Photo: Mauricio Paiz

The stars appeared aligned for Milos Raonic following his stellar run to the final of the Western & Southern Open in New York last week, but Vasek Pospisil dashed his compatriot’s US Open hopes with a sensational display on Thursday – scoring an upset 6-7(1), 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-3 second-round victory.

It came out of the blue for Pospisil. He didn’t play a pre-US Open event and hadn’t been in action since a Challenger tournament in Calgary last February. As for Raonic, he had won five matches, including beating world No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, before stretching No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic to 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Western & Southern championship match last Saturday.

“I think after my first-round win [7-6(4), 7-5, 7-6(3)] with (Philipp) Kohlschreiber,” Pospisil said, “and seeing that he’s a veteran, very tough opponent and seeing how well I was playing in that match, I just kind of flipped a little bit of a mental switch, like, ‘Okay I’m playing as good as I did before the break.’”

Before the tour when dormant in mid-March because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pospisil had an 8-5 record and in February had beaten No. 10-ranked David Goffin in Montpelier on his way to the final and subsequently Tsitsipas in Marseille.

“So for sure a little bit of a surprise, definitely,” was Pospisil’s reaction about his performance in Louis Armstrong Stadium, “because I didn’t even play any practice matches until a week or – about 10 days before the Open…didn’t have any exhibitions or anything. Obviously going into competition is quite a bit different.”

The match was a serve-oriented affair and it seemed Pospisil might have lost his best chance in the very first game when he had triple break point at love-40 on the Raonic serve – as well as a fourth break point – but failed to convert.

There were certain symmetries in the match. Pospisil double-faulted at 1-1 to give Raonic the separation he needed to win the first-set tiebreak and then Raonic returned the favour in the pivotal third-set tiebreak – double-faulting down 1-2.

The fourth set started with Pospisil in a love-30 hole but he recovered with a point won on a magical half volley and then two aces in the final three points to get out of a jam.

Both players held serve to 4-3 with Pospisil leading. Raonic then had a horror game – hitting two double faults and missing a forehand into the net on break point.

In the final game, Pospisil served out to 15 with his 19th ace as Raonic misfired with a couple of regulation forehands.

The victory tied their head-to-head record as pros at 2-2 – Raonic winning a memorable 2013 Coupe Rogers semi-final in Montreal and a 2014 final in Washington before Pospisil prevailed in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2018, and then on Thursday.

There may have been an omen for Pospisil early on when the shadows from the towering, west side of Louis Armstrong Stadium covered the whole court. He had sometimes been vulnerable to heat and humidity at the US Open but didn’t have that concern with the sun blocked out.

An obvious difference, with the way Raonic had played such dominant, power tennis last week at the Western & Southern, was the absence of extended rallies. There Raonic was confidently and consistently belting devastating forehands and backhands. But in Louis Armstrong on Thursday, Pospisil was effective at getting the ball to the Raonic backhand and at keeping the rallies short to prevent him from getting into any ground-stroke rhythm.

“I guess my game plan going in was what it was the last time I played him (Antwerp) when I was able to win,” Pospisil said. “I just wanted to take time away.

“He’s just one of those guys that you can’t give him time. He has a very heavy ball. He’s a really big guy, and he’s got big strokes. If you can play quick, then that’s better.”

A subplot for the players – conscious or subconscious – about the match-up, which dates back to under-12 junior days, was their longstanding rivalry.

“It adds another emotional aspect to it,” Raonic admitted about their competitive history, a relationship that has had its rocky moments. “It’s not necessarily easy to play completely free, in that sense, but you sort of go in expecting that. There were certain things I wanted to do but I never got my game free and flowing in that match.”

He added, “The same thing with a couple of years ago in Belgium. I have more to lose and maybe I put too much weight on that and I don’t ever get myself to free up for the match.”

Summing up the three-hour and 18-minute match, Raonic said, “I think we both had a clear intention of whoever was going to strike first was going to do well. I thought there were some sort of give and go here and there. But when he needed it, he stepped up every time.”

Pospisil’s numbers were truly impressive – he won his first 17 points played at the net and finished 27/30 there – Raonic was 14/25. He also had a dramatic advantage in second serve points won – 61 per cent to 45 per cent for Raonic. In the crucial break points converted stat – Pospisil was 2/10, Raonic 0/5.

“The key for the match today on my end was that I was serving extremely well and able to hold my service games with relative comfort, which made it a little bit easier for the rest of the match,” Pospisil said.

“I was calm throughout the whole match. I was adjusting really well. If there was something that was happening in the match, I was picking up on patterns very quickly and adjusting the right things. I was striking the ball really well and I felt like when I got into rallies I was having a little bit of the upper hand, which made me relax throughout the match.

“I executed well, came in on the short ball, put pressure on. It was one of those days where you play a very clean match. That’s not always the case.”

About his history with Raonic, Pospisil said, “to play a Canadian obviously is always tricky. I mean, especially someone like Milos who I’ve known for basically my whole tennis career. We grew up together. We were the top two in Canada for our same age group. We’re the same age, so obviously we have a bit of a history, for sure.”

In Friday’s third round, Pospisil is matched against current world No. 11 Roberto Bautista Agut. Their head-to-head is 3-0 (Marseille in 2015 and Shanghai and Monte Carlo in 2014) in favour of the 32-year-old Spaniard, who lost a very close Western & Southern semi-final 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(0) to Djokovic last Friday.

“I’m going to have to serve well and play short points,” Pospisil said in a TSN interview about facing the No. 8 seed. “This is a guy who can drain you out, play side to side. He’ll rally all day. He played really well last week. He was close to beating Novak. I’ll definitely have to play one-two punch type of tennis.”

