Photo : Martin Sidorjak
It’s little consolation for Félix Auger-Aliassime, after his 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(2), 7-6(3) loss to Jiri Lehecka on Sunday, that an unusual number of top players have been upset at the 2023 Australian Open.
The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in both the men’s and women’s events failed to get out of the fourth round, and the fates of seeded and big-name players have been as unpredictable as the first week’s weather – 37 degrees one day and then 17 degrees the next.
But in Margaret Court Arena on Sunday it was an almost ideal 23 degrees and Auger-Aliassime got off to a good start, breaking serve in the third game and holding his next four service games at a loss of just four points to wrap things up in 35 minutes.
At that moment his round-of-16 match was unfolding as it should – and that lasted until he served in the eighth game of the second set, which started ominously with a double fault. Eventually he was broken. Down love-30, he rallied to 40-30 but then lost three points in a row – getting a little unlucky on the break point when a Lehecka shot landed short and forced him forward into an awkward position. He pushed a forehand wide. Lehecka then held serve and the match was dead even after an hour and 11 minutes. It had also had its last service break.
From that point, Lehecka was clearly the more consistent and dominant player. In both the third and fourth set tiebreaks, which ultimately determined the outcome, Auger-Aliassime got behind early with some sloppy play and never recovered. In the fourth set tiebreak at 1-1, Lehecka, brimming with confidence, hit a running forehand down-the-line that looked out all the way but, fortuitously for him, curled in at the last second and caught a bit of the line. Auger-Aliassime was stunned and momentarily looked like he expected/hoped to hear an ‘out’ call. None came and a replay showed the ball had landed good.
Soon it was 4-1 and ultimately the hill to climb proved to steep, the match ending in three hours and 13 minutes.
Lehecka was undeniably the more free-swinging, potent ball striker over the final two sets and the match stats confirmed that. In rallies of five to eight strokes, he prevailed 31-13, and in those of nine plus it was 14 to 8. That’s a decisive baseline superiority of 45-21 in extended rallies.
One unlikely but maddening and deflating pattern was recurring for Auger-Aliassime and his supporters – his inability to win the first point on Lehecka’s serve. In the Czech’s 17 service games from the start of the second set, Auger-Aliassime only once got to love-15 – in the ninth game of the second set. It was as if he always giving the Czech a head start. A few love-15 scores at the beginning of service games might have sown seeds of doubt in the No. 71-ranked Lehecka, especially against a more experienced player of No. 7-ranked Auger-Aliassime’s stature. But they did not happen.
Auger-Aliassime often hit long with forehand returns on those first points. “I never found a way to put him in trouble on his serve,” Auger-Aliassime lamented about the last three sets. “I continued to serve well and get myelf out of some complicated situations. But on my return, I tried to vary my position but I just couldn’t find my timing or a comfort zone. At the end, I tried some slice returns to vary, but maybe I started a little too late.”
As well as Auger-Aliassime served – the numbers were even better for the 6-foot-1 Lehecka (Auger-Aliassime’s numbers in brackets) – his first-serve percentage was 69 (65), first-serve points won percentage 83 (82) and second-serve points won percentage 64 (48).
Both players had 39 winners but Lehecka combined them with 33 unforced errors to 45 for Auger-Aliassime. And Lehecka was an absolute revelation at the net – winning 33/41 points to just 11/26 for Auger-Aliassime.
“He played better than me overall,” Auger-Aliassime said, adding that he was familiar with Lehecka. Ranked No. 137, he qualified and had a breakthrough at the ATP 500 in Rotterdam last February, the event where Auger-Aliassime won his first ATP title. The Czech’s run included a first-round 6-4, 6-4 upset of Denis Shapovalov.
“I remember seeing him last year around the same time in Rotterdam,” Auger-Aliassime said. “He made the semifinals (losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas), and he was playing really well. I’m sure we will see a lot of him in the future. Today he played well, served well.”
Auger-Aliassime dismissed any thoughts that his underwhelming tournament was related to expectations after his impressive 2022 season. “I didn’t feel a pressure about playing a Grand Slam,” he said about his approach to AO ’23. “There’s a little nervousness at the beginning of the tournament. But I don’t attribute the way I played to anything mental or emotional. I felt good before the match. I thought I started the last two matches better than my two first ones.”
As for Lehecka, he gained useful belief at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan last November. He beat three 21-and-under players like himself to reach the final where he lost to No. 49-ranked Brandon Nakashima, after the American also beat him in the round-robin phase, both times in straight (four-game) sets. At the event, he got the valuable experience playing before large crowds and dealing with professional media responsibilities. “A gate to the big tennis,” is how he described Next Gen 2022 at his media conference on Sunday.
His loss to Taylor Fritz and a victory over Alexander Zverev two weeks ago at the United Cup in Sydney were also helpful in him becoming more accustomed to the top-level of the men’s tour.
As for Auger-Aliassime at the 2023 Australian Open, he was unable to summon the level of game needed for Grand Slam success. That included dropping behind 5-0 in the first set of his opening match against Vasek Pospisil and struggling to find form through Alex Molcan of Slovakia in the second round, Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina in the third and then Lehecka.
Asked about what was going through his head as he walked off the court right after his match against Lehecka, Auger-Aliassime gave a forthright response, saying, “I think about what happened – and I manage my emotions. I breathe easily and try to stay calm. And then, honestly, I think about what has happened to me…what’s done is done. I think about what I’ll do the next few weeks before Rotterdam (February 13). It all continues. It’s been a complicated week – in the end I felt I couldn’t really find my game. So I just have to accept it. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about what’s ahead.”
Last week, Auger-Aliassime spoke about how his Croatian girlfriend Nina Ghaibi had told him about the so-called ‘Netflix jinx,’ referring to players featured in the new Netflix documentary series ‘Break Point’ all losing or leaving the tournament for one reason or another. They included Paula Badosa, Matteo Berrettini, Taylor Fritz, Ons Jabeur, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios, Casper Ruud, Maria Sakkari, and Ajla Tomljanovic. With Auger-Aliassime’s defeat the sweep of the cast of 10 characters featured in Break Point is complete and, incredibly, all are out before the second week even started.
“I understand the thing,” Auger-Aliassime said about the jinx. “It’s less fun when you’re a player. It’s not something I’m thinking about at all.”
With that, the gentlemanly Auger-Aliassime left the interview room but not before wishing ‘bon retour’ (have a good trip home) to the four francophone journalists present.
The third-seeded pairing of Gabriela Dabrowski and her Mexican partner Giuliana Olmos advanced to the third round of the doubles on Sunday. They defeated the Swiss team of Belinda Bencic and Jil Teichmann 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Next for Dabrowski and Olmos will be the American-Russian duo of Caroline Dolehide and Anna Kalinskaya.