The 20-year-old Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime, might well represent the future of tennis, his blossoming arsenal demonstrated elegantly last week when he won three matches to advance to the round of 16 of a major for the first time in his career.
Auger-Aliassime’s opponent today, Dominic Thiem is one long, strong athlete. To borrow from the pop music world, call him tennis’ Tower of Power. So it was that in this match, Thiem made a statement worthy of one of that band’s trademark songs – “You’re Still a Young Man.”
Showing off much of the physicality and all-court prowess that has helped him reach three Grand Slam singles finals, Thiem cruelly and kindly jolted Auger-Aliassime into the present with a nearly flawless 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-1 master class in how contemporary big boys do business in week two.
Said Auger-Aliassime, “You play those top five players and it reaches another level. Thiem is a player who has been through these tournaments, and he’s made the finals. He’s gone far in these tournaments. I just feel like he was doing everything just better than me today.”
Thiem’s only hiccup came in the first set, when he served for it at 5-4, opened with a double-fault and eventually committed four unforced errors to lose that game. At 5-5, Auger-Aliassime fought back from 15-40 and soon the two entered a tiebreaker. Perhaps the future was arriving very soon.
Countered Thiem: Don’t even think about it. With Auger-Aliassime serving at 1-2, Thiem cracked one of his signature shots, a down-the-line backhand. At 4-2, a winner off the forehand – the shot Thiem considers more powerful than his gem of a backhand. Four points later, Thiem closed out the set.
All through that opener, as Auger-Aliassime fended off one blistering drive after another, it was uncertain how he was going to go about not just competing, but actually winning. While Auger-Aliassime was the one reacting and simply striking the balls, Thiem was busy as always, constructing with his vast toolbox. For all the velocity and spin the 27-year-old Austrian generates, for all the remarkable shots he comes up with – his backhand has inspired a cult following – Thiem adroitly blends glitz and grind.
Rapidly, Thiem snapped the match open, breaking Auger-Aliassime at 0-1 in the second set. On many points, it appeared that the Canadian was paying too much tribute to Thiem’s backhand, opting to force his shots rather awkwardly to his forehand. It is true that the emotional effect of being at the mercy of sizzling Thiem backhand winner can weigh on the head even more than a single point, something on the order of a tennis version of a Steph Curry three-pointer.
“I just felt we had some good rallies, some good points at the start of the second,” said Auger-Aliassime. “Then me not making those, getting broken. While feeling like it was still not bad, I feel like that really gave him confidence and hurt me more than it did anything. Then from that, it was just tough, yeah.
While the first set had taken 65 minutes, the next two required only 62. After making 15 unforced errors in the first set, Thiem had only nine in the next two, compared to a total of 51 for Auger-Aliassime. “He was playing good, heavy,” said Auger-Aliassime, “and I was just playing worse and worse.”
Business-like inside the lines, Thiem was quite gracious once the match was over, calling Auger-Aliassime a future superstar. “First of all, he’s already super good now,” said Thiem. “Second of all, he has still many, many things to improve. That makes it even more dangerous, I guess, if you have so much potential in almost every stroke. I mean, I played a great match today, the best one from my whole America trip. So I’m very happy about that. But doesn’t change my opinion on what Felix is capable of.”
All of this regard helped Thiem follow one of the grand principles of high-level competition – respecting the game and the opponent highly enough to do everything possible to obliterate him.
Then there is a bigger storyline floating through the tournament. With Novak Djokovic now eliminated, no other men remaining in the field have earned a Grand Slam singles title.
Asked to comment on the challenges that surround such an opportunity, Thiem said, “But for me personally, it never mattered. I just always tried to focus on my next match. My focus or my concentration, it’s the same. It doesn’t matter if I play one of the big three members or if I play somebody else. Well, I mean, what happened happened. Nobody of the other players has any or had any influence of that. We just need to focus and focus on ourselves. Of course, it’s probably a little bit of a bigger chance for all of us to win the first slam, but basically the things didn’t change that much, at least for myself.”