September 28, 2021

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Time to regroup for Félix Auger-Aliassime after first-round Roland Garros defeat

Tough day at a soggy office for Félix Auger-Aliassime Monday in Paris. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

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ROLAND GARROS – Despite struggling to find a rhythm since tennis turned to clay a few weeks ago, Félix Auger-Aliassime certainly had hopes for the first Roland Garros of his career.

But a very tough draw, tough conditions for his game style and perhaps a bit of a lack of belief combined to eliminate him in the first round.

The 20-year-old ran up against Japanese lefty Yoshihito Nishioka, a 25-year-old ranked near his career best at No. 52, and generously listed at 5-foot-7.

Nishioka was a wall in a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory that, after a good start by the Canadian, wasn’t quite as close as that score would indicate.

Auger-Aliassime tried to make a match of it in the third set, when he broke Nishioka as he tried to serve it out the first time at 5-1. Had he broken again at the second time of asking, it might have gotten interesting.

But it was not to be.

Here’s a look at what it was like.

A very tough opponent

Auger-Aliassime told Open Court that after the match, he sat in the locker room by himself for an hour.

He didn’t talk to a soul. He tried to quickly digest what had happened, and tried to regain some measure of serenity. But that was a tough ask.

“I’m extremely disappointed in myself, in the result of the match, a bit of everything. Despite the last few weeks, I still hoped. And I trained well before coming here, so I was hoping for better,” he said. “I could have done better, I think – even in a match like today when the conditions were complicated for me and my game.”

Auger-Aliassime said that what Nishioka brings to the table was also a complicating factor. The two met at Indian Wells last year, after Auger-Aliassime’s great run on the South American clay raised his ranking from outside the top 100 to No. 58.

He had beaten top-50 players Cameron Norrie and Stefanos Tsitsipas before running into Nishioka. And the result was a heartbreaker of a loss – 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (5).

The two also met all the way back when Auger-Aliassime was a kid of 14, at a Challenger in Granby, about an hour from his home in Montreal.

Here’s Auger-Aliassime, interviewed ahead of his first career match against Nishioka – at age 14!

It was only Auger-Aliassime’s second pro tournament. He qualified, and won two rounds to reach the quarterfinals. After winning the first set, he ran out of juice and went down 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.

Hope springs eternal in France

Even though Auger-Aliassime’s future probably doesn’t lie as a clay-court specialist, he made his early moves on the pro circuit on the dirt. And in France, he has had big success – and is very popular.

Auger-Aliassime’s charity endeavour with BNP Paribas is getting good play in France this week.

An ad for his charity endeavour with BNP Paribas is running regularly on the France 2 livestreams of the matches.

But a year ago, after reaching the final in Lyon the week before Roland Garros, he injured his quad and was forced to withdraw late from what would have been his first Roland Garros.

This year also won’t go down as his best moment in Paris. But he will have plenty more.

First serve a must in slow conditions

The cold, heavy conditions are tough for a player like Auger-Aliassime, whose serve needs to penetrate and whose ability to hit winners from the baseline is a key part of his game.

On this day, against Nishioka, he had trouble putting the ball away.

Not that he didn’t try everything he could.

“I could have served better. Not necessarily hit aces, but purely on percentage of first serves. I was always battling behind my second serve, so every time I got into a rally It was tough physically and mentally for me,” he said. “All the work from the baseline, I have to become a better player to beat guys like that regularly.

“I tried to come to the net, but sometimes I was passed, so that was difficult. I tried to work with the slice, I didn’t do it enough. Maybe it might have worked eventually,” he added.

Auger-Aliassime said that mentally, a part of him began to doubt when he was down a set and down again in the second set. You could see it in his body language, although he tried to keep a calm outward demeanour – more unsuccessfully than not at times.

“It got more and more complicated. In those circumstances even if you search for solutions, you don’t find them, and mentally it becomes difficult. It was discouraging,” he said. “That’s the challenge for us, as tennis players: to stay calm, find solutions, keep battling. Today I wasn’t able to do it.”

Rest, regroup, reload

Next up for Auger-Aliassime is a little break, after several consecutive weeks of struggling through the US Open bubble, Rome and Hamburg last week.

A little family time. A little mental recharge.

“I need it,” he said.

He’s signed up for the Cologne ATP Tour 250 event right after the French Open. “We’ll see with the coaches what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to try to have better weeks for the rest of the season.”