Félix Auger-Aliassime needed every last bit of his cool and commitment to ride out a mid-match purple patch from explosive Emil Ruusuvuori and earn a 6-4, 0-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory on Tuesday in 1573 Arena at the Australian Open.
Earlier in the same stadium, Leylah Fernandez was anything but her best and was beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Australian wild card Maddison Inglis. Fernandez had 14 unforced errors after the first seven games of the match against the world No. 133 and never seemed able to shake the shackles of what appeared to be nerves in the hour and 23-minute match. “Today was just a bad day at the office,” she said afterward.
It looked as if two Canadians might have similar experiences in their place of work after Auger-Aliassime took the first set, recovering from a break down to gain a foothold in the match, before Ruusuvuori went on a red-lining tear. That included the 22-year-old Finn blasting his way through a 25-minute bagel second set when Auger-Aliassime was so outclassed he didn’t hit a single winner.
It was more of the same in the third set but at least Auger-Aliassime snapped a seven game run by Ruusuvuori by holding serve to 1-all. However, there were still a rash of miss-hit forehands from the No. 9 seed that flew everywhere except within the confines of the 78-feet by 27-feet dimensions of the court. The No. 90-ranked Finn continued to outplay and outpoint (33-22) his opponent to take the third set.
In the fourth set, Auger-Aliassime got a confidence-restoring break to 3-1 and gradually the tide began to turn.
The miss-hit forehands that sometimes flew into the stands stopped, and his serving – which bottomed out with 11 per cent (1/9) first-serve points won and 20 per cent (1/5) second-serve points won in the second set – began to do damage. And just as he was upping his serving potency, Ruusuvuori, whose ground strokes were deadly for most of the match – he ended with 38 winners to 26 for Auger-Aliassime – began to waver, especially on the forehand side.
Ruusuvuori lost the fourth set 6-3 and, after he dropped just one point in his first two service games of the final set, Auger-Aliassime got the break to 3-2 and used his improved serving and superior consistency from the baseline to survive a grueling test that lasted three hours and 40 minutes.
The final point was a serve and forehand down-the-line winner, and that now sets up a second-round encounter Thursday against No. 50-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, who won 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 over No. 152-ranked Aussie wild card Alex Bolt on Tuesday.
“It was not easy today, definitely,” Auger-Aliassime said after the struggle against Ruusuvuori. “I think the score shows that. Dealing with different conditions than what we’ve had the last few days, quite cold, windy as well. So I think there was a part of adapting to that.
“I have to say, my opponent played a great match. I always really thought highly of him. I think he’s a great player and he showed it today. He made me analyze and rethink what I was doing many times in the match because he was playing well.
“It was really tough for me. In the middle of the match just not quite just finding the actual right way to play. I think I loosened up a little bit starting from the fourth set, just started serving better, was making him move a little bit more and at the end that’s it. Today for sure it’s important for my confidence. It was going to happen at some point in my career, to come back from being led in a Grand Slam and it did today.”
Tomorrow he faces another big-hitter and free-swinger in the 22-year-old Davidovich Fokina. It will be their first meeting.
The Fernandez match remains a bit of a head scratcher. She was a US Open finalist just four months ago and currently ranks No. 24 while Inglis is a 24-year-old who had never won a Grand Slam singles match in four previous tries. The Aussie played well within herself, measured, methodical tennis and increasingly went for her shots as her confidence grew with all the unforced errors cascading from the other side of the net. Fernandez wound up with 30 unforced errors to Inglis’ 27. But it was the winners count – 14-8 in favour of Inglis – which was totally unexpected, and telling, considering Fernandez clearly has far superior firepower.
After winning a round and losing 6-1, 6-2 to No. 9-ranked Iga Swiatek in Adelaide two weeks ago, Fernandez withdrew from last week’s WTA 500 event in Sydney. There was talk of a hamstring issue but she claimed she was fit for Tuesday’s encounter with Inglis. “I was feeling great,” she said. “Physically and mentally I was feeling good. I was actually excited to play.
“We had a good preseason. We worked hard. We improved my tennis game. Unfortunately it did not show today. But it happens – leading up to these tournaments I was just extremely happy with how I was progressing.”
Fernandez will not quite yet be departing Melbourne. She and partner Erin Routliffe, who represents the country of her birth, New Zealand, but used to play for Canada, will face Aussies Lizette Cabrera and Priscilla Hon in a first-round doubles match on Wednesday.
“Today was just not a good day – too many mistakes,” Fernandez summed up about her play against Inglis. Generously, maybe a bit too generously, she added about her opponent, “I’ll give credit to Maddie. She played a great match from beginning to end.”
The third Canadian in action on day two, qualifier Rebecca Marino, was beaten 6-1, 6-3 by No. 86-ranked Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic in a Court 14 match that ended at 8:35 p.m. after it had been moved from Court 13.
Marino was unable to impose her big-serving, hard-hitting game on the super-tenacious Bouzkova who was basically a wall – chasing everything down and getting everything back.
While she had double the winners (18-9) compared with her Czech opponent, it was Marino’s 32 unforced errors to Bouzkova’s seven that told the tale.
At 30-all trailing 4-2 in the second set, Marino ran Bouzkova all over the court but hit long with a forehand into the open court – missing the coup de grace on what was probably her last chance on a frustrating day at Melbourne Park. The match was pretty well summed up in that one point.
Marino wound up with just two aces and was 0/2 in break point chances for the one-hour and 15-minute match.
Denis Shapovalov will attempt to reach the third round of the Aussie Open for the third time in the last four years when he takes on No. 54 Soonwoo Kwon of Korea in Margaret Court Arena on Wednesday. It will be second on after a women’s match that begins at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. ET Tuesday in Canada).
He won his only previous meeting with the 24-year-old Korean 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 at the 2020 US Open.
Tough loss for Coco
American 17-year-old Coco Gauff, seeded 18th, was upset 6-4, 6-2 by No. 112-ranked Wang Qiang, 30, of China in the first round. We liked this moody picture of Gauff, who was a ways from her best form on Monday. She remains in the doubles where she and compatriot Caty Mcnally are seeded 8th.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak