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Madrid | Auger-Aliassime To Face Nadal

Day 1 of the Madrid Open was mostly devoted to the second round of the qualifying. However, besides those who were scrambling for a prime-time spot, two more couples of adversaries debuted today, setting up a pair of matches with a high entertainment value, for different reasons.

Jan-Lennard Struff (Ger, 48) d. Nick Kyrgios (Aus, 34) 7-6 (4), 6-4

Nick Kyrgios and Jan-Lennard Struff faced off at noon in what promised to be a serve shoot-out. The two share an impressive frame, and an erratic streak of form, although Struff is a paradigm of tennis steadiness compared to Kyrgios, whose ghosts seem to chase him on and off the court, and the encounter’s progress followed a perfunctory pattern to its final outcome.

Despite an apparently similar playing style, the German is a typical contemporary power baseliner, who, despite not being neither a counter-puncher nor a ballerina around the court, is quite acclimatized to clay, whose slowness allows him to get into the match at his own pace, and to run around his left side to his big inside-out forehand with some time to spare on the backswing, covering for his backhand deficiencies.

As for Kyrgios, he’s never become a top dog on the dirt: the Aussie’s game has always relied heavily on his blinding-light serve, which is quite impaired on slow courts, and he also lacks the tactical structure and patience to be suitable for long-term attrition on crushed bricks. However, Madrid’s quicker conditions are probably the best for his flamboyant, all-out gestalt, as he proved when he beat Federer in their customary triple tie-break rendezvous in 2015.

The blitzkrieg expectations were factually confirmed: the two played 23 games in 65 minutes, and only four points went over 9 shots! However, a tactical pattern immediately started to emerge, with Struff exploiting Kyrgios’s unfamiliarity with the surface (it was his first clay showing of the season), his limited lateral mobility (typical of a player not at his fittest), and above all his extremely advanced court position off his own serve, hitting several deep returns to Kyrgios’s shoelaces, forcing him to hit bona fide half-volleys from the back of the court, and then coming in for winners off both sides. Even when serving, Struff stuck to the plan, booming wide and down the T on his first, and going to the body on the second, to devastating effect. The Aussie won just 8 points on return (4 in one game), and only 38% on his second serve (against 77%), and, despite hanging on to force the tie-break in the first set, he ultimately offered too many openings for Struff not to pierce him.

The German was very lucid, as aptly demonstrated by an episode that occurred in the second set: down 3-4, Kyrgios went immediately to serve at the change, implicitly urging his opponent back on court, but Struff, composed and hieratic, asked the ball-boy for a banana and took his time. This was one of several attempts to break the German’s rhythm, as Kyrgios also attempted three of his signature under-handed serves with critically panned results (the shot is actually gaining popularity, with Spanish newcomer Davidovich Fokina attempting a hilariously bad one in the Estoril semi-final) and some sneak attacks on the return, to no avail.

While commenting on the tornado-ish conditions in Monte-Carlo, Rafa Nadal talked about the necessity to adapt to any situation as a way to always exert some form of control and to perform at one’s current best, and Kyrgios doesn’t seem able (or willing) to do it. His game plan was clear from the get go, constantly aiming at Struff’s backhand and attempting an outrageous number of drop shots, and he didn’t change his approach even when it backfired. Even his break of serve in the first game of the second set seemed more the product of a momentary loss of concentration on the German’s part (he committed his first double-fault to go down 0-30) than that of a new strategy by Kyrgios. As a matter of fact, up 2-0 in the second, he lost 13 points in a row, getting broken back after a missed drop shot, a double fault, and an easily passed chopped approach to the net. Likewise, he folded in the very last game off another deep return and two more misguided drop shots.

Struff gets out in style from last week’s slump, when he put on a no-show in Munich, losing with a double 6-1 to Brazilian specialist Thiago Monteiro in a match that wasn’t remotely as close as the score suggests, getting drowned out of the game’s rhythm in less than an hour by his opponent’s left-handed hooks. That debacle can be seen as a one off, after very good showings in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, where he collected the scalps of Shapovalov, Goffin, and Tsitsipas (his second top 10 win of the season after the one in Indian Wells against Zverev), before giving Nadal a good run for his money in the quarter-finals in Rafa’s own stadium (he lost 7-5, 7-5). The German will now face either Marin Cilic, a qualifier, or a lucky loser, and, given the Croat’s current mid-career crisis, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a deep run.

