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Tebbutt: FÉLIX IN THE LONG RUN

May 22, 2022
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Félix Auger-Aliassime hung in for a hard-earned 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 win over qualifier Juan Pablo Varillas in the first round of the French Open on Sunday.

Down two sets in an hour and 20 minutes, Auger-Aliassime managed to turn things around against a tried and true clay-courter. The 26-year-old Peruvian was playing his 11th consecutive event on clay since losing in the second round of qualifying at the Aussie Open in January.

For two sets he was dancing out on Court Philippe-Chatrier – everything was smooth and flowing. He had all the power, the angles, anticipation and consistency – everything Auger-Aliassime did not.

The outlook was bleak as the third set started but then Auger-Aliassime got his first break point of the match in the fourth game, and converted it when Varillas misfired with a forehand.

Varillas had a tough third-round match in the qualifying – 5-7, 6-4, 7-6[10-5] over Nicolas Jarry of Chile in two hours and 23 minutes on Friday – and seemed to get tired and lose a little sting on his shots as Auger-Aliassime grew in confidence and aggression, soon taking the third set 6-1 in 32 minutes.

He carried that over into the fourth and fifth sets, especially the fifth when Varillas revived and made a final push, saving three break points from love-40 trailing 3-4 before finally being broken on his fourth with a well-struck forehand winner by Auger-Aliassme, who then served out the match to 15, finishing with another forehand winner.

It was a pleasant icebreaker for Auger-Aliassime – he won his first match in his third try at Roland Garros, that includes first-round losses to No. 52-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka in 2020 and No. 98 Andreas Seppi a year ago. It was also his first victory from a two-sets deficit.

As he took control, he showed increasing mastery of the clay-court game – more comfortable throwing in timely (seven in all) drops shots and having 23/33 success with points played at the net in the three-hour and 14-minute match.

“It’s a dream for me to play here,” Auger-Aliassime said on court post match. “It’s an honour, it was my first time on Philippe- Chatrier, my first win at Roland Garros – I had to work hard to get it. My opponent played really well at the beginning of the match and I’m really pleased with the way I finished. First win at Roland Garros – it’s great.”

About how he managed to get back into the match after the two one-sided opening sets, he said, “I tried to give myself a little more space. At the start my opponent was hitting very hard, very aggressive and very deep. So I tried a few things I had in my toolbox to get a bit more space to better see the play. And I started to serve better so I was winning my service games more convincingly and then it was easier.”

He had 14 aces and three double faults and won 83 per cent of first serve points and, even though he was only 40 per cent won on second serves, that number was skewed by his poor performance in sets one and two.

In the French portion of his media conference, Auger-Aliassime, who could face 13-time champion Rafael Nadal in the round-of-16, had the following exchange with a reporter.

Do you look at the draw? Have you done that for the French Open?

FELIX AUGER-ALIASSIME: Yes, I look at who’s in the draw and which side, and then afterwards I tend to forget about it.

Q. Do you know what’s going to happen in the round of 16?

FELIX AUGER-ALIASSIME: Yeah.

Q. What do you think about it?

FELIX AUGER-ALIASSIME: Well, I almost lost my match today, so round-of-16 is not tomorrow. He’s got to win his first three matches and I’ve got to do the same and then we’ll see. It would be a big challenge for me. But it’s really deeper in the draw.

Next in the draw for him will be a meeting on Wednesday with qualifier Camilo Ugo Carabelli. The current No. 154 from Argentina defeated Aslan Karatsev of Russia 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 [10-5] on Sunday, wrapping up the match with the first 10-point tiebreak in the history of Roland Garros, which until this year always played out the decisive set until someone had a two-game margin. All the Grand Slams will now have 10-point tiebreaks to decide a fifth set at six games apiece.

There were lots of anxious moments in the Auger-Aliassime – Varillas encounter, so it was no surprise to see the jubilation (above) among his support group when he finally won.

With Auger-Aliassime on Court Philippe-Chatrier (15,225 capacity), Leylah Fernandez on Court Suzanne Lenglen (10,056) and Rebecca Marino on Court Simone-Mathieu (5,000), Sunday may have been the first time in history that Canadians played on the three main show-courts on the same day at a Grand Slam event.

