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Felix Auger-Aliassime earns retirement win over maverick Nick Kyrgios
The Aussie got off to a blazing start before injuring a stomach muscle that would force his retirement from the match.
Published Jul 03, 2021
FLASHBACK: Auger-Aliassime meets with artist/musician Stan Yarramunua
One school of belief has it that history is written by the winners. Leave it to tennis’ most unruly student, Nick Kyrgios, to prove that the vanquished also make their share of statements.
Credit first to Felix Auger-Aliassime, who today beat Kyrgios in a third-round match at Wimbledon by the unusual score of 2-6, 6-1, retired, Kyrgios withdrawing with an abdominal injury. The 20-year-old Canadian is now in the round of 16 here for the first time, that achievement coming in only his second main-draw appearance at The Championships.
“Of course it's unfortunate that he had to pull out, but on my side, you know, I felt like I was playing just better and better,” said Auger-Aliassime. “Yeah, of course I would have liked to finish the match and win, but that's how it is. I'm through to the next round, and that's the most important.”
Kyrgios, a quarterfinalist here in his 2014 debut, has now failed to get past the third round for the fourth consecutive year. “In a way he was a bit lucky because I felt today I was playing unbelievable,” said Kyrgios. “I came out of the blocks, I was returning lights out. I was actually finding my stride. I've never felt more comfortable on the grass honestly. . . . But that's part of it. Injury is a part of the game. He's a hell of a player.”
View Wimbledon as tennis’ ultimate classroom and the contrast between these two was striking. Auger-Aliassime has been impressively studious. Earlier this year, he added Toni Nadal to his team. In the wake of a first round loss at Roland Garros, Auger-Aliassime swiftly commenced his grass-court season, playing a tournament in Stuttgart that took place during the second week of the French Open. After reaching the final in Stuttgart, Auger-Aliassime competed in Halle, where he beat Roger Federer and lost in the semifinals. By the time he arrived at Wimbledon, Auger-Aliassime had played eight tournament matches on grass. Consider his pencils sharpened, notebooks organized.
Then there was Kyrgios. Through the pandemic, he often issued thoughtful comments about the behavior of his peers and the dangers of COVID-19. Kyrgios had also been extremely charitable in his native Australia, donating time and money to various causes. Would all this perspective alter Kyrgios the competitor? Uncertain. Prior to Wimbledon, he was absent from the tour for months, last competing in February at the Australian Open.
In his verbal flights of fancy, Kyrgios sharply critiques tennis and romances the attraction of basketball, often citing how great it would be to part of a team sport. Is Kyrgios familiar with the great basketball coach, the late John Wooden, who led his UCLA Bruins to a record ten NCAA championships? Does Kyrgios know that one of the first things Wooden taught his players was how to put on their socks properly, lest they get blisters? One can only wonder what Wooden or Kyrgios’ theoretical teammates would have made of him showing up on Court One today having forgotten his grass-court shoes. In time, Kyrgios’ shoes were retrieved and brought to the court.
With an athlete, though, words are never more than 49 percent of the verdict. In tennis, the racquet does the majority of the talking. As today’s match got underway, Kyrgios spoke loudly. Scorching shots flew off his frame in all directions—sharp topspin backhands, penetrating backhands, big serves, liquid-smooth movement. Aiding the Kyrgios cause was that his opponent was in utter disarray, Auger-Aliassime exceptionally tight as he misfired serves, sprayed forehands galore and consistently hit the ball much shallower than you’d expect to see from a pro. Rarely did one of his shots come closer to the baseline than the service line, a lack of depth that of course made it that much easier to Kyrgios to dominate one rally after another.
With a two-break lead at 4-1, 15-love, Kyrgios felt a strain in his left abdomen. At 5-2, Kyrgios summoned the trainer for treatment. Auger-Aliassime remained off-balance, uncertain about the extent of the injury and if the result would be an addled opponent or that Kyrgios specialty, random choices that often generate untouchable placements.
But as the second set got underway, all had changed. Said Auger-Aliassime, “from the first point of the second set I felt normal. I felt normal again. I was ready to play. You know, I felt like I was playing the level that I have been playing, you know, the last few weeks in the second set.”
Kyrgios by this stage was clearly becoming increasingly constricted, his serve disintegrating into an all-arm delivery, his movements minimal. Down 4-1, Kyrgios summoned the trainer again, saying that he couldn’t serve faster than 110 m.p.h. Two games later, Kyrgios’ pencils were dulled, his eraser ready to rub this match off the page. “It was heartbreaking for me,” said Kygrios. “I told the crowd it was the end of the road. It was a journey. I honestly thought the way I was playing I could have done some pretty cool things this week.” He also had to withdraw from the mixed doubles and his partnership with Venus Williams.
“I honestly did all I could to prepare for Wimbledon,” said Kygrios. “I was training a little bit back home. I got here. I could have got here earlier, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to go in the bubble earlier. I didn't want to force that on my girlfriend, on my best friend, my manager, any of that. I got here, I did what I could. I battled through. My body just wasn't to where it needed to be to continue to play at this level and beat these quality players. My game's there. My game is obviously there. He's 15 in the world. I'm making the guy look pretty average in the first set, and I haven't played a tournament in six months. So my game is there. My confidence is high as ever.”
Body and game, head and heart. One can only wonder how much more prepared—and arguably, physically fit—Kyrgios would have been for Wimbledon had he played at least one tournament after the Australian Open.
Kyrgios has savored the role of class maverick, his ambition often cloaked under a veil of indifference to the sport—except for those moments when he can compete in front of many and show off his tremendous range of skills. “I really enjoyed the crowd this week,” said Kyrgios. “It felt like I was playing back home in Australia. It was even better. So it was cool.”
The Kyrgios mindset of solo preparation and performance is a radical contrast to the spirit of devotion, tenacity and collective accountability that has long defined his homeland’s tennis legacy. For all the ways Kyrgios takes tennis to task, he is a better fit for this individual sport than he’d dare admit.