On the other hand, Kyrgios continued his euphemistically troubled relationship with the surface – a few weeks ago, he went on record to urge the ATP to switch every clay tournament to grass. More broadly, he seemed once again unable to escape his persona, as seen when he checked his phone immediately after the end of the match, but this is him, whether he wins or loses, and perhaps fans should start to accept that he is happy this way.

Jan-Lennard Struff had to slide forward many times against Nick Kyrgios's drop shots.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (Can, 30) d. Denis Shapovalov (Can, 20) 6-2 7-6 (7)

The big showdown of the day, set for 6 pm, was the Canadian/NextGen derby between wonderkids (and pals) Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, who both showed flashes of almost fully realized potential by reaching the semi-finals in Miami in March, especially the latter, whose rise has been nothing short of mercurial (a year ago he was 189 in the rankings), and whose defeat against Isner was exclusively attributable to a yet to be developed killer instinct, having served for the set in both the first and the second.

The Israeli-born southpaw has been hailed as a future Slam champion for a few years now, but doesn’t really express himself at his best on clay, despite surprisingly reaching the semi-final in this tournament a year ago. Shapovalov’s shots down the line are a monument to how harmoniously simple and vertical tennis can be, but his game involves extreme anticipation and the utter refusal to let the opponent dictate even a shred of an exchange (he stubbornly hits most of his returns to try and hit a winner, and he’s also one of the heaviest double-faulters on tour), and this lack of patience can be dooming on a surface where Rod Laver famously claimed that an attacker should “bring [his] lunch” while waiting for an opening. As a matter of fact, he is yet to win a match on clay this season – although he won twice on the surface in January in the Davis Cup, those matches were played indoors.

His countryman’s game, on the other hand, is built around a strategic awareness that goes far beyond his young age. Auger-Aliassime’s physical talents seem to be built for clay, as is his wind-farm racket acceleration when generating spin on his groundstrokes – he demonstrated this in Rio, where he reached his maiden final in February. He has been performing adequately in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, where some tough draws have seen him bow out in the second and third round against Zverev and Nishikori, respectively. The two had met in the first round in New York last September, when FAA was forced to retire due to a since then resolved mild heart problem, caused by the equatorial humidity that caught the Big Apple last summer.

The match wasn’t quite as qualitative as might have been expected, the two have known each other for a long time and are perfectly aware of the other’s weak spots, especially Aliassime, whose clearer tactical mind sparked tons of deep returns, which caused Shapovalov to hit many unforced errors (his final ratio with winners was a somber -20, 18 versus 38), especially in the early stages of points, which were the main source for the young man of Togolese origin. While Aliassime targeted his opponent’s backhand early on, he also mixed his serve very well vis-à-vis both placement and speed, in order not to provide his foe with any point of reference, and he also seemed much more aware as to when he needed to hit down the line to get out of cross exchanges, whereas “El Shapo” had a particularly bad serving day, putting only 54% of his first serves into play.

The left-hander’s woes were particularly evident in the first set, in which he had to face break points in three games out of four, surrendering his serve twice, while not managing to create any chances on FAA’s serve, due to many unreturned serves, ultimately losing 6-2.

In the second set, Auger-Aliassime took the lead with a break in the third game, but then Shapovalov started to play a little more cautiously, putting in some good blocked returns and starting to switch down the line with more awareness, and managed to break back in the sixth game, while Aliassime started to betray some uncertainty on his inside-out forehand from the middle of the court, a sword that was particularly blunt for both players today.

After that, the match went on without much fuss, and, as happens very frequently, the tie-break was a catalyser for the insecurities of both: Aliassime immediately took a 3-0 lead, before earning a double match-point on 6-4. Then, two forehand misses put Shapovalov back into the contest (the first one after a 23-shots rally, by far the best point of the evening), and a further match-point was saved with a backhand cross that smudged the baseline. However, Shapo’s fourth and fifth backhand errors of the tie-break damned him, after one hour and 49 minutes, to a costly defeat (he’ll lose 350 points and at least 4 ranking positions) against his good friend, who is now 9-3 in tie-breaks this season, and who will face Nadal in the next round for the first time. The job looks prohibitive for Auger-Aliassime, but if there’s one thing that he showed today, even while not playing at his best, is that his focus is always there. Thus, the table should be set for a very interesting generational battle in the second round.



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