It was just past midnight in Melbourne and Felix Auger-Aliassime was in press and talking. The match he’d just lost lounged out and relaxed in his head, a behemoth just sitting there atop his brain, waiting to be unpacked and detailed out across a practice court in the weeks and months to come.
“I wish I could go back and change it but I can’t so I’ve accepted it already. It is what it is and I look at it in a very positive way… It’s unfortunate I couldn’t win but it was a good match, I showed good things. I’m going to leave Australia with my head held high and I’m going to go into the rest of this season knowing that I can play well against the best players in the world.”
His mindset was surprising, given that it would have been entirely understandable to see him a broken mess across the conference room desk in a state of loss, so close he’d come to making a major semifinal for only the second time in his career, so close he’d been to beating the second best men’s player in the world, so close he’d been, so very damn close.
Just one point in fact.
Coming into the match, many viewed it as a given. It would be a Daniil Medvedev walkthrough, a Russian jog that might be filled with the odd flash of Canadian surprise but one that would end with the hand-shake and post-match speech that rankings (Medvedev 2, Auger-Aliassime 9), results (Medvedev has made three major finals and won the U.S. Open; Auger-Aliassime has never made a major final) and head-to-head history (3-0 Medvedev before this match) all suggested that it would.
Jaws would soon drop, eyes soon widen, spoons soon stop enroute to mouths in response to what the following five sets would offer up but first, it seemed only like a slow start from Medvedev as he tried to find rhythm between Auger-Aliassime’s flow, a flow that curled back and forth across the baseline relentless.
Despite breaking back when most necessary, Medvedev seemed wayward, head-in-the-cloud shot selection leading him blindly into the first set tiebreaker, double-faults dart-boarding him at moments of pressure and leaking set point opportunities to his younger adversary, who needed only to be asked twice, taking the second with steady consistency.
You still didn’t sense the upset though, not really, not with Medvedev with his eye-ball bulging ball-strikes that felt only one big momentum-swinging point away from running roughshod over proceedings.
But Auger-Aliassime was there, he was the most there he’s ever been, so steadfastly alive and just absolutely resolute in his willingness to keep going and going and going until the ending drifted across the match in some form or another and if he could help it, he’d reach up and seize it from the air and cling it around his shoulders as his own.
The second set was won, a break enough to take it. 2-0, Auger-Aliassime.
Never let it be said that this was a match of two halves because it simply wasn’t.
Down two sets to nothing, Medvedev fine-tuned everything and focused-up, his game yielding the results that he’d been searching for but Auger-Aliassime did not budge. He kept going but was met by better in yet another tiebreaker, Medvedev escaping out and into a fourth with a gasp of a close-call scraped through.
And it was here where nobody would have particularly blamed Auger-Aliassime if he’d stalled, if he’d found his engine choking on a plethora of missed chances, his racket catching at nerves, producing mistakes where there’d once been winners.
This didn’t happen.
He would go on to be served an un-returnable while holding a match point deep in the fourth. The set itself would go with it with Medvedev reaching in and rewiring the fight, the results of which would see Auger-Aliassime ultimately lose it all in the end, a two set lead not enough to put away the player many are predicting to lift the trophy this coming Sunday.
But this was not because of a slip in his form or his commitment to the battle. He swung for the fence long after others would have switched out the lights and headed home with only the knowledge that they’d halfway tried for something.
If this match told us all anything, it’s that Felix Auger-Aliassime is no halfway man.
Tennis, of course, doesn’t work on nearlys and nobody knows that better than Auger-Aliassime. A win-in-the-form-of-a-loss is still a loss, empty-handedness a sign of further work in areas needed. He’ll know that.
Failure rarely seems worthwhile in the immediate wake of it but when the waves subside and the shorelines settle, improvements often brush up between the sand, plus-points to be taken and harboured and added to utility belts to make sure avoiding such a fate is a far easier task to accomplish the next time around.
Still only 21, Auger-Aliassime is unbowed going forwards, knowing that he has the ability to run with the top flight and send them scattering, scared, terrified, looking for answers.
And with a little more work, he might just be able to stop them finding any.