Félix Auger-Aliassime dazzled the Stadium 1 crowd at the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday, defeating old junior rival Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-2 with a display of spectacular tennis.
“It seemed he was really pumped and really energized today,” Tsitsipas would later say about Auger-Aliassime.
The No. 58-ranked Canadian was almost always a step, or a deep raking drive, ahead of the newly No. 10-ranked Greek.
Once the rallies began, it was Auger-Aliassime hitting stronger, better-angled shots that had Tsitsipas flustered and off balance from the get-go.
Still winless against Auger-Aliassime after three matches in the juniors and now one in the pros, Tsitsipas was flummoxed by the aggressive flow of shots coming over the net from his opponent. “He has kind of a strange tempo in his game,” Tsitsipas said about Auger-Aliassime. “You always feel like he’s going to hit very hard, but then you really don’t know what to expect – how hard he’s going to hit the ball. So you’re always caught out of position.”
Tsitsipas had an excellent chance to get his teeth into the match. After getting broken in the third game of the opening set, he had six break points on the Auger-Aliasime serve in the following game, a game that went to deuce seven times. But he failed to convert any of them.
In total on the day he had seven break points and converted none while Auger-Aliassime was at maximum efficiency – going 3/3.
In the thrill and excitement of victory, Auger-Aliassime said in his post-match, on-court interview about the win – his first over a top-10 player: “So special, unbelievable. I came here believing in myself but I never expected to play so well. It’s a great moment and privilege to share it with everyone here.”
He was clearly the darling of the crowd – or the chou-chou as they would say in Quebec. He continued, saying to the supportive spectators: “It was the right choice to come today. Hopefully we can keep this thing going.”
He later mentioned appreciating seeing Canadian flags in the crowd and talked about exactly what’s at stake facing a contemporary from his junior days, even if Tsitsipas is two years older. “You want to make your mark,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Having played Stefanos in the juniors I knew him well. Maybe I had a little bit of a psychological advantage having already beaten him. They’re players that I could be meeting throughout my career – so to be able to impose myself the first time on the (pro) tour is a good thing.”
When it was mentioned to Auger-Aliassime’s coach, Fredéric Fontang, that Tsitsipas had been surprised by Auger-Aliassime’s speed of shot, he said: “Félix was able to hold his own in the rallies and at the same time he knew when to put his foot on the accelerator. That’s one of his talents – his hitting power. Maybe because they hadn’t played for a while, he (Tsitsipas) had forgotten.”
Speaking about what he most appreciated about his player’s performance, Fontang said: “I liked that even when he had some difficult moments on serve (including three double faults in a row in the sixth game of the second set) – a little bit of nerves – he stayed concentrated and focused on what he had to do. That was important.”
Auger-Aliassime has taken the tennis world by storm of late and his ranking will move up to about No. 55 after Saturday’s victory. His description of his particular brand of tennis was quite revealing. “I’m pretty instinctive,” he said. “And I always have a big belief in myself. I go for my shots. I’m aggressive. If I can keep on doing that and be even more solid and even more aggressive, I think it will bring me to high levels.”
As for Tsitsipas, he’s already in the rarefied air of the top 10 but he was not a happy camper after Saturday’s loss. He has played four tournaments since reaching the Australian Open semi-finals – Sofia, Rotterdam, Marseille (a title) and Dubai (runner-up to Roger Federer). “My mind at the moment is not very fresh,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had enough of tennis already, but that still doesn’t mean anything. He (Auger-Aliassime) deserved that victory. He won it by himself. I didn’t give it to him.”
Next for Auger-Aliassime on Monday will be No. 74-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka, a 5-foot-7 Japanese. He upset No. 21 seed Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6(3), 6-4 Saturday evening. “It’s going to be tough,” the 23-year-old left-handed Nishioka said about facing Auger-Aliassime. “He’s like on fire right now. He’s winning a lot of matches this year. He’s young, so he has so much power. We played each other one time when he was 14 years old in the (2015) Granby Challenger in Canada. And that time I won (4-6, 6-2, 6-1) but it was very a close match. And I know it’s very different right now. But I have more match experience than him, so I use my experience and try to play on what he doesn’t want to do.
“I think he’s going to be very aggressive, good forehand and good service, much power. I need to try move him and think my brain, use my ball control, everything. That’s my plan.”
Asked if he thought Auger-Aliassime was going to be good when he played in Granby, Nishioka smiled broadly and answered: “Oh, yeah, he was already good at that time.”
As much as Auger-Aliassime has grown to 6-foot-4, his hair has also sprouted in sync over the past few years. On Friday, he had a haircut, which accentuates his ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ do.
