, Andreescu had a noticeable dip and was soon down 5-1 in the second set. She rallied to 5-all and eventually got to a tiebreak and a match point at 6-5, but she misfired with a backhand and Bucsa wound up forcing a third set four points later. 

That one started out 2-0 for Bucsa before Andreescu evened things at 2-2. But the tall, slender Spaniard hung tough and eventually was in position to serve for the match at 5-4. That’s when Andreescu had a break-back point but netted a forehand and then had another golden opportunity to have another break point. But she botched a set-up forehand swing volley, into an open court, long. That kind of summed up her day as did a missed backhand into the net on the next, and ultimate, match point.

“I started off the match really well,” Andreescu said. “She was missing quite a bit. Then in the second set I didn’t feel that I dropped my level at all – made some mistakes here and there but she obviously raised it. And then in the third she wasn’t missing a ball and I was kind of a bit getting into my head. It was like a point here and there. It sucks that I had a match point and didn’t close it out.”

Bucsa was good but there were openings for Andreescu and she couldn’t take them. She seemed to lose the ability to swing freely and consistently control rallies after the first set.

On the stats sheet, both players had 31 winners, with Bucsa committing 50 unforced errors and Andreescu 53. But Andreescu’s numbers dropped off as the match went on and Bucsa gradually gained belief that she had a legitimate shot to win.

Bianca Andreescu looks down at her racket strings.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

It was a tough loss for Andreescu, whose overall record after Australian Opens in 2019, 2021 and 2023 is a modest 2-3. “After my match today I was crying like for an hour straight,” she said. “Usually I do get emotional but today it was next level.

“I was watching Matteo [Berrettini] and Andy [Murray] last night and Matteo had match point and then lost. I was just like ‘that sucks.’ And then freakin’ today that happened [to me]. It’s like tennis is such a crazy sport. I think it’s the only sport you can win more points and still lose. That’s the tennis life and I hope I can start winning more because that’s the goal. I want to get back into match fitness and have that confidence again because I know it’s deep inside of me. And I know what it takes to get back up there. And I was really hoping to play Iga [Swiatek] too – but it’s not my time yet.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime waves to the crowd.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

When Andreescu finally started her match outside in KIA Arena in the late afternoon, Auger-Aliassime was finishing his indoors under the Margaret Court Arena retractable roof. Those conditions were a key factor in what turned out to be a quite an ordeal for the No. 6-seeded Canadian. 

The indoor conditions were heavy and the abnormally cool temperatures as well as the balls created a problematic situation facing the No. 53-ranked Molcan.

“I wanted to be more aggressive than I was in the first match and impose myself,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I thought the first few games were good and I felt good but after five games the balls were worn out and the last game I served before we changed the balls was complicated.”

He lost that one to go down 3-4 and soon the set. From then on he played spotty, erratic tennis as the 25-year-old left-handed Slovak was impressive, outhitting Auger-Aliassime and belting a series of hotshots that left the Margaret Court Arena spectators stunned.

Molcan appeared destined for victory against an increasingly agitated Auger-Aliassime, who had an ongoing conversation with the umpire about the state of the balls. But Molcan’s charmed run for about 90 minutes ended suddenly with a dreadful game that began and ended with double faults to give Auger-Aliassime a break and a 5-3 lead in the third set.

The 22-year-old from Montreal took full advantage of the reprieve, won the set and broke serve in the opening game of the fourth, gradually taking complete control of the match. A serious red flag went up about the temperament of Molcan when he started robotic serve-and-volleying (unsuccessfully) out of nowhere midway through the fourth set. There was really only one more danger for Auger-Aliassime and that was at the start of the fifth set against a more settled Molcan. But breaks of serve in the third and fifth games sealed the Slovak’s fate.

Auger-Aliassime later explained that the AO balls didn’t take spin well and didn’t shoot through the court the way he likes it, making Molcan’s counter-attacking game easier.

“I remember that practising with Nadal this week,” he said, “we thought the balls were a lot different than last year. I don’t know why – it wasn’t just today but it’s been like that since I got here.   

“Quite simply, the ball doesn’t take the spins. I’m used to having a certain arc on my forehand and a ball that bounces up, but it didn’t work well. So I had to make adjustments – hit through the court more, flatter. And to be patient, accept that it will take two, three or four shots to finish the point.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime gestures and argues.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

Auger-Aliassime also had to control his emotions, his frustration with wayward and miss-hit shots. “It was more a fight with myself rather than against my opponent,” he said. “I couldn’t find any consistency and sharpness in my game in the first two sets. So it was more of a battle to find my average level or higher to at least give me a chance to win. So during the match I made adjustments according to my opponent to see what worked against his game. But it was a lot more about myself.”

In Friday’s third round, Auger-Aliassime will face No. 28 seed Francisco Cerundolo. He remembers practicing once with the 24-year-old Argentine but is not really concerned with him at the moment.

“The main thing is I’ve got to play better,” he said, “no matter who the opponent is. From the next match and any matches, if there are following matches, I’m not really concentrating on the opponent. I’m just thinking about, with my practice tomorrow, how I can feel better on the court.”

Denis Shapovalov lunges to hit a backhand.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

Shapovalov has now won all nine sets he has played with Daniel but the 29-year-old Japanese did his best to make things complicated Wednesday night. He led 3-2 in the second set tiebreak before Shapovalov ran off five points in a row to win it. In the third set, he was up 3-1 and again Shapovalov bounced back – closing out with a break of serve on the third deuce in the final return game of the match.

Shapovalov is able to over-power Daniel, and that was evident in his winners count – 53 for him and just eight for Daniel

Denis Shapovalov hits a smash.
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

Into the third round for fourth time in six appearances at Melbourne Park, on Friday Shapovalov faces a quality opponent in 10th seeded Hubert Hurkacz.

The 25-year-old Pole leads their head-to-head 3-1 but they have split their most recent meetings – Hurkacz winning in 2021 Miami 6-3, 7-6(6) while Shapovalov prevailed a month earlier in Dubai 6-4, 6-3.

Tennis balls on the court
Photo : Martin Sidorjak