The Education Of Felix Auger-Aliassime Continues In Sofia

WASHINGTON/SOFIA, November 11, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Just two days after Felix Auger-Aliassime won his first ATP Tour title in singles or doubles, when he and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland won the Rolex Paris Masters doubles title, the 20-year-old Canadian found himself 2,170 kilometers away from the City of Lights. He had arrived in the City of the Serdi for the 17th and final tournament of his 2020 season at the ATP 250 Sofia Open in the Bulgarian capital city.

“Physically, I am still good; I am healthy – and I am confident in my game, that I can play well and do good things this week,” the World No. 21 Auger-Aliassime said Tuesday afternoon during a virtual international media roundtable at Arena Armeec. A day later, Auger-Aliassime might have had second thoughts after losing to No. 82 Salvatore Caruso of Italy, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 40 minutes. The 27-year-old Italian from Avola, in the province of Syracuse, Sicily, was cool under pressure and played the big points better than Auger-Aliassime.

With No. 1 seed and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov already knocked out of the tournament a day earlier, No. 2 seed Auger-Aliassime came into his second-round match as the highest seed remaining in the original 28-player draw. When he took Center Court Wednesday evening in Sofia, Auger-Aliassime brought with him a three-match losing streak after falling in the semifinals at Cologne followed by consecutive first-round losses in Vienna and Paris. This season, as his 23-19 win-loss can attest, it’s been hit or miss. Auger-Aliassime played in three finals – Marseille, Rotterdam and the first Cologne indoor tournament – but he was also ousted in the first round at the Australian Open, Rome and Roland Garros.

“Being second seed here – and I have already reached three finals [this year] – I want to give myself a chance to [play for] the title again. I want to give myself a shot to win. But I have to start by winning the [first] match.

“It is the end of the year and one more tournament. I will try to give everything I can.”

What happened was Caruso was solid on his serve, winning 77 percent of his first-serve points and backing it with a healthy 62 percent efficiency on second-serve points. He saved all six break points he faced from Auger-Aliassime, too. Also, Caruso broke his Canadian opponent in the seventh game of the opening set and the fifth game of second set and made those breaks stand up. Caruso outpointed Auger-Aliassime 66-58 to move into the quarterfinal round against Richard Gasquet of France.

“I think I played a really solid match on my serve,”Caruso told Tennis TourTalk. “My serve was very solid today. I got a lot of points when my first serve was in. I was feeling very confident with my serve and with my strokes on the baseline. I didn’t make many mistakes on the court. The two break points were the difference today.”

Along with Shapovalov and third seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, Auger-Aliassime would have qualified for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan had it not be cancelled this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic. This week’s tournament has had a Next Gen vibe to it as the draw includes six players who are part of the up-and-coming next generation of ATP stars. However, going into Thursday’s quarterfinals, only de Minaur remains of the top three seeds.

“Felix is a great champion; he a great champion already,”Caruso, whose tour-level record improved to 7-12 “He is going to be a future champion. This represents a really good win [for me].”

During his virtual media event, Tennis TourTalk asked Auger-Aliassime what he’s learned about himself in his third full professional season. He was openly honest in his assessment. “This year was interesting,” he said. “Obviously not playing the full year and, then, it was tough to make a clear schedule. I think if I had to do it again, maybe, I would pick my tournaments a little bit better. Maybe, I would reschedule a little bit differently. 

“I think I will adjust in the coming year. For sure, I had good moments. I have learned from my losses in a way I understand that it is tough to come every week and to play week after week. And, to come with your best level and best energy and the same focus. I think this is a part I can still improve – to have that consistency of results.

“I will have to go through the level of tennis I am playing and my fitness and my mental state and stability. These are the things I want to adjust and improve on.

“Again, I am 20-years-old. I had good results but I’m also learning, growing. In the end, I want to raise my level to one day be the best player I can be. This year has been just another year of good matches, tough losses and experiences for me to grow as a player and person.”

Sinner’s experience proves valuable against Huesler

No. 44 Jannik Sinner of Italy powered his way into his fourth quarterfinal of the season with a 6-3, 6-4 win over 149th-ranked lucky loser Marc-Andrea Huesler of Switzerland in one hour and 18 minutes to set up a Thursday quarterfinal matchup against No. 3 seed Alex de Minaur, whom Sinner beat in the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan last year.

In a battle of big servers, Sinner wrapped up the 42-minute first set with his fourth serve ace. He won 86 percent (18 of 21) of his first-serve points and saved each of the two break points he faced in the opening set. Later, Sinner broke Huesler’s serve to go ahead 4-3 in the second set and consolidated the break on an unforced error by Huesler. Then, a game later with Sinner serving for the match, he began with his sixth ace and didn’t let up with his sights focused on his 16th victory of the season. Sinner set up match point with a service winner and secured the victory with a forehand winner that Huesler barely was able to get his racquet on.

