There were many unknowns heading into Sunday’s second-round match between Milos Raonic and Félix Auger-Aliassime at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
An obvious one was just what kind of form could Raonic produce after a disappointing start to 2018.
He let his tennis do the talking with an emphatic 6-4, 6-4 victory on Stadium 3 in a match featuring two generations of Canadian players.
A modest 1-3 so far this season, with his only win coming over No. 105-ranked Taro Daniel in Delray Beach last month, Raonic’s Sunday self-assessment was brief and precise – “I made a lot of (service) returns. I hit the ball well.”
When they shook hands at the net after the one hour and 19-minute match, Raonic congratulated Auger-Aliassime on his week and wished him well in the coming weeks.
It did at times seem like a man, the 27-year-old Raonic, against a boy, the 17-year-old Auger-Aliassime. Afterward, the older Raonic joined the chorus of praise for his younger compatriot, saying “he has a very, very positive future ahead of him.
“I’ve known him since he’s – I can’t remember – he’s 10 years younger than me so even six years old at the national tennis centre (in Montreal). He’s always had great discipline and a great work ethic. And he’s a lot further along than when I was his age by light years. I wasn’t winning matches at junior Grand Slams let alone at this level.
“He’s well beyond a 17-year-old physically. I don’t think I got to that point physically ever as far as maturity.”
Auger-Aliassime was disappointed with his performance – especially his serving and specifically with making only 48 percent of his first serves.
“We broke each other in the first two games,” he said, “and after that, he served well. I wasn’t used to it, there weren’t many rallies and it felt like he was better than me.”
His coach Fred Fontang provided more extensive and insightful analysis on what transpired on the court. “To start with, it was a better Milos than we’d seen at the other tournaments,” Fontang said. “He played a good match and you sense he’s better physically and on his game.
“That’s the first thing – then Felix was a little nervous. You could see that in his serve. He was tight. He over-hit a bit and that could be the effect of playing Milos who’s No. 1 in the Canadian pecking order. Félix got into it a bit in the second set down a set and a break – it’s too bad about that (missed) forehand on the break point (trailing 5-4 but with love 40 on the Raonic serve) in the second set. Again he over hit a bit.
“That was sort of in the image of a match – he kind of forced his shots. And also it’s because of the class of an opponent who puts the pressure on because Milos’ shots are heavy. So it was also him making Félix overplay. For Félix it’s been a good tournament – a positive, he’s progressing and getting more experience and has to continue.”
Raonic had to be pleased with how he stepped up his game from opening-round round losses in Brisbane (Alex de Minaur) and the Australian Open (Lukas Lacko) and as well as a second-round exit (Steve Johnson) in Delray Beach.
“Obviously this being my first match in a while, and in a Masters, for sure I wanted to do well,” he said. “Against him (Auger-Aliassime), it also adds a little bit. So I’m happy how I dealt with that.”
The dynamic of him being the alpha Canadian male facing the challenge of a younger compatriot was definitively not lost on him. “I have only played another Canadian in these big tournaments twice (Vasek Pospisil in Montreal in 2013 and again in Washington in 2014),” Raonic said. “So I think there’s that kind of added pressure playing him, but then also coming back as well as playing him. It’s not like I have gone into the match or any matches recently with that much confidence.
“So I think all those kind of things I had to deal with. I’m happy with the way I managed that.”
It’s been a long road back from a torn calf muscle in early October and a right knee (meniscus) injury in November that kept him out for five or six weeks.
“I started playing around 20th, 21st, 22nd of December,” he explained about the chronology of his comeback. “I hadn’t played since my match in Tokyo really – other than sitting and hitting a few balls just to sort of keep the feel in my hand.
“Obviously I didn’t want to miss two Slams in a row (the Australian Open after the 2017 US Open). The approach I tried was just to spend a lot of time on court. Obviously that didn’t give me a lot of freedom and time to spend in the gym.
“So as soon as Australia was over I really took the time. First, no tennis, just the way I would if it was offseason, the first week of offseason. (I) focused in the gym and then transitioned and worked my way onto the court more and more.”
His serving had been below par, but that improved on Sunday as he won 81 percent of first serve points and 61 percent of second serve points. It was plain for all to see he was ‘feeling it’ when he belted a 145 mph ‘second’ serve on set point in the first set – finishing things off with a backhand volley winner.
“Every other time I have never had anything hurt that was related to actually keeping me away from serving…every time I had tears in the hip or adductor, I could always go out and serve because I was always landing on the left leg,” he explained.
“This time I really haven’t had that freedom. So I lost rhythm on the serve. I tore my calf in Tokyo. That kept me away from serving because I couldn’t jump up. After that, I hurt my knee. That kept me away from serving because I couldn’t twist on my knee. I had to keep it straight.”
The win Sunday was his first with new coach Goran Ivanisevic, the power-serving left-handed Croat who won Wimbledon in 2001 and has experience coaching Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych.
“The first thing he said to me is all the work you’re going to do right now,” Raonic said about Ivanisevic, who is nonetheless only on board in a trial arrangement until after the Miami Open in two weeks, “it’s with the goal to play well at Wimbledon. Anything that comes before that is a bonus.”
As for Auger-Aliassime, he and his team will be discussing if he goes to Florida to play the qualifying for the Miami Open or whether he rests and then heads directly to clay and plays a Challenger in Marbella, Spain, starting March 26. He’s entered in the 43,000-euro event and it would be part of his lead-up to French Open in May.
Auger-Aliassime leaves the BNP Paribas Open not unhappy with how he managed to handle Raonic’s awesome serve. “I don’t think I did that badly,” he said. “I thought it might be worse. I broke him once in the first set and had a chance to break him at the end. The trouble is he really varies the serve a lot – sure the power is one thing but it’s also the variation. I saw a little bit of everything and it was tough.”
It was Auger-Aliassime’s first visit to Indian Wells, and it gave him an opportunity to become well acquainted with California desert life because he also played in the Oracle Challenger the week before the main tournament. “The scenery is beautiful,” said in a reaction typical of many first-time visitors. “It’s sort of a tennis paradise. The weather’s always good, the landscape’s great. It’s an environment that’s exciting and great for a young guy like me. I think it’s helped with the performances I’ve had this week.”
The potential Auger-Aliassime has shown has been widely recognized by fans, officials, media, and players at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. “It was nice be have Goran (Ivanisevic), Milos’ coach, who congratulated me after the match and told me to keep it up,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It’s nice to have that from a former Grand Slam champion and encouraging and motivating to have all the players and former players around you in the locker room.”
After missing part of December and the month of January with a knee injury, Auger-Aliassime, who will be ranked about No. 178 in next Monday’s new ATP rankings, has regained his mojo. Summing up his Indian Wells 2018, he said, “I’m glad to have experienced this great week at the Masters in Indian Wells. So I’ll try to continue in this same way. My season has really started. I started to feel really good this week.”
The Palm Springs Art Museum is having an exhibition of Andy Warhol prints. Passing by on a recent afternoon you could see the red carpet being laid out for…the Campbell’s Tomato Soup can.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz