Auger-Aliassime, Korda Win A Pair of Great Battles To Reach Antwerp Final

Felix Auger-Aliassime (photo: Belga/European Open)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 22, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Sebastian Korda exuded a calm and confident demeanor under pressure when it mattered the most against Dominic Thiem during their European Open semifinal match Saturday afternoon in Antwerp. While both competitors gave the fans who flocked to Lotto Arena a great effort that was hugely entertaining – and both showed everyone that their games are headed in the right direction – it was Korda who was superb in the clutch moments. He maintained a positive belief in himself.

After 204 points and nearly two-and-three-quarter-hours of great tennis, Korda reached his fourth ATP Tour final – and third on hard courts – with a 6-7 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Thiem. The young American recovered from losing a close opening set in his first meeting against the Austrian star. By the end, he had struck 50 winners to 28 unforced errors. Korda’s triumph, which was his eighth in his last nine matches, has lifted him into an ATP 250 indoor hard-court title match for the second straight week after reaching the final at Gijón, Spain last weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, Korda will face No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, who advanced with a 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3) victory over No. 82 Richard Gasquet of France Saturday evening.

Thiem, who was looking to reach his first tour-level final since the Nitto ATP Finals in 2020, will leave Antwerp ranked 113th in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings after starting the week ranked No. 132.

“I am very happy,” Korda said in his on-court interview with Sabine Appelmans after securing his 34th victory of the season. “It’s very difficult to play against a player like Dominic. It was a great battle between both of us. I’m very happy [with the result].

“I think every single game in the first set we were 30-all on each other’s serve and couldn’t get through the barrier. I think the second set was key. A lot of breaks in that set, but I just stayed calm and confident. I just kept going.”

After an hour in which neither player faced a break point, it was on to an opening set tie-break. From 2-4 down, Thiem recovered nicely. He remained focused and won some brilliant points against Korda to pull out the tie-break 7-4 after garnering five straight points at the end.

Not to be denied, though, Korda went to work and immediately broke Thiem at love in the opening game of the second set. However, Thiem got back on serve in the ensuing game as the frustration on Korda’s face was quite evident. But the Austria star could not capitalize on his good fortune and he was broken for a second consecutive game to trail 1-2. Korda consolidated the break for a 3-1 advantage. Then, at 5-3, Korda converted his third break point of the set at love with a forehand winner – his 33rd of the semifinal –to prevail 6-3 as the match clock reached an hour and 43 minutes. Korda took advantage of Thiem’s inability to win points on his first serve, which dipped to an anemic 33 percent.

As the final set unfolded, both competitors dug in deep, neither giving away very much through the first six games. While Korda was attempting to reach back-to-back tour-level finals, Thiem was seeking the 29th tour-level title match of his career. However, all changed in Thiem’s favor as he converted his first break point of the match after Korda hit a forehand that nicked the net cord and bounced long to go ahead 4-3. But Korda wasn’t ready to concede anything. He gained two break points during Thiem’s ensuing service game and converted the second one after Thiem netted a forehand to kill a seven-shot rally. It leveled matters at 4-all. Soon, Korda held twice more to assure himself of at least a tie-break with a 6-5 lead after compiling some impressive serving numbers for the set: 5 aces and 15 winners. Thiem was up to the challenge and held serve after trailing love-30, then hitting an outstanding backhand winner – his 27th winner of the match –to force a final-set tie-break.

Korda immediately went to work and gained a pair of mini-breaks to jump out to a 3-0 lead in the tie-break. Thiem got one of the breaks back but Korda pushed ahead 4-1. Both players held their serve, and it gave Korda a match point, leading 6-3. Thiem saved it after Korda hit a forehand wide, but the American won on the next point after Thiem hit a running forehand return wide left that ended the semifinal after two hours and 42 minutes. His 13th unforced error was a very unlucky one.

“You can never really prepare for a final-set tie-breaker,” Korda admitted, “but I am happy with the way I stayed confident and positive.”

Auger-Aliassime earns seventh straight win

After further securing the seventh-place position in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Turin with his three-set quarterfinal victory over No. 5 seed Daniel Evans Friday evening, which boosted his lead over Taylor Fritz, World No. 10 and top seed Felix Auger-Aliassime went about the business of continuing his chase after a third tour-level title of the season.

