In A Close Race For Turin, Auger-Aliassime Has Grown To Love Playing In Italy

Felix Auger-Aliassime (photo: Giampiero Sposito/UniCredit Firenze Open)

FLORENCE/WASHINGTON, October 15, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 13 Felix Auger-Aliassime reached his 11th career ATP Tour final – and third of the season – at the UniCredit Firenze Open in Florence, Italy on Saturday evening. But to do it, the popular young Canadian had to play the role of spoiler. That’s because he was facing fellow #NextGenATP star Lorenzo Musetti of Italy, a native of the Tuscany region of the Southern European country where the tournament is being held this week.

Before a packed house that filled Palazzo Wanny, Auger-Aliassime beat the No. 3 seed Musetti, 6-2, 6-3, in an hour and 27 minutes for his 43rd victory of 2022. The win advanced Auger-Aliassime to his third indoor title match of the season, where he will face upstart American J.J. Wolf. It will be their first meeting. A Sunday title triumph would mean a return for the Canadian No. 1 to the Top 10 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings.

Auger-Aliassime, who would finish the semifinal with eight aces and 21 winners, struck first with a break of Musetti in the sixth game of the opening set to go ahead 4-2, taking advantage of a netted forehand return that killed a six-shot rally. With the margin of error very narrow, it was important for Auger-Aliassime to consolidate the break and keep the pressure on the 20-year-old from Carrera. However, Musetti gained a break point with a crisp backhand passing shot winner, but Auger-Aliassime saved a pair of break points that frustrated his opponent. He went on to hold for a 5-2 lead after Musetti struck a one-fisted backhand long.

At the changeover, Musetti took a medical time out after it appeared he was suffering from a breathing problem – maybe a bit of anxiety from the high expectations of being the only surviving Italian from a group of seven that began the main draw on Monday? After receiving treatment, he returned to the battle on court, but had a lot of catching up to do. That’s because Auger-Aliassime strung together three straight points to break Musetti and capture the 48-minute first set 6-2.

Auger-Aliassime wasted precious little time or effort in grabbing a love hold to begin the second set. At the change-over, the pro-Italian crowd tried to muster support for their home favorite and it seemed to lift Musetti’s spirits as he rallied with a solid hold. However, there was little letting up by Auger-Aliassime, who continued to apply pressure to his opponent and broke him to go ahead 4-2. The frustration on Musetti’s face was evident after he slapped a forehand return well beyond the baseline that killed a spirited back-and-forth rally.

Then, Auger-Aliassime consolidated the break to extend his lead to 5-2, needing to win just one more game. While Musetti saved a pair of match points in his next service game and held, Auger-Aliassime served out the victory with a solid love hold. He dropped just 12 points on his serve all evening, saved both break points he faced, and outpointed Musetti 60-43.

With an eye toward making his debut in the year-end Nitto ATP Finals, which will be held at the Pala Alpitour in Turin beginning Nov. 13, Auger-Aliassime (who has moved to No. 11 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings) has solidified his chances this week in Florence by reaching the final, winning with all the right stuff. With his 89-minute quarterfinal win over Brandon Nakashima on Friday, Auger-Aliassime moved past American Taylor Fritz into seventh place.

The top seed in Tuscany this week, Auger-Aliassime has reached five tour-level semifinals this season. The 22-year-old Montreal native, who earlier beat Oscar Otte in his first match of the ATP 250 indoor hard-court event, won his first ATP Tour title in Rotterdam last February, also on an indoor hard court.

“I am very pleased with my level,” Auger-Aliassime said in his Friday on-court interview. He spoke of the importance of staying focused from start to finish “because you never know, matches can change quickly.”

Auger-Aliassime admitted before he took the court to face Musetti, a first-time Tour champion earlier this season at Hamburg – whom he described as a tough opponent – that he still had a lot of work to do to qualify for Turin. Later, after his semifinal victory, Auger-Aliassime said on-court: “We started the match really good, at a very high level. He was playing amazing tennis and I thought, ‘I’m going to need to play my best tennis in order to win’. I think that’s what I did tonight, I played very complete tennis, a very solid performance. I’m really happy and looking forward to tomorrow.”

Regardless of how Auger-Aliassime fares in Florence, he will be right back on the court next week at the European Open in Antwerp, Belgium as the No. 2 seed. “It won’t be easy to win any match,” he admitted.

In the meantime, Auger-Aliassime said he’s been enjoying his time in Florence. “It’s a beautiful city, it’s amazing. It’s a privilege to travel around the world and to visit some beautiful cities. I always love playing in Italy. I came when I was young, 11 or 12-years-old, playing everywhere in Italy. I love playing in Rome. This is the first time I have played in this region. I’m loving my time here.”