An area of concern for the 30-year-old Pospisil is the medical time-out he took at 2-2 in the second set.

“Two days before my first round, I strained…don’t know what it is, like my ab or this like mid-back/abdominal area,” he said. “So it was really hurting on my serve for two days before the first round.

“I was able to manage it in the first round – didn’t feel it. Didn’t feel it yesterday (Wednesday) and didn’t feel it in the first set here until I think I just aggravated it for a couple games. Then got some treatment and took my anti-inflammatories and Tylenol and luckily it went away. I’ll have to monitor that for sure because it’s kind of a tricky area.”

As for Raonic who was injured and didn’t play either Cincinnati or the US Open a year ago, he summed up, “coming in if you’d told I was going to pick up 645 points (600 as runner-up at the Western & Southern and 45 points for the first round at the US Open), I would have found that to be good news. Overall a lot of positives to take – obviously today is going to bug me for a bit. I’ve got to see the bigger picture and go on with some positive progress.”

Raonic next plans to go to Europe and play clay-court events in Rome and at Roland Garros in Paris – as long as there are no complications with quarantines regulations.

The Félix Auger-Aliassime vs Andy Murray night match lacked the drama of the Raonic – Pospisil afternoon encounter. The 20-year-old Montrealer defeated the 33-year-old US Open champion of 2012 – 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 – in two hours and seven minutes.

Obviously there was speculation about Murray’s fitness after his 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 6-4 victory in four hours and 37 minutes over Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan on Tuesday. It was Murray’s first best-of-five sets match in 596 days – since Bautista Agut at the 2019 Australian Open – and he came out the worst for wear, including “beat up” big toes.

Auger-Aliassime – 52 winners to nine for Murray – was all over the Scot from the get-go. His serve was excellent – 24 aces and just two double faults. Murray never looked like seriously threatening him and did not have a single break point on the Auger-Aliassime serve during the match.

“The last two weeks,” Murray said, “I played a long one against (Alexander) Zverev – winning 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 (in two hours and 31 minutes at the Western & Southern) – and the next day didn’t play a particularly good match (losing 6-2, 6-2 to Raonic). Actually physically I didn’t feel too bad but then the same thing again obviously – I  played a long match the other day. And today wasn’t the level I would have hoped for.”

As for Auger-Aliassime’s approach to facing a somewhat depleted Murray, he said, “for sure I heard a lot of things from people close to me or friends or tennis people, and they said maybe because he played a long match I had a better chance. But I also played a long match (three hours and 51 minutes against Thiago Monteiro of Brazil) and I was pushed physically on Tuesday. How I approached the match was not to have any expectation that he would play worse today. I prepared to play the best Andy Murray. So I was ready for everything. I tried to impose my game, to serve well and really put him under pressure so he didn’t get any openings or opportunities.”

Auger-Aliassime’s performance impressed one fellow Montreal native, turned British tour player, 46-year-old Greg Rusedski. The former world No. 4 and 1997 US Open finalist said during Amazon Prime’s coverage in the U.K. that, if Auger-Aliassime plays the way he did against Murray, he could win the 2020 US Open.

Next for Auger-Aliassime will be a third round against either No. 31-ranked Dan Evans of Great Britain or No. 77 Corentin Moutet of France. Their match was halted by rain Thursday evening and will resume on Friday with Moutet leading 4-6, 6-3, 6-5.

Asked to comment on Pospisil’s earlier upset of Raonic, Auger-Aliassime said, “Well, to start with, four Canadians in the second round of a Grand Slam is fantastic. It’s too bad they had to play in the second round. I know Milos had an incredible week last week. Of course he wanted to go further in the tournament, but I’m happy for Vasek. He’s had some tough times last year with his (back) surgery. He’s a good friend of mine so every time I see him play well like that, it’s nice and it’s good for Canadian tennis. But they’re both my friends so it’s too bad one of them had to lose. But honestly Vasek really impressed me today – he really played well.”

Auger-Aliassime’s match wound up a day’s programme in Arthur Ashe Stadium that had begun with No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin defeating Montreal’s Leylah Annie Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 in the early afternoon.

The 17-year-old Fernandez held her own and looked like she belonged against the reigning Australian Open champion. And the stats were not too one-sided with the 21-year-old Kenin’s winners to unforced ratio at 19/17 while Fernandez was 18/26.

Fernandez, who turns 18 on Sunday, will see her WTA ranking rise to about No. 96 – making her the second youngest player, behind No. 51 Coco Gauff, 16, of the U.S., in the top-100.

A relentless competitor, Fernandez was unnecessarily – call it the exuberance of youth – hard on herself after match, four times declaring that she only rated a two-out-of-10 for her performance on Thursday. “Just too many mistakes,” she insisted about her play in the hour and 21-minute match, “wanting to be more offensive, just giving away mistakes to her. Then, not to take anything away from her, I didn’t do anything right today even though the score was pretty much close. I know I could have done something different or just got more balls back in to put more pressure on, but I didn’t. So that’s why I say two out of 10.”

At the 2020 US Open she won her first Grand Slam tournament match and accomplished something else that was important to her. “At the start of the year I set a goal of getting into the top-100 by the end of the year,” she said. “I have a few more tournaments to play before the year’s over, so I’m happy to do it now. And if it’s possible, maybe I can be top-60 by the end of the year.”

Fernandez now plans to go to Europe for clay-court events – the French Open starting on September 27th. But she’s uncertain what other leading-in tournaments she will play.

There has been one positive effect for her of the strict self-isolating and bubble policies at the 2020 US Open. “I was able to do my homework,” Fernandez said about her online studies leading to a high-school diploma, “without being too stressed or in a small room with 100 other players beside me.”