Speaking about his newly shorn hair after winning, he joked: “A new look, maybe that’s what made the difference – I had a haircut yesterday.”
While it looked to be quite a change from his previous match on Thursday, it really wasn’t anything new for him. “It’s my cut,” he said. “Every time I cut my hair it’s like that. I was due. The last time was in November.”
Back then he was ranked over No. 100 and still relatively unknown – no longer!
Auger-Aliassime will be joined in the third round by Milos Raonic after the No. 13 seed defeated No. 51-ranked Sam Querrey 7-6(1), 6-4 on Saturday.
It was Raonic’s fourth consecutive win over the 31-year-old American.
The first set was close and Querrey had a break point at 5-all. He had to retrieve a Raonic net cord near the net that he hit cross-court with his forehand. But he went the wrong way and Raonic was there to calmly bunt the ball into the open court.
In the ensuing tiebreak, Raonic built a 6-0 lead before wrapping up the set in 57 minutes.
In the second set there was a stoppage for a medical emergency in the crowd and Raonic did his part, offering a towel and some water.
He broke Querrey in the third game of the set for the only service break of the match, and then lost a mere six points in his remaining four service games.
It was not one of the 6-foot-5 Canadian’s best serving days – he made only 47 per cent of his first serves – although he did manage to win 81 per cent of those and 64 per cent of his second serves, as well as hit 18 aces to 10 for Querrey.
The flipside of that serving was that Raonic returned well. “I put in a lot of returns – did things well on that end of the court,” he said. “And in the tiebreak I served a little bit better. I feel that there are some things I’m doing well. I’m just hoping that I can start to serve better in my next round.”
It was Raonic’s first match with new coach Fabrice Santoro, the retired artful Frenchman whose creative game-style contrasts with Raonic’s raw power. When it was mentioned that his former coach Goran Ivanisevic was more like him as a player than Santoro, Raonic countered: “I don’t think that necessarily limits you to a certain kind of player you can work with, just the way he played. I sat down with Fabrice. We had a discussion and I thought we both saw eye to eye very much about the things that I wanted to do with my game – where it should go. I felt it would be worthwhile to give it a try.”
As for Santoro, who once ranked as high as No. 17 (2001) and played in 70 Grand Slam tournaments, he was clearly pleased after his debut as Raonic’s coach. Asked what he was most proud of after his man’s victory, the 46-year-old replied: “The work that we’ve done over the past week, our relationship and obviously the win – because nothing is more important than the win.”
Analyzing Raonic’s performance against Querrey, Santoro said: “Milos had some very good sequences returning and very good sequences with his forehand. Also he had a good attitude which is very, very important.”
Raonic appears to have caught a break with his next opponent, the unheralded Marcos Giron, a 25-year-old American qualifier. Giron, whose career best ranking was No. 207 last month, upset 23rd seed Alex de Minaur 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 after ousting No. 37-ranked Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 7-6(3), 7-6(1) in the first round.
“I watched a little bit today but it’s hard for me to get a sense,” Raonic said about Giron. “I think what he can do against a player like de Minaur compared to a player like me is different. I think I’ll take time and talk with Chardy, who I played doubles with this week, to get a bit more of a sense. He’s a guy who plays more similar to me.”
Raonic now has a 20-7 match record at Indian Wells – the best of any of his nine Masters 1000 events.
DABROWSKI, SHAPOVALOV: W’s IN DOUBLES
The No. 5 seeds in women’s doubles, Gabriela Dabrowski and her Chinese partner Xu Yifan, reached the quarter-finals on Saturday with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Monica Niculescu of Romania and American Abigail Spears. It was an encouraging win for Dabrowski and Xu who had failed to win more than one match at their previous four tournaments dating back to Sydney in January.
Their next opponents will be the winners of a match pitting Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and Johanna Larsson of Sweden against Darija Jurak of Croatia and Raluca Olaru of Romania.
The No. 2 seeds in men’s doubles – Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares – were eliminated 6-4, 6-4 in the first round on Saturday by the scratch pairing of Denis Shapovalov and Rohan Bopanna of India.
If that was a high-profile encounter for Shapovalov and Bopanna, things will get even bigger – at least in terms of star-power – as they now face the tandem of Novak Djokovic and Fabio Fognini in the second round.
INDIAN WELLS POST CARD
It’s unlikely Serena Williams will be moving into a senior community residence anytime soon. But if she did she might feel a little bit more comfortable at this one on Country Club Drive in Palm Desert. ‘Las Serenas” literally means the ‘The Serenas’ in Spanish.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz