“I know it doesn’t mean much right now. But you’re not only going to win one title, you’re going to win multiple titles in your career – bigger titles than this.”
Those were the words from Cologne champion Alexander Zverev to his friend Félix Auger-Aliassime, after the No. 1 seed defeated the Canadian 6-3, 6-3 to win the inaugural bett1 HULKS Indoors.
The two Monte Carlo residents practiced regularly together during the tennis shutdown, and know each other well.
And while Zverev might not quite be able to relate (he lost his first two finals, on grass, in 2016 before winning his first career title in St. Petersburg in the fall), he can sympathize on a different level.
This is the 23-year-old German’s 12th title; his career track is several years ahead of that of Auger-Aliassime. But he has faced similar frustration in doing what everyone has long expected him to do and is impatient for him to do: break through at the next level – the Grand Slam tournaments.
Seventh time lucky?
The career path for Auger-Aliassime has always been a “slow and steady wins the race” type of plan.
And the progress from 2019 to 2020 is fairly clear, even if he hasn’t gotten off the schneid in his quest for his first ATP-level title.
The Canadian was not quite prepared to win his first final in Rio, as a wild card ranked outside the top 100 who defeated four quality clay-courters on his way to the final.
(Djere, as it happens, won his second ATP title Sunday in Sardinia).
Against Paire in the Lyon final, Auger-Aliassime was hobbled by an adductor injury that ended up costing him his first Roland Garros participation the following week.
Against Berrettini in Stuttgart, the dramatic second-set tiebreak could have gone his way. And then, who knows what would have happened.
All top-10 opponents in finals
A year later, Auger-Aliassime has made three more finals in a truncated season, all on indoor hard courts.
Each time, he has failed to win a set. But each time, he wasn’t facing a lower-ranked player – but a top-10 player.
It may well be getting into his head a little bit at this point. But Auger-Aliassime has made six tour-level finals in less than a season and a half.
The comparison to friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov is generally overplayed, as Shapovalov is 16 months older and further along on his career path – and is a completely different type of player and personality.
But this much is true: when Shapovalov was Auger-Aliassime’s age (20 years and two months), he had yet to make his first ATP final.
Shapovalov rectified that a few months later, at the indoor event in Stockholm. He won that, and then went on to reach the final at the Paris Masters two weeks later, with the help of a walkover from Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. But he still stands at two finals.
So the key word, for those who want to pile on the 20-year-old, is still … patience. As Zverev said, he’ll get there.
St. Petersburg TD drops shade
No words for the comments of St. Petersburg tournament director Alexander Mededev. In trying to … somehow … make finalist Borna Coric feel better, he dropped some needless (and inaccurate) shade upon Auger-Aliassime in his remarks.
Zverev simply too solid
But back to the match, in which Auger-Aliassime had very little shot at breaking down an extremely solid Zverev.
His only shot at a break point in the first set came when Zverev double-faulted. He converted that break point when Zverev … double-faulted again.
In the second set, Auger-Aliassime had two break points at 2-2 in the second set – again, after Zverev double-faulted twice in a row to start the game.
Zverev saved the first one when, after a backhand exchange, Auger-Aliassime went for a forehand and missed it. On the second one, Zverev’s first serve was unreturned.
Those were basically the only opportunities the German gave him in the match.
When you can regularly serve about 220 km/hours indoors, it’s going to be tough for your opponent to get on top of service games.
Zverev’s first serve percentage was a pedestrian 53 per cent. But he won 80 per cent of the points on his first serve.
But if you take the five double faults out of the equation, Zverev won 15-of-17 points on his second serve.
That last number is where Auger-Aliassime absolutely needs to do better. Especially against a player who is struggling with his second serve (something to which Auger-Aliassime can relate).
Hanging in the rallies a challenge
The other area the Canadian couldn’t quite keep up was in the baseline rallies.
There were probably too many backhand-to-backhand rallies for the Canadian to hope for consistent success.
Zverev’s backhand is an absolutely top-class shot. It’s smooth, and it’s heavy, and he can basically hit it all day long without seeming to even put effort in.
Late in the match, Auger-Aliassime caught on to a pattern that was more successful. He was able to change direction and hit his backhand down the line, changing the dynamic of the rally. In the points where he took the risk on that shot, it seemed to work well.
But it was a little late by then.
That gap just illustrates the gap between being top 20 (or close), and top five (or close). Rankings don’t lie, in most cases; there’s a reason players are where they are.
Back to it in Cologne this week
Auger-Aliassime won’t have much time to dwell upon the defeat.
Although he will have a little more time than he expected to have.
The No. 5 seed was due to meet American Steve Johnson in the first round of “Cologne 2”.
But after the late withdrawal of Roberto Bautista Agut, the tournament had to shuffle the seeds around.
As the No. 5, Auger-Aliassime was moved in Bautista Agut’s spot. So as the top four seeds have first-round byes, he has to wait for the winner between qualifier Egor Gerasimov and wild card Daniel Altmaier.
He has doubles again with Robert Lindstedt of Sweden, to fill in the gap.
The duo will face the Aussie team of Max Purcell and Luke Saville in the first round.