Félix Auger-Aliassime had talked all week about wanting to “go all the way” and win the junior boys title at the French Open. And he had played superbly in a 6-4, 6-2 semifinal win over Spaniard Nicola Kuhn and in taking the first set 6-1 in Sunday’s final against Geoffrey Blancaneaux of France.
His level dipped starting in the second set against the 17-year-old Frenchman (two years his senior and sharing an August 8th birthday) but he was still in a position to win holding three championship/match points at 6-5 in the final set.
It wasn’t to be. Blancaneaux won 1-6, 6-3, 8-6 and Auger-Aliassime was disconsolate after the match, dropping three racquets to the ground in disgust and being unable to muster an expression other than utter sadness (above) at the post-match trophy ceremony.
“I was really disappointed after getting so close, you really can’t get any closer than that,” he said during his post-match media conference about an hour-and-a-half after the match. “I was really devastated but talking to my coaches made me realize some things. I know I have a lot of time in front of me. Yes it was tough and it’s still tough to have a loss after getting so close.”
It really wasn’t much of a contest in the first set but Blancaneaux took a bathroom break after it ended and things changed immediately when he returned. He put an end to a five-game run by Auger-Aliassime by holding serve in the opening game of the second set and then broke serve to go ahead 2-0. Auger-Aliassime held serve and then broke back to level at 2-2 but Blancaneaux raised his game and Auger-Aliassime lost his edge with the result being a 6-3 second set for the Frenchman and a level match after an hour of play.
The third set looked bleak for Auger-Aliassime when Blancaneaux broke serve in the fifth game and led 3-2 but Auger-Aliassime broke back and held to lead 4-3. At that point he seemed slightly in the ascendance as he had steadied and was hitting out more positively with his big groundstrokes. That added to Blancaneaux showing signs of nerves.
The set continued on serve until Auger-Aliassime had 15-40 – two match points with Blancaneaux serving at 5-6. On the first, Auger-Aliasime missed with a forehand long and on the second the Frenchman hit his only ace of the match – right on the line down the ‘T.’ There was a third match point in the game but it also passed when Auger-Aliassime made a backhand unforced error.
“He was solid,” Auger-Aliassime said, “and I can’t be too upset with myself about much on those match points.”
Finally, Blancaneaux held serve on the fifth deuce to knot the set at 6-6 when Auger-Aliassime hit a short ball near the net wide.
The crowd on Court 1 had filled up after the women’s doubles final finished on Court Philippe Chatrier and there was strong, but not unsporting, support for Blancaneaux.
Later, Auger-Aliassime had no complaints. “I think it created a good atmosphere on the court,” he said about the crowd. “It would be the same if I was playing in Canada – so I really can’t complain about it. On the court, I felt like it was only the court, him and me. It was great and it got me motivated too.”
Something had gone out of Auger-Aliassime after failing to convert the three match points and he was broken to 30 in the 13th game and then Blancaneaux proceeded to serve out the match in four straight points.
The Frenchman does not have the flare of Auger-Aliassime but he deserves praise for staying the course, fighting hard and hitting effective, timely and varied groundstrokes to try to keep Auger-Aliassime off balance. He also used the crowd support, later telling spectators during the presentation ceremony that they had been “an extra force on my side.” In hindsight, the home crowd was probably the fine line between winning and losing for Blancaneaux.
Louis Borfiga, the vice-president for high performance development at Tennis Canada, had no criticism for Auger-Aliassime when he spoke after the match. “I’m sad for Félix but not at all sad for the future,” he said. “I’m really enthusiastic with what he did today. I liked everything he did today – the way he prepared for the match, the way he played all the points right to the end. It was a good tennis match. All that was missing was the win. Everything else was perfect.”
Asked about the drop in level after the first set, Borfiga said about Auger-Aliassime, “But that’s what it’s about – he’s only 15 years old. No, no he shouldn’t have any regrets – none.”
Regarding the missed match points, he added, “that’s tennis – maybe on the first one he could have put the ball in the court. Everyone, including (legendary 1983 French Open champion) Yannick Noah went and told him afterward that it was a great match. He has a lot of admirers.”
Noah, 56, arrived in the stands for the third set and was vocal in making eye contact with Blancaneaux and encouraging him. The winner later said he had been inspired by Noah’s support.
Shortly after the match, still obviously moved by the impressive display by both players, Noah was asked about Auger-Aliassime and spoke in French with palpable passion. “What an incredible match,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been through something like that. Watching those young kids… I had the feeling it was me at 15. They play so well. Of course I was cheering for the young French guy but Félix was formidable. I couldn’t control myself. I had to go and give him a hug. He’s a boy who’s got such an amazing future, and amazing potential. I’m a very good friend of Louis Borfiga. With all my heart I’d like to help him.
“It’s really wonderful to see these kids at this level because I know that in the next three or four years they’ll be here on the big centre court. That’s what I wish for Félix – he’s got such a marvellous attitude.”
As down as he was in that very moment, Auger-Aliassime was able to appreciate the gesture. “It was nice of him to come on the court,” he said about Noah. “It’s really sympathetic of him and I thank him for that.
“He just told me I had a long way to go, that I just have to keep working the way I am and I would accomplish good things.”
That seems a real possibility with Auger-Aliassime’s assets – a terrific 6-foot-3 physique for tennis, a willingness to work hard and listen to his coaches and an impressive tennis intellect for someone so young.
There’s a real chance that Sunday’s loss, as agonizing as it was, could work out in the long run. He will avoid a lot of media attention he would have received had he won and he will probably learn more from the loss – one that hung on a few single strikes of the ball – than if he had won.
He becomes the third Canadian boy to lose the Roland Garros final – Philip Bester of Vancouver was beaten 6-3, 6-1 by Martin Klizan of Slovakia in 2005 and Filip Peliwo, also of Vancouver, lost 6-1, 6-4 to Kimmer Coppejans of Belgium in 2012. That was right before Peliwo went on to win the junior boys titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open that same year.
There is a strong element of unpredictability in junior results – Bester, 27, currently has an ATP ranking of No. 305 while Peliwo, 22, ranks No. 433.
Milos Raonic, currently at No. 9 and with the highest ranking (No. 4) ever achieved by a Canadian, recently noted that he doesn’t recall ever ranking in the Top 30 when he was a junior.
While Auger-Aliassime appears to have all it takes to be a world beater, he will now turn his efforts to more mundane matters like catching up on his school work – grade 10 level which he’s taking at home in Montreal via theInternet.
Then, in three weeks, he will be back in Europe to play the Wimbledon junior warm-up tournament in Roehampton (London) and then Wimbledon the second week of the main tournament.
“I’m anxious to play on grass for the first time,” he said. “My game should work well on grass. We’ll see, but it should be a nice experience.”
When asked by a French reporter on Sunday what his goals are, Auger-Aliassime said, “to win a (junior) Grand Slam title and play well on the pro tour. Until I turn pro it will be work and training.”
He summed up the whole experience of the 2016 French Open, his third junior Grand Slam event, saying, “I’m happy with what I did. I think it’s just another good lesson and I’m just going to come back stronger.”
Paris Post Card
They could be called le dernier cri (the latest trend) and are on the feet of thousands of young Parisians – the good old adidas Stan Smith tennis shoes. In the picture above the man himself nattily dressed and ‘bottomed’ off with his eponymous shoes can be seen talking to the legendary Rod Laver.
Looking at the shoes on the 69-year-old Smith – US Open champion in 1971 and Wimbledon champion in 1972 – brings to mind an amusing story. Apparently when they were children, one of Smith’s sons asked him, “were you named after the shoe or was the shoe named after you?”
NOTE: Back with the regular Tebbutt Tuesday blog in two days – this week’s feature guest on Aces (11 p.m. EDT on Sportsnet 590 The FAN in Toronto) on Monday is fabulous Frenchman Henri Leconte.