INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – If Félix Auger-Aliassime couldn’t win Monday night, at least there were noble lessons in defeat.
The 18-year-old Canadian had a huge opening to reach the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open. And he knew it.
He had qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka in the third round. And then, he would face lucky loser Miomir Kecmanovic.
Kecmanovic, a junior peer a year older than the Canadian, was the kid Auger-Aliassime trounced 6-3, 6-0 in the US Open junior boys’ final in 2016. That was the follow-up to Auger-Aliassime’s win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis of that event, his final one in the juniors.
So it was all to win. Unfortunately, after a jam-packed start to the season, the kid hit the wall.
It never felt as though he was going to win the match. And yet, he very nearly did, in a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (5) marathon that finished just a few minutes short of three hours.
“In the second (set) I felt – physically, I felt just not great. And I was up a break, but something wasn’t right. I just felt like I was on the edge, yeah. I was really close to getting broken every time. Then eventually turned his way and I kind of had 30, 40 minutes where I lost my rhythm. Like, I wasn’t sure what to do anymore. I tried to fight, stay in there. For sure paid off, I felt I was close to winning. Tough to swallow, but at the same time he deserved it, as well,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Low energy, changing conditions
The first set, which Auger-Aliassime won, took nearly an hour. But after he won it, there was no energetic fist pump, no sign that he was going to go on a roll. Instead, he almost look … relieved.
Restrained throughout, it turns out the kid perhaps was trying to save every bit of energy for the tennis, and not use it on extraneous emotion.
Auger-Aliassime did come out in the second set hitting a lot harder, and he broke to open the set. From there, the match turned on very little. A shank, a break back. And then, as Auger-Aliassime was about to serve at 3-4 in the second, there was a five-minute break as enough rain drops fell to make the lines slippery.
He played a stinker of a game, and was broken at love.
But then he broke Nishioka when he served for the set. And that was the thing about it. The Japanese lefty barely broke 100 mph with his first serve. And yet Auger-Aliassime made a lot of return errors, notably on the even weaker second serve. And as much as Nishioka makes his living with his legs, it was the Canadian who ended up running more during the match – on a night when he would have preferred it be otherwise.
It unravelled from there. The crosscourt pattern from Auger-Aliassime’s backhand to Nishioka’s loopy forehand was not in the Canadian’s favor. Nishioka’s backhand is pretty flat, but he put all the spin he could on the forehand and Auger-Aliassime was unable to time it or attack it consistently enough.
Down 1-5, Felix fights back
It was clear that those well-muscled legs had no juice left. Of some 60 unforced errors Auger-Aliassime hit in the match, a large proportion came on forehands in which he just didn’t get himself set enough to fire accurately. The legs just wouldn’t go.
Still, down 1-5, Nishioka was the one who got tight.
“It was tough to believe, because I wasn’t playing good at all. … He was really dominating. I’m down match points. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to win this one.’ I eventually broke back 5-2, and then I saw a little bit of an opening. Let’s try and win my first game. I was only one break down after that. I thought I might have a chance. Maybe he’s going to get tight serving for the match,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I gave myself a chance. I can be happy with myself for that. Obviously the outcome is tough.”
Down 1-3 in the ultimate tiebreak, Auger-Aliassime went up 5-3, and had the match on his racket at 5-4. But it wasn’t to be.
Serene in desert defeat
The young Canadian was serene in discussing a tough loss. And from what he said, it wasn’t as if he went into the locker room in a fury, but calmed down by the time his press conference rolled around.
The progression he has shown in handling losses as well as wins is one of of those signs of rapid maturity in the last year or two.
We remember the reactions when he lost in the juniors. It looked like it was the end of the world; Auger-Aliassime could barely muster a gracious handshake. It was less than a year ago that the then 17-year-old was devastated after losing a heartbreaker, at home at the Rogers Cup, to Daniil Medvedev after also being ahead in the early going.
That day, he was crushed, but with all the media interest, he had to discuss the defeat in pretty expansive detail. And he handled that first experience with precocious perspective.
Monday night in the desert, he was just as you would hope he’d be. Even the best players in the world lose most weeks. How you handle those defeats goes a long way in determining how you handle the victories.
Auger-Aliassime went from the hunter to the hunted in less than 48 hours. He went from daytime conditions in a quiet stadium – twice in a row – to the noisy din of Stadium 2. He went from beating a top-10 player in his first crack at that, to being the favorite against a qualifier.
And, he went from day to night – in the same match. He dealt with a little rain. He had to adjust to the lights for the first time in the tournament – at the most crucial moments. Everything was thrown at him – including the tantalizing prospect of opportunity and a leap into the top 50.
If you judge a future champion in part on how they handle the bumps in the road long the way, the Canadian is in good shape.
Auger-Aliassime said he would discuss it with his team. But the plan as of last night was to play the qualifying in Miami.
As in Indian Wells, his current ranking would get him into the main draw there next week. But will the Miami Open do what the BNP Paribas Open did, and grant him a wild card?
“That’s not in my control,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Given he’s not a player represented by IMG, which owns and runs the tournament, the odds are longer. If not, he’ll have nearly a week to rest and process, and then get back on the court.