Tennis·ROUNDUP

Felix Auger-Aliassime upset by unseeded Jiri Lehecka at Australian Open

The sixth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime was defeated 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3) by No. 71 Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic, an unseeded player who already had upset No. 21 seed Borna Coric and No. 11 Cameron Norrie earlier in the week. The Montreal native said he has had a tough week.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek, No. 7 Coco Gauff also eliminated

A tennis player, with two bags slung over his shoulder, looks back and waves to the crowd.
Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime waves as he leaves after losing to Czech Republic's Jiri Lehecka during their men's singles match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Saturday. (Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images)

A golden opportunity to make his second consecutive Australian Open quarterfinal went all wrong for Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday in Melbourne.

The sixth-seeded Auger-Aliassime was defeated 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3) by No. 71 Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic, an unseeded player who already had upset No. 21 seed Borna Coric and No. 11 Cameron Norrie earlier in the week. The Montreal native said he has had a tough week.

"I gave everything I had. I had some good moments. But too many parts of my game were not at the level they need to be in order to win against players like him and the other players in the draw," said Auger-Aliassime after the loss. "It's O.K. I mean, it's how it is.

"I'm proud of my effort. I gave everything. But my level isn't where I want it to be."

This Australian Open is the first time Lehecka, who at 21 is 15 months younger than Auger-Aliassime, has ever won a main-draw match at the Grand Slam tournament level.

This year's Australian Open remains wide open. Only nine-time champion Novak Djokovic has ever won an Australian Open title, or any Grand Slam title at all, among those still in the men's singles.

Auger-Aliassime never found his groove in Melbourne, quite unlike a year ago.

Before the main event in 2022, Auger-Aliassime and teammate Denis Shapovalov led Canada to a win at the ATP Cup team event. And so he came into Melbourne with some momentum and battled through some difficult opponents to make the quarterfinals, where he lost in five sets to Daniil Medvedev (who weeks later, would become world No. 1).

This Australian trip was, by that standard, a disappointment.

It began in Adelaide, where Auger-Aliassime was the No. 2 seed and ran into junior rival Alexei Popyrin in his opening match of the season.

Popyrin, ranked No. 120, defeated him in straight sets and robbed him of further match play coming into the first Grand Slam tournament of the 2023 season.

And then there were the tennis balls — the Dunlop balls that replaced the Wilson brand at the Australian Open in 2019, and have been the subject of criticism ever since for the way they fluff up after just a few games.

The criticism this year has been exponentially louder; even Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had their say.

After Auger-Aliassime came back from being down two sets to none to win his second-round match against Alex Molcan of Slovakia, the Canadian was vocal in pointing out that the balls didn't favour his highly top-spun shots, bounced very low and were of dubious overall quality.

He got past Molcan, despite that. He also made the decision to drop the string tension in his rackets in the hope of getting a little more sting on his shots.

That helped with Auger-Aliassime's serve, to some extent. But lower tension also means less control. That was evident against Lehecka, who built up a 6-0 lead before Auger-Aliassime could win his first point

"We played two tiebreaks. In the first tiebreak I was playing much better. In the second tiebreak, it was 50/50," said Lehecka, who will meet No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in Tuesday's quarterfinals. "I played one incredible shot, forehand down the line which he totally didn't expect to happen. Then there were a few moments where I played great tennis. And he helped me with a few mistakes."

Lehecka, officially six-foot-one and 179 pounds, has nothing of Auger-Aliassime's strong physique. But he served nearly as hard. Notably, he came to the net a lot more, going 33-for-41 on net approaches while Auger-Aliassime won just 11-of-26 his.

"It did go so fast. I was satisfied with my first set; I served well. I won the first [set], he won the second, no problem," said Auger-Aliassime. "For me, the biggest problem after that was that I really couldn't find a solution to really get him in trouble on his own serve.

"I continued to serve well. I was able to get out of some complicated situations. On return, I tried to vary my position but I couldn't get my bearings. I couldn't find any precision."

With Auger-Aliassime's defeat, the "Netflix Curse" that has been the subject of much humorous discussion is complete.

Auger-Aliassime was the last one standing of the 10 players featured in the first five episodes of the new reality TV series, released just before the start of the Australian Open.

Three of the stars were injured and withdrew before the event began. No. 2 seeds Casper Ruud on the men's side and Ons Jabeur on the women's side were eliminated early.