Fernandez, in Suzanne Lenglen had the easiest time, rallying from 0-3 down in the second set for a 6-0, 7-5 victory over No. 107-ranked Kristina Mladenovic.

The 2019 French Open junior champion and now with a 4-2 record in three main draws in Paris, Fernandez required just 27 minutes to take the first set 6-0 – with saving two break points already ahead 4-0 being the only minor challenge from the 29-year-old French woman.

It was a different story in the second set, with Mladenovic breaking serve twice to lead 3-0 but Fernandez broke back to 1-3, held to 2-3 and gradually made the set competitive. She was again hitting bigger and breaking out of rallies with winners that caught her taller opponent flat-footed.

Mladenovic did get to serve for the set at 5-4 but then showed why she has a dismal 2-10 overall match record in 2022. On the first point, positioned for a put-away smash, she hit it long. On the second, she misfired badly with a backhand out of court and then, trailing 5-40, double-faulted.

Fernandez, who saved two set points serving at 3-5, took the final two games at a loss of just three points to finish off the one hour and 24-minute contest.

She seemed wary of the pro-Mladenovic crowd during the match but won over many in it when she did her post-match, on-court interview in French with former player Fabrice Santoro.

“Of course it’s never easy to play here in France against a French player,” Fernandez said. “Kiki is a very good player and she raised her level in the second set. So I’m happy that I was able to stay calm and to fight for every point.”

In the second round on Wednesday, Fernandez will face No. 56-ranked Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, a 6-4, 7-6(6) winner over No. 76-ranked Petra Martic of Croatic on Sunday.

In the match played in Court Simone-Mathieu, designed to blend in with the adjacent Paris botanical gardens, Coco Gauff defeated qualifier Marino 7-5, 6-0.

The second set was an unfortunate blemish after what was a highly-competitive first set. The players traded service breaks in the first two games before Gauff eventually broke to 4-2 and held to 5-2. Marino made an excellent rally to 5-all and then served at 5-6. Everything indicated a tiebreak was coming to decide the set when it was 30-all. Then she badly missed a backhand inside/out setting up set point for Gauff, which the 18-year-old American won with a strong, forcing forehand.

Marino had 11 break points in the first set, but was only able to convert the one in the opening game of the match.

The 25-minute second set was basically one-way traffic as Marino lost her edge and Gauff, seeded 18th, got into comfortable rhythm from the baseline. They were basically equal in brute power off the ground with Gauff deserving some tactical props for consistently getting the ball up on Marino with deep, looping ground strokes.

The winners/unforced errors ratios from the two sets tell most of the tale – Marino was 13/22 in the first set to 10/14 for Gauff. But the second produced the most remarkable numbers – Marino was 8/18 while Gauff a neatly-controlled 2/2.

“I know Rebecca, she hits the ball really hard and serves really well and plays some really great tennis which she did today,” Gauff said post match. “Today I just stayed patient and trusted myself, I think that was the difference between the first and second sets.”

With a No. 115 ranking for entrance to the main draw at Wimbledon – and the cut-off at No. 108 – Marino may get directly in because of the 11 Russian and Belarussian players who are prohibited from playing.

She has only played Wimbledon once – in 2011 reaching the second round. With one of the best serves in women’s tennis, logically she should be even more effective playing lawn tennis than she was in her qualifying success and terrific first set against Gauff at this year’s French Open.

The only Canadian in action on day two of the 2022 French Open will be No. 72-ranked Bianca Andreescu. She plays qualifier No. 168 Ysaline Bonaventure, 27, of Belgium, in the fifth largest show-court on the grounds, Court 7. The match starts at 11 a.m. (5 a.m. ET Canada).   

INCOMPARABLE ROLAND GARROS & PARIS

This is one of main shops at Roland Garros – located near Courts 2 and 3. The ‘Boutique Roland Garros’ has a wide variety of merchandise and a helpful sales staff ready to facilitate transactions. Commerce is of the essence at the French Open.

(Photos: Martin Sidorjak)