auger-aliassime stretches for forehand

Leylah Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime advanced to the third round of the 2021 US Open with convincing wins on Wednesday – Fernandez saving four set points in the second set before dispatching Kaia Kanepi 7-5, 7-5, while Auger-Aliassime started slow but raised his game in the first-set tiebreak to get past plucky Bernabe Zapata Miralles 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-2.

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In the power-packed No. 70-ranked Kanepi, Fernandez was facing an opponent who plays an aggressive brand of tennis based on hitting hard, and even harder. In the first set Wednesday on Court 11, the 36-year-old, 5-foot-11 veteran had 16 winners to just eight for Fernandez. But the 5-foot-5 Fernandez didn’t flinch and held her ground against the oncoming heavy hitting. She saved two break points from 15-40 in the ninth game of the opening set and then pounced in the final game on the Kanepi serve – winning one point with a nifty drop shot and lob combination and another with an outright backhand serve return winner.

The second set looked like it might be getting away from her when Kanepi broke in the opening game and maintained that advantage until she served at 5-4 to force a third set. Already having saved two set points in the eighth game, Fernandez saved two more to level at 5-all and then took advantage of a Kanepi lapse of form after she failed to capitalize on her set points – winning eight of the 11 final points to wrap up a one-hour and 56-minute victory.

Fernandez may have been helped by a 36-minute rain break in the second set with Kanepi ahead 3-2 and holding a point for 4-2.

“At the beginning of the second set I wasn’t playing too well,” Fernandez said in a post-match TSN interview. “I was a little bit too passive, too defensive. But I guess the rain delay helped a little bit. I was able to talk to my coach back home in Florida – he’s also my dad (Jorge). And he gave me a few pointers and I tried to execute them as best that I can. I was happy to get the break (to 5-all) and stay alive in the second.”

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Just five days from her 19th birthday, Fernandez was able to counter the Kanepi onslaught, giving back as good as she got and not being intimidated.

The experience of facing the potent Estonian, as well as the hard-hitting Ana Konjuh of Croatia in the first round, will be useful when she plays her next opponent – No. 3 seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka – in Friday’s third round.

Fernandez has experience versus top-ranking players the past two years – including against a pair of Czech No. 11s, Petra Kvitova (Roland Garros 2020) and Barbora Krejcikova (2021 Olympics) as well as No. 4 Sofia Kenin (2020 US Open) and No. 7 Elina Svitolina (Monterrey 2020). She didn’t win any of those matches but had a victory over then No. 5-ranked Belinda Bencic in Billie Jean King Cup action in Biel, Switzerland in February 2020.

“She’s super aggressive from serve to first shots,” Fernandez said about Osaka, “so I’ll just have to be ready – stay tough mentally and physically, just be quick and hopefully I can use her power against her and just play my game.

“She’s a great player – she’s done some amazing things for women’s tennis. I can’t wait to play her on a big court and especially in front of fans. It’ll be exciting.”

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At last year’s US Open, when the then No. 4-ranked Kenin was the reigning Australian Open champion, Fernandez faced the American in the second round and was beaten 6-4, 6-3 in the sterile surroundings of a spectator-less Arthur Ashe Stadium. On Friday, the atmosphere will be totally different with a large, enthusiastic crowd present, whether the match is programmed for Ashe or Louis Armstrong Stadium.

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Auger-Aliassime did not start well in his match with the No. 116-ranked Zapata Miralles, a lucky loser who turned out to be quite a battler in the early going. Commentator Nicolas Perreira, a former player from Venezuela, described the 24-year-old Spaniard as being “blue collar.” He certainly was every bit that as well as a noise machine as he threw himself loudly into his ground strokes with boundless vigour.

He pretty well stymied – no break points either way – Auger-Aliassime until they got to the tiebreak. Even there it was one stroke that turned the tide and gave Auger-Aliassime the mini-break he needed to win the first set. At 3-all with Zapata Miralles serving, the players engaged in a long, probing rally until Auger-Aliassime broke out of the established pattern with a bold, blistering, forehand inside/out winner. He held serve the rest of the tiebreak to take it seven points to five.

From then on, though the 24-year-old Zapata Miralles continued to “blue collar” as best he could playing in only his third main draw at a Grand Slam event, Auger-Aliassime was largely in control. He sewed up the two hour and 13-minute encounter on Court 17 with his fifth service break of the match in the last game.

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“He’s a lucky loser, he’s on his second life, so he’s got nothing to lose,” Auger-Aliassime said about Zapata Miralles. “Not knowing him it’s always a bit tricky because I start the first set and I’m not quite sure what he likes, doesn’t like, what are his patterns. I also had a bit of nerves but I think the way I served today I was able to stay close, stay in the games, stay in the set and play a good tiebreak. Then to eventually play two solid sets – it can always be better but it’s a good straight-sets win.”

Auger-Aliassime had 12 aces and three double faults and made 71 per cent of his first serves, winning 73 per cent of them.

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Hoping to at least equal last year’s round-of-16 result when he lost to eventual winner Dominic Thiem, Auger-Aliassime, seeded No. 12, will next take on 18th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, who had a solid 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 win Wednesday over rising, No. 66-ranked, 22-year-old Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland.

Auger-Aliassime and the 33-year-old Spaniard have played twice – Bautista Agut prevailing 7-6(3), 6-3 in the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid in November 2019, and Auger-Aliassime winning 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 at the ATP 250 event in Cologne last fall.

A year ago, Auger-Aliassime’s compatriot Vasek Pospisil defeated Bautista Agut 7-5, 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to reach the round of 16 at Flushing Meadows. On Friday, Auger-Aliassime will be hoping to duplicate that feat.


A scene from the 2018 US Open – anyone for a little bubbly?

Feature photo: camerawork usa