Meanwhile, in women's doubles, Ottawa's Gabriela Dabrowski and Mexican partner Giuliane Olmos defeated Switzerland's Belinda Bencic and Jill Teichmann 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to advance to the third round against Americans Carolina Dolehide and Anna Kalinskaya.

The Americans advanced by bouncing Russians Anastasia Potapova and Yana Sizikova 6-0, 6-1.

Dabrowski and Olmos had 47 winners in their two-hour and six-minute match, and only one ace compared to five for Bencic and Teichmann.

Dabrowski also teamed up with mixed doubles partner Max Purcell of Australia to defeat Jan Zielinski and Yang Zhaoxuan 6-2, 7-5. They will now face the Australian combo of John-Patrick Smith and Lizette Cabrera in the second round.

Swiatek, Gauff also bounced

It all came so seemingly easy for Iga Swiatek last season — two Grand Slam trophies, eight titles overall, a 37-match winning streak, a lengthy stay at No. 1 in the rankings.

Those accomplishments made everyone else expect constant greatness from Swiatek, which she can't do anything about. They also changed the way she approached big moments, and a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open's fourth round Sunday made Swiatek wonder whether she needs to reassess her outlook.

"I felt like I took a step back in terms of how I approach these tournaments, and I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard. So I'm going to try to chill out a little bit more," Swiatek said. "I felt the pressure, and I felt that `I don't want to lose' instead of `I want to win."'

A female tennis player wearing a hat plays a backhand while gritting her teeth.
Poland's Iga Swiatek plays a backhand during her upset loss to Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Sunday in Melbourne. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

So there will not be a showdown between Swiatek and No. 7 seed Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park. Instead, it will be Rybakina taking on 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, a 7-5, 6-3 winner against Gauff, with a semifinal berth at stake.

"I kept her under so much pressure," Ostapenko said.

Add Swiatek's loss to Week 1 exits by Ons Jabeur, Rafael Nadal and Casper Ruud, and this Australian Open marks the first Grand Slam tournament in the Open era — which began in 1968 — with the top two women's seeds and top two men's seeds all gone before the quarterfinals.

In other women's action Sunday, No. 3 Jessica Pegula got to the quarterfinals in Australia for the third year in a row by defeating 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 7-5, 6-2, and awaited the winner of the night match between two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and unseeded Zhu Lin.

'Didn't have much answers'

Both the 22nd-seeded Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, and the 17th-seeded Ostapenko, a 25-year-old from Latvia, made it this far in Melbourne for the first time.

"There was moments in the match where I was getting frustrated, because I normally can problem-solve, but today I feel like I didn't have much answers to what she was doing," said Gauff, an 18-year-old from Florida who was the runner-up to Swiatek at the French Open last June.

"There was balls I was hitting deep, and she was hitting them on the line and hitting them back deep, over and over again," said Gauff, who wiped away tears during her news conference. "It's just one of those days that just didn't go my way and went her way."

One key: Ostapenko went 3-for-3 converting her break chances, and Gauff was just 1-for-8 in such situations.

Rybakina, meanwhile, used her big serve to produce a half-dozen aces, part of an overall 24-15 edge in total winners against Swiatek.

'Nothing to lose'

Until Sunday, both Swiatek and Gauff looked fairly dominant for a week, winning every set they contested. Swiatek dropped a total of just 15 games, Gauff just 19, through three matches.

"For sure, when you play against No. 1, I think you have really nothing to lose. I knew that I had to be aggressive from the first ball because she's a great mover, and she defends really well," Rybakina said. "So I was trying to just attack her from the first ball, and it really worked well.

Her ranking of No. 25 does not properly reflect her ability or results because her championship at the All England Club in July did not come with any ranking points. The WTA and ATP tours withheld all points at Wimbledon in 2022 after the All England Club barred players from Russia and Belarus from participating because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina — who was born in Moscow but has played for Kazakhstan since 2018, when that country offered her funding to support her tennis career — said her current standing "doesn't bother me, because it's been already six months," yet also acknowledged it does provide some motivation.

A female tennis player pumps her left fist in celebration while holding a racket in her right hand.
Elena Rybakina celebrates match point during her fourth-round victory over Iga Swiatek on Sunday in Melbourne. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Despite her status as a major champion, Rybakina has been out of the spotlight: Her first-round match at Melbourne Park was placed on tiny Court 13 last Monday; her match against two-time Slam champ Garbine Muguruza at least year's U.S. Open was on Court 4.

But her game is worthy of much more attