It’s hard to imagine anything other than Félix Auger-Aliassime’s first-round match at Roland Garros against veteran Andreas Seppi setting up very well for him.
The Italian had only played one match on clay during the spring European clay-court season and, at 37 and ranked No. 98, is no longer the player who was as high as No. 18 in 2013 and played brilliantly to upset Roger Federer at the 2015 Australian Open.
Things did not start out well for No. 21-ranked Auger-Aliassime in the Court 13 match on Tuesday – he had nine unforced errors in the first five games and found himself down a service break at 2-3.
There has to be a balance between going for shots and staying in rallies long enough to find a rhythm and, particularly in this case, to tire out an opponent. Seppi has a chronic hip issue and is probably going wear down as the match progresses.
Auger-Aliassime had his opportunities – despite a poor first set and then gradually finding some form in the second set – to win the second set when both players held serve all the way to a tiebreak. In that tiebreak, Auger-Aliassime led 5-2 and had a set point at 6-5 but erred long with a backhand service return off a 78 mph second serve. Four points later, at 8-all, Seppi won the final two points on a missed Auger-Aliassime return off a second serve and his own aggressive winning forehand, converting on his fifth set point.
Things could not have looked more bleak than when Auger-Aliassime trailed 4-2, 15-40 in the third set, facing two break points. But suddenly, the Félix Auger-Aliassime that all his admirers hoped to see emerged and played sublime tennis to hold serve with sensational display – ace, service winner, ace and another service winner.
That began a staggering run of him winning 16 of the next 18 points with hyper-aggressive, controlled ball striking. The final point of the set was a Seppi double fault and, it seemed at the time, almost as if the 37-year-old was capitulating.
And matters looked rosy for Auger-Aliassime when he started the fourth set with two solid holds to lead 2-1. But the gremlins crept in again when he served at 2-2. He hit an ace to lead 30-15 but then an unforced error, a double fault and a high voltage backhand passing shot winner by Seppi and the Italian had the break.
The momentum had swung back to his opponent but Auger-Aliassime would have one final chance – two break points with Seppi serving at 15-40 and leading 5-4. But a big Seppi backhand and an Auger-Aliassime forehand miss and Seppi was back to the haven of deuce. Two points later, when Auger-Aliassime erred with a forehand long, Seppi had his 12th victory in 16 appearances at Roland Garros – winning 6-3, 7-6(8), 4-6, 6-4 in three hours and 33 minutes in his 63rd consecutive appearance in a Grand Slam main draw.
It was a brutal result for Auger-Aliassime whose final winners to unforced errors ratio was 36/60. He has had highs and lows in 2021 – reaching the ATP 250 final in Melbourne and the fourth round at the Aussie Open in the first month of the season as well as wins over Denis Shapovalov (Aussie Open and Barcelona) and No. 10-ranked Diego Schwartzman (Rome). But there have been other occasions when he was in a good position – two sets up versus the unknown force that was Aslan Karatsev at the Australian Open as well as against No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas in Acapulco and No. 88 Lorenzo Musetti in Lyon – when he just didn’t seem to be able to raise his game to the level required close out a win.
Auger-Aliassime is just 20 – 21 on August 8th, the day before the National Bank Open presented by Rogers main draw is scheduled to start in Toronto – so there’s time for him to get a handle on the inconsistency that has stalled an upward climb that saw him reach as high as No. 17 last October.
“Félix has good potential, if he can keep control of his game,” Seppi said about Auger-Aliassime after their match. “Sometimes he goes into overdrive because he wants to hit too hard. I played well and could put a lot of pressure on him, so some credit to me. But he has good shots, the ball comes out well from his racquet, and he has a good team behind him. So if he can fix these issues, he can have a good career.”
About his own career, as it relates to the aforementioned chronic hip condition, Seppi said, “I still like this sport and I still want to play and fight. So the most important thing for me is being healthy and playing. I will not play many tournaments. I will have to schedule smart. I wasn’t going to play on clay, only Roland Garros. But it was postponed (one week later), so I could play Parma (last week losing to eventual winner Sebastian Korda). I haven’t played that well in ages. I didn’t want to play on clay this year because it was a good time to get fit physically for the rest of the season.”
Auger-Aliassime is now slated to join compatriots Milos Raonic and Shapovalov for the ATP 250 event on grass in Stuttgart next week and then, while Raonic and Shapovalov are at Queen’s Club in London, he’s entered in the ATP 500 grass-court event in Halle, Germany, the following week.
He has a career 8-3 record on grass and reached the third round at Wimbledon in his only appearance there at age 18 in 2019.
If Auger-Aliassime fans despair about the way things finished against Seppi on Tuesday, it’s probably better they remember that 16-2 run of points at the end of the third set when he was totally dialed in and virtually untouchable for about 10 minutes.
The ability is clearly there and if he can channel that remarkable level on a consistent basis, he can certainly be the player so many people in tennis believe he can be.
Leylah Fernandez will attempt to reach the Roland Garros third round for the second year in a row when she plays No. 24-ranked Madison Keys of the U.S. on Court 6 on Wednesday – third match after men’s and women’s matches that start at 11 am (5 am ET Canada).
At 18, Fernandez is playing in the fifth Grand Slam of her career while the 26-year-old Keys is in her 33rd – with her best results being a final at the US Open in 2017 and semi-finals at the Australian (2015), French (2018) and US (2018) Opens.
Keys defeated French wild card Océane Dodin 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in the first round but has not had the greatest preparation for Roland Garros. She had COVID-19 and missed the Australian swing at the beginning of the year and since has compiled a 4-6 record. And she was only 1-3 at clay-court events in Charleston, Madrid and Rome this spring.
She has yet to win two matches at a tournament in 2021 and, with the form Fernandez has shown (13-9 for the year, a WTA title in Monterrey, Mexico, but only 1-1 on clay at WTA main-draw events before the French Open), the Montrealer’s first meeting with the 23rd-seeded Keys shapes up to be a competitive encounter.
In the third round, the winner plays 15th seed Victoria Azarenka or No. 90-ranked Clara Tauson, the emerging 18-year-old Dane who defeated Fernandez in the final of the 2019 Australian Open junior girls final.
Feature Photo : Martin Sidorjak