Indian Wells 2019: Youth has its day – teen Felix Auger-Aliassime beats Tsitsipas, Kecmanović beats Marterer
Felix Auger-Aliassime beats No10 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas to reach the round of 32 at Indian Wells
The tens of thousands who converge on the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this March weekend would, later in the day, be treated to the opening bids of the top seeds, Novak Djokovic—a five-time champion in the desert—and Naomi Osaka—the defending champion.
There were numerous other Major champions ready to open their accounts, too: Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki among them.
But those who arrived in time for the 11am start could get a taste of what the next few years may hold for tennis, as young stars—some already seeds, some eager to join the elite ranks—began their campaigns.
On No5 court, Lucky Loser Miomir Kecmanović, one of four teenagers in the men’s draw after picking up a Round 2 spot courtesy of the withdrawal of No5 seed Kevin Anderson, had the chance to make a mark against the 99-ranked Maximilian Marterer.
And the 19-year-old Serb deserved his place in the company of the starry pair who would open proceedings on Centre Court, No10 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, at a career-high 58 after reaching his first big final in Rio last month.
Back in 2015, Kecmanović won the Orange Bowl against Tsitsipas in a final-set tie-breaker. And he reached the final of the US Open Junior singles in 2016 where he was beaten by Auger-Aliassime—and ended that same season as the ITF No1 junior.
Since then, Kecmanović had won just one main-tour match, in the first week of 2019 to reach the second round in Brisbane.
Meanwhile, however, his junior rivals were taking huge strides on the senior tour. The charismatic 6ft4ins Greek Tsitsipas, did of course have the edge in age, but his rise last year, still age 19, was remarkable.
He began 2018 ranked 90, beat three top-20 players to reach the final in Barcelona, beat Anderson to reach the semis in Estoril, made the fourth round at Wimbledon, the semis of Washington, and then beat four top-10 players to reach the final of the Toronto Masters.
By the time he ended the season, he had won his first title in Stockholm, then the NextGen Finals, and he broke the top 10 for the first time last week. 2019 was proving that Tsitsipas was here to stay, indeed here to challenge the best. He beat Roger Federer on his way to the semis at the Australian Open, won in Marseille, and was runner-up in Dubai.
And he did it all in eye-catching, crowd-pleasing style, with aggressive, expressive, all-court tennis played with a one-handed backhand.
However, the youngest man in the draw, the athletic, nimble Canadian Auger-Aliassime, had plenty in his favour, not least wins over Tsitispas in their three junior meetings.
Auger-Aliassime, whose birthday is in the same week as Tsitsipas’s and the same day as Federer’s, made his first senior final at a younger age then the Greek, in Rio last week. He won the US Open junior doubles titles with his best friend and compatriot Denis Shapovalov as a 15-year-old, and went on to win the singles title the next year, age 16.
By the time he had turned 17, he had two Challenger titles, and was the youngest player to break the top 200 since Rafael Nadal in 2002.
Exactly a year ago, he qualified for his first Masters, in Indian Wells, and like this year, reached the second round, as he did in Toronto. Less than a year ago, he was ranked 185: now he was on the verge of cracking the top 50.
So this first senior match between two players who could go on to form the rivalry of the next decade was, rightly, highly anticipated.
Auger-Aliassime came out of the blocks faster, unfazed by the size of the stage or opponent, and he broke in the third game. He showed remarkable composure in fighting through a 12-minute fourth game, six break points, two double faults, to hold his advantage, 3-1.
It was a fascinating first set, with both men going for their shots, but the young Canadian firing wide to the Tsitsipas backhand time and again. Perhaps those 15 match-wins this year weighed a little heavy in the Greek legs, especially with the time difference he faced between Dubai to California this week. He hung back, reacted rather than being proactive, and he paid the price.
For while Tsitsipas’s level steadily rose, and his demonstrative backhand at last came into play, he could not get the break back. Auger-Aliassime served out the set to love, 6-4.
The second set was played at an even higher pace, and still Auger-Aliassime seemed to control the rallies, powering the ball from corner to corner, transitioning in when the opportunity arose, and generally containing the Greek. Tsitsipas made two poor forehand errors in the third game, the Canadian broke, and then consolidated with an ace for a love hold, 3-1.
The only real sign of nerves hit Auger-Aliassime in the sixth game. Three straight double faults, and he faced his only break point of the set, but more errors—and three failed line challenges—from Tsitsipas, helped pull the Canadian through, via another ace.
The confidence that now shone from the Canadian was palpable: a backhand running pass down the line, a blistering forehand return of serve, and Tsitsipas was looking into the chasm. Sure enough, Auger-Aliassime broke, and served out the win, 6-2, in just an hour and quarter—his first top-10 win.
There are sure to be many more, though his next opponent, most likely the No21 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, will be a very different proposition—as solid, fit, and resilient as they come.
And what of his fellow teen, Kecmanović? Well he was finished even sooner than Auger-Aliassime, taking a scant hour to beat Marterer, 6-3, 6-2, his second ever main-tour win, and so continues to edge ever nearer the top 100 mark. He has a decent shot at getting there soon, too: His next opponent is the 32-ranked Laslo Djere, though the Serb does happen to be the man who beat Auger-Aliassime in the Rio final.
There was, however, a surprise loss for de Minaur against the No217 ranked qualifier, Marcos Giron, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2.