Félix Auger-Aliassime reached the fourth round at Wimbledon on Saturday, defeating Nick Kyrgios 2-6, 6-1 ret. when the Australian had to stop with an abdominal issue.
The first set was dominated by Kyrgios as he broke serve in the third game and then again to 5-2 after Auger-Aliassime broke back in the sixth game – the game in which he later claimed he first felt some discomfort.
Kyrgios was at his quirky best in the early going – forgetting his grass-court shoes and having to get them delivered to him on court before the coin toss. In his first service game, he hit an underhand serve and then faked another one the second time he served.
There was also a double-tweener exchange with Auger-Aliassime in the second set that he lost, but by then he was grimacing and frequently placing his hand on his stomach. It had become increasingly clear he might not be able to finish – and co-incidentally Auger-Aliassime had settled some early nerves that saw him double fault in each of his first three service games.
As Kyrgios began to agonize over his fitness, Auger-Aliassime found his rhythm and took control.
“Playing someone as good as Félix I needed my main weapon – my serve – to be firing on all cylinders,” Kyrgios said in a post-match, on-court interview. “I just felt my ab, definitely did something to it towards the end of the first set.”
It was obviously not the way Auger-Aliassime wanted to win but at least he had recovered from a poor start and was back playing well when Kyrgios had to quit.
“I had a tough start on my serve,” the No. 16 seed said. “I think it was a bit colder today. You know, something with the conditions just didn’t suit me at the start. Then from the first point of the second set I felt normal again. I was ready to play. I felt like I was playing the level that I have been playing the last few weeks.”
That level has manifested itself in a 9-2 record at 2021 grass-court events in Stuttgart, Halle, and at Wimbledon. For a player who three years ago was considered to be at his best on clay, Auger-Aliassime has exited Roland Garros twice in the first round in the past eight months. But he is now three other Grand Slams in a row – reaching the fourth rounds at the 2020 US Open, the 2021 Australian Open and Wimbledon.
On Monday he will try to get to his first Grand Slam quarter-final when he faces No. 6-ranked Alexander Zverev, the fourth seed. Auger-Aliassime has played the 24-year-old German on three different surfaces – indoor hard court last October in Cologne, outdoor hard court in Beijing in 2019 and on clay in Monte Carlo that same year. Zverev has won all three matches without losing a set.
Now they meet on what has become the 20-year-old Montrealer’s best surface, and also for the first time in the Grand Slam best-three-out-of-five format.
“He’s one of the best players of our generation, no doubt,” Auger-Aliassime said about Zverev. “He’s got a great serve. I think even though he’s had some trouble with the second serve and everybody has been talking about it, I think we need to remember that he’s one of the best servers on the tour.”
“Then in the game, he’s just very solid, one of the best backhands too. He’s got everything. I’m going to try to find ways to give myself chances. But I need to start by protecting my own serve and then just play aggressive and try to dominate.”
Zverev needed four sets Saturday to overcome No. 40-ranked Taylor Fritz 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(4).
“I’ll try to get through my next match,” Auger-Alassime said looking ahead during his on-court, post-match interview, “make my best result in a Slam and we’ll see where I go from there.”
He added about the Wimbledon experience, “this is my favourite tournament since I came here as a junior in 2016. I’ve got only good memories. I love the prestige of it. I love the crowds.”
The way Kyrgios exited this Wimbledon makes it inevitable to question his professionalism in the sport.
There’s no doubt he hit some fabulous shots in the first set against Auger-Aliassime in No. 1 Court on Saturday. His short-backswing, bunt backhand is pure genius – reminiscent of how another tennis genius, John McEnroe, seemed to be able to generate so much with so little apparent effort.
“I honestly did all I could to prepare for Wimbledon,” Kyrgios said. “I was training a little bit back home. I could have got here earlier, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go in the bubble earlier. I didn’t want to force that on my girlfriend, on my best friend, my manager, any of that.”
Athletes and sports teams have been making sacrifices to compete in their sports – and earn a living – for about a year in these pandemic times. The bottom line with Kyrgios is if the teams (in other sports) that his fans cheer for showed the unwillingness to sacrifice and prepare the way Kyrgios does, they would quickly lose supporters. Kyrgios, for the time being, gets a pass.
“I sacrificed a lot to be here, to try and play, put myself in a position to do damage,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think I was going to be able to play a good level. I actually played better than I thought I was going to play.”
The minimum he could have done was at least enter a prep tournament on grass – especially after so many months without match play. On the court, what many view Kyrgios’ showmanship, others might view as a spoiled child trying for attention.
He’s a crazy-talented player. His 7-6(9), 6-7(9), 7-6(5) loss to Roger Federer in the 2017 Miami Open semi-finals is as good an example of mesmerizing tennis as it’s possible to find.
Not every player can be super-committed and disciplined like a Federer or Novak Djokovic, but there are minimum standards for being a professional. At the moment, to use an analogy that the basketball-loving Kyrgios would understand – he’s more of a Harlem Globetrotter than a real NBA player.
Heading in to Monday’s ‘Manic Monday” there will be a friendly rivalry between Auger-Aliassime, aiming for his first Grand Slam quarter-final, and compatriot Denis Shapovalov, hoping for his second after reaching the final eight at the 2020 US Open.
On that occasion, a Spaniard, Pablo Carreno Busta, denied him a semi-final berth, outlasting him in a five-set classic 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 0-6, 6-3. This time it’s another triple-barreled name from Spain, No. 8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who stands in the way of him advancing further.
“For sure obviously today I felt unbelievable,” Shapovalov said Friday in a TSN interview after beating Andy Murray, “but it doesn’t mean I’m going to feel like that two or three days from now. So I’m just going to keep focusing, recovering the body and doing my best to try to win every match.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Absent this year – here’s Milos Raonic at Wimbledon in 2014, with father Dusan in the foreground.