“My energy level is good; I feel great, of course,” Sinner told Tennis TourTalk after the match. “I prefer to play back-to-back, to get rhythm and to feel the court a little better. Physically, I feel well and feel ready for tomorrow.”

Huesler, who came into his match against Sinner 4-1 in ATP Tour matches including a semifinal finish at Kitzbuhel, won his opening match Monday against seventh seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia after saving two match points. Meanwhile, Sinner made his Sofia Open debut a successful one with a straight-set victory over No. 55 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary on Tuesday.

Before taking court against Huesler, Sinner said: “I know that he is lefty, serving well and going to the next level. It is not an easy match for sure, especially when you don’t know a guy and you have to play against him. It is never easy. I am going to try to be focused from the first point and then we will see.”

Sinner finished with six aces, won 86 percent of his first-serve points, saved each of the break points he faced and broke Huesler twice in five chances. Huesler hit nine aces and won 72 percent (26 of 36) of his first-serve points, but his percentage dropped to 46 percent on his second-serve points won. Sinner outpointed his opponent 69-53.

After the match Huesler shared his impressions of playing against Sinner with Tennis TourTalk“I felt like the beginning of the match was tough because [Jannik] was attacking my second serves pretty well, putting more pressure on me to make my first,” he said. “I thought I didn’t use my chances I had during the match – I didn’t’ have too many – but at important moments, I dropped my level a little bit. At the end it made a difference.”

Sinner’s 16th victory of the season advanced him into his fourth quarterfinal of the season.

Around the Sophia Open

• France’s Gilles Simon saved two second-set match points during a 14-point 12th game in the second and two more in in the seven game of the third set against No. 6 seed John Millman. However, the Australian prevailed on his fifth match point that came at the conclusion of a 24-shot rally as he pulled out a tireless 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-2 victory against the 62nd-ranked qualifier in three hours and 15 minutes to reach the quarterfinal round.

“I feel tired now,” said Millman after improving his 2020 record to 18-12. “I’ve played with Gilles in Sydney before and hit with him a lot. He is so physical and hard to hit winners against. You know you’re going to be in a bit of a war against him. 

“Gilles uses pace so well and you need to be patient. He feeds off people overplaying and he is so good at closing the court up.”

Millman’s fifth match point opportunity was the first on his serve. He outpointed Simon 114-103, breaking Simon’s serve six times and taking advantage of 12 double faults by the Frenchman. Next, Millman will face 74th-ranked Vasek Pospisil of Canada.

• No. 5 seed Adrian Mannarino advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 7-6 (6) win over No. 81 Egor Gerasimov of Belarus in one hour and 46 minutes. Mannarino overcame Gerasimov’s 10 aces by breaking his opponent twice and winning 78 percent (35 of 45) of his first-serve points. He also saved six of the seven break points he faced. Next, Mannarino will play No. 93 Radu Albot of Moldova, who upset No. 1 seed Denis Shapovalov, 6-2, 6-4, Tuesday night.

• No. 3 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia didn’t play his best against 114th-ranked Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev. But the 25th-ranked Aussie found his way to win 6-4, 7-6 (5) to reach the quarterfinals against Jannik Sinner. De Minaur overcame a 4-2 deficit in the second set. He broke Karatsev twice and saved two set points. Then, in a tiebreak de Minaur won the final two points of the match.

“I’m obviously very happy with the win today against a very, very tough opponent,” de Minaur said during his virtual press conference. “It was an incredibly tricky match and I’m very happy I was able to get the win and have a good, positive start to my Sofia Open.”

De Minaur discarded his usual white ball cap in favor of a bright red bandana. When he was asked about it by Tennis TourTalk, the affable de Minaur said, “I wish I had something interesting [to say about it], but it’s the last tournament of the year, why not change it up and try something different and see if it can bring me some wins and play some good matches.”

• Wild card Jonas Forejtek of Czech Republic, ranked No. 399, lost 6-4, 6-2 to No. 49 Richard Gasquet of France in the final match Wednesday night. Gasquet’s eighth ace set up match point and and he won on a nifty backhand winner to complete the 69-minute second-round contest. On Monday, Forejtek earned his first ATP Tour main draw victory in his ATP Tour main draw debut. He beat No. 8 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, 6-3, 6-2, on Monday evening.

• In the doubles quarterfinals, No. 2 seeds Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, both from Great Britain, remained alive for a berth in next week’s Nitto ATP Finals in London. They beat Radu Albot of Moldova and Artem Sitak of New Zealand, 6-4, 6-2, to reach the semifinals. No. 1 seeds Jurgen Melzer of Austria and Edouard Roger-Vasselin from France also advanced over British pair Jonny O’Mara and Ken Skupski, 6-4, 6-2.

In one semifinal on Thursday, Murray and Neal Skupski will face Fabrice Martin of France and Hugo Nys of Monaco. In the other semifinal on Friday, Melzer and Roger-Vasselin will play Tomislav Brkic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Marin Cilic from Croatia.