October 23, 2021

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Canadian in “Cincy” No. 1: Félix Auger-Aliassime rolls past Basilashvili

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Auger-Aliassime's return to action went smoothly in the US Open bubble Saturday. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

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The strangest thing about the new reality, Félix Auger-Aliassime said, was the silence.

It wasn’t the lack of noise, per se. It was the fact that whenever there was any noise, it was magnified exponentially.

“The smallest noise, the smallest movement was even more of a distraction. There was no noise, so you just felt every noise and every movement around you,” Auger-Aliassime said after his first official match since the shutdown last March.

It was a surprisingly routine 6-4, 6-1 victory over hard-hitting Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia.

The next strange thing was the lack of fans. You know where your coach and supporters are sitting in a big crowd; the rest basically is just a big blur of humanity.

But when there are just a few random, scattered people, you can’t help but notice.

“I was looking around. When there’s so many people you don’t really look around,” he said. “But now, when I saw one or two players coming to look, or people that I knew, I was thinking, ‘Okay, out of the 15 people here, who did I know? Who came to watch me play?’ “

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Auger-Aliassime said he knew he’d be wearing the “Andre Agassi homage” kit a year ago, after meetings with Nike. He said he’s gotten a lot of great feedback about it. And, personally, he likes it (Zoom conference)

Three double faults to start

The start was a nervous one. Auger-Aliassime double-faulted three times in his first service game. And the next thing he knew, he was down a break.

Before the shutdown, those double faults had come in bunches, at times, for the now 20-year-old Canadian. So there was a bit of déjà vu about it. But there was no “here we go again” to this. Auger-Aliassime nipped it in the bud.

And then he got on a roll as Basilashvili, who had a fair bit of drama during the shutdown, didn’t put up too much of a fight.

“You’ve trained well, you’ve played practice matches, but it’s completely different. There was a bit of nerves; I felt a bit slower, didn’t feel as relaxed with my arm,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“But at the same time I stayed calm because I knew I had the resources within myself. I did some good work in practice in the months prior to the tournament. And I knew that some point during the match, some good things would happen.”

Just here for the handshake – or not

The other element that takes getting used to, after a near-lifetime of having it imprinted on your muscle memory, is the handshake at the net.

Or lack thereof.

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The “non-handshake” thing is going to take a little getting used to. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

“It was weird. At the end, really, I forgot – I guess you’re so used to throwing a ball into the hands,  I actually threw a ball at my coach. And then I was about to shake (Basilashvili’s) hand, and he put out his fist, so we gave sort of a fist bump – not even,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It was kind of awkward.”

Three weeks of silence

Auger-Aliassime said that players are used to practicing in silence. But to have silence for a whole match – an important match, a Masters 1000 match, as he pointed out – was something he feels will become even more of a factor later in the bubble period.

Especially during the US Open.

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Auger-Aliassime wasn’t sure what to do after he won. Since he often fires some tennis balls into the crowd, he fired one at … his coach instead. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

“When you’re struggling, or fighting and maybe sometimes you’re tired, the crowd really pushes you to keep going. It’s such a pleasure and such a treat to have people that are pushing you to keep going, to keep pushing,” he said. “And to not have that at all for the next three weeks, it’s going to be a challenge. You have to dig deep – even deeper than you usually do – inside yourself to push for what is good, and to try to win.

“I’m not a fan of it . It’s strange. But we have to accept the situation,” he added.

Felix loves New York

There were no fans to wave to. So Auger-Aliassime smiled, waved and gave a thumbs-up to the … camera. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

The kid from Montreal loves New York – he loves being in the city, loves going out for dinner and eating outside.

But he said that was a bigger deal in the days before the tournament began. Now that the matches have actually started, the routine of going from the hotel to the site, practicing or playing, and returning to the hotel to relax and prepare for the next match is more of “normal” situation.

Next up for Auger-Aliassime is doubles.

(That’s another thing – having a first-round match on a … Saturday. He probably felt like it was … Tuesday. Of course, during this pandemic, it has often felt like every day was just another day that ends in “y” for a lot of people).

Next up is doubles

Auger-Aliassime will return to the match court on Sunday, teaming up with countryman Milos Raonic for the first time ever.

Raonic also had a relatively routine first-round singles win Saturday, over American Sam Querrey.

They will face the pickup team of Nicholas Mahut and Jan-Lennard Struff.

Mahut is usually paired with fellow Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert. But Herbert’s wife is expecting their first child … imminently; he opted to skip the trip to the bubble.