Midwesterner Wolf at home in Tuscany

All week long, J.J. Wolf, the young American Midwesterner from Ohio, has shown a sense of comfort far away in Florence, in the Tuscany region of Italy. On Saturday afternoon, Wolf reached his first ATP Tour-level final after producing a rewarding 6-4, 6-4 semifinal victory over Sweden’s Mikael Ymer.

Over the course of 90 minutes on Campo Centrale, Wolf, who began the season ranked outside the Top 150, gave a powerful performance that started strong and ended with a brilliant flourish. It was rich in quality. He hit eight aces and 21 winners overall, broke Ymer’s serve five times in seven opportunities and outpointed the Swedish No. 1 65-60.

It’s a win that will lift the 75th-ranked Wolf close to the Top 50 – he will enter Sunday’s title match in Florence ranked a career-high 56th –and it represents a great achievement for the 23-year-old from Cincinnati, who has matriculated from national junior champion to collegiate star at Ohio State to five-time ATP Challenger Tour titlist to rising American star.

The loss ended a tremendous run for the 24-year-old Ymer, who won two rounds of qualifying last weekend and had strung together earlier wins over qualifier Tim van Rijthoven, No. 5 seed Aslan Karatsev and Roberto Carballes Baena before losing to Wolf. Ymer was seeking his second career ATP Tour final and attempting to become the fourth qualifier to reach an ATP Tour final this season. He did little wrong against Wolf. Now, the World No. 99 will return home to Stockholm with a special exemption to play in his hometown tournament, the Stockholm Open, starting on Monday.

As the first semifinal played out in Palazzo Wanny, Wolf won the 41-minute opening set by being the more consistent aggressor. He struck 10 winners and took advantage of nine unforced errors by Ymer. Wolf exuded a sense of comfort on the court, both during his service games and also while receiving.He aided his cause by breaking Ymer’s serve in the opening game of both sets.

However, Ymer recovered the early break in the second set and broke Wolf’s serve in the fourth game to go ahead 3-1 as the Ohioan’s level took a sudden and dramatic dip. Ymer, though, was unable to consolidate the break. Instead, Wolf recovered it and leveled matters at 3-all. Later, he used his baseline power to break Ymer for the fifth time to go ahead 5-4 with the semifinal match now on his racquet. Soon, Wolf closed out the win, which evened his career tour-level win-loss record at 16-16, on his second match point to keep his dream week alive.

“I definitely had to keep my nerves and really wait for my chances,” Wolf said during his on-court interview in describing the outcome against Ymer. “He’s sneaky aggressive and can turn defense into offense in a second. It’s no problem for him.”

Now, after a quartet of solid wins over wild card Francesco Maestrelli, No. 4 seed Maxime Cressy, No. 7 seed Alexander Bublik and qualifier Ymer, Wolf will go after his first ATP Tour-level title on Sunday with the hope of being able to celebrate with his now-familiar leap into the air and a fist pump one more time. He’s gotten pretty good at it lately and it’s become a popular meme on social media.

“I’m not sure what to expect tomorrow as I haven’t been in a final before,” Wolf added. “I’m just going to keep working on the things I’ve been working on and not worry about the result.”

Around the Firenze Open

In an all-French semifinal, Sadio Doumbia and Fabien Reboul were aiming to win their first ATP Tour-level title as a team. However, the Frenchmen knew they would have their hands full going up against tour veterans Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, who had not dropped a set and began the week by upsetting top seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Neal Skupski of Great Britain. As it happened, experience prevailed and it was Mahut and Roger-Vasselin who prevailed, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in an hour and 33 minutes to advance to Sunday’s title match – their first of the season.

In the opening semifinal, No. 3 seeds Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek of the United States, who have won one title this season (Lyon) and were finalists in two others (French Open, Citi Open in Washington, D.C.), advanced to their third final of the season with a 6-2, 3-6, 12-10 win over Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego and Andrea Vavassori by saving two match points. Although they were outpointed 55-54, Dodig and Krajicek converted one more break point than the Italian team and won the last three points of the match tie-break.

Saturday’s UniCredit Firenze Open results

Sunday’s UniCredit Firenze Open order of play

By the numbers

J.J. Wolf is the ninth American to reach an ATP Tour final this year. He joins a group that includes: Maxime Cressy, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka, 3; Jenson Brooksby and Frances Tiafoe, 2; Marcos Giron, John Isner and Brandon Nakashima, 1.

“Quotable …”

“There is still a lot of work to do to qualify for Turin. The race is still very close, very tight. I am going to try my best to go all the way this week. … It won’t be easy to win any match. But with the way I am playing now I have more chances of qualifying for the Top Eight at the end of the year.”

Top seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, during his on-court interview after securing a quarterfinal win over Brandon Nakashima on Friday.