The young Canadian star brought a six-match winning streak into his semifinal against No. 82 Richard Gasquet of France, who was playing in his first hard-court semifinal since 2020 at Sofia.

The two multi-lingual combatants – both fluent in French and English – put on a remarkable performance, pushing each other from start to finish of their showdown, and won 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3) in two hours and one minute. It was the Montreal native’s Tour-leading 18th indoor victory of 2022.

“It was the most difficult match this week so far,” Auger-Aliassime said in his on-court interview. He had advanced to the semifinals after dropping the opening set to Evans on Friday. “I mean, if I didn’t serve the way I did, it would have been really tough to win. My serve helped me tremendously to get through my service games easily and then, after giving myself chances, he was playing good.”

From the beginning, Auger-Aliassime played confidently and commanded the right stuff in the peak moments, hitting 10 aces and striking 22 winners, to win the first-set tie-break 7-2 after breaking ahead 5-0.

Next, in the second set, Gasquet eked out a 12-point hold in the ninth game to prevent from being broken. Then, he saved a break point in his next service game – also a 12-point tussle – and followed it with a blistering one-fisted backhand winner, his 26th winner, to hold for 6-5. Soon, Auger-Aliassime held with his 20th ace – and 10th of the set –on game point to force another tie-break to decide matters.

During the tie-break, Auger-Aliassime went ahead 3-1 with a mini break of Gasquet, then increased the margin to 5-2 with another sizzling ace up the middle. He gained a match point at 6-3 after breaking the Frenchman with an overhead winner, then won on his serve with a stunning ace, his 22nd of the semifinal.

The champion at Florence last week, Auger-Aliassime is through to the final this week in Antwerp at the expense of Gasquet, who played terrifically all week long. After securing match point, the Canadian No. 1 broke out into a big smile and raised a clenched fist in celebration. He outpointed Gasquet 85-75 and did not face any break points from his opponent.

Auger-Aliassime, just 22, gave props to the 36-year-old Gasquet, one of the elders on the ATP Tour. “He’s still playing so well after so many years on the Tour,” he said. “All credits to him for pushing. He’s been a great leader in our sport and a great example. Again, congrats to him. He’s been playing amazing.”

Around the European Open

• Unseeded Dutch duo Botic van de Zandschulp and Tallon Griekspoor upended No. 4 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, both of France, 6-3, 6-4, to earn a spot in Sunday’s title match. The winners faced no break points on their serve during the 65-minute semifinal. They outpointed the French team 58-41.

Van de Zandschulp and Griekspoor, who were 0-4 together this season, have won all three of their Antwerp matches in straight sets. They began their run to the final with a 6-2, 7-5 upset of No. 1 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, both of Colombia.

Also, advancing to Sunday’s final were No. 2 seeds Rohan Bopanna of India and Matwe Middelkoop of the Netherlands, who defeated Sander Arends and David Pels, both of the Netherlands, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 10-7, on Friday.

• Retiring Belgian tennis player Ruben Bemelmans was feted on court before the start of Friday’s evening session. Bemelmans played his final singles and doubles matches earlier this week at the European Open.

• Barely 24 hours after he lost his quarterfinal round match, Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka was back on court – not in Antwerp, mind you, but in Vienna, Austria. That’s because he was playing a qualifying draw match against Ilya Ivashka of Belarus at the Erste Bank Open, an ATP 500 event, whose main draw begins Monday. The No. 1 seed won 6-2, 7-6 (4) to advance to the second round of qualifying against João Sousa on Sunday.

Saturday’s European Open results

Sunday’s European Open order of play

By the numbers

Sebastian Korda has risen to No. 33 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings and will go to No. 30 if wins the European Open title on Sunday. He is attempting to win his second tour-level crown after lifting the trophy in Parma last year.

“Quotable …”

“It was a really high-quality match from both of us and I couldn’t regret too much, or anything really, in the first set. He just played a bit too good. Then, I started serving better, I was able to hold my serve a little bit easier, so that of course helped.

“From the tie-break and the third set, it was a great finish from me. I’m really happy I made the effort to dig deep and push hard until the end.”

– No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, during his on-court interview Friday evening after defeating No. 5 seed Daniel Evans, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, to advance to Saturday’s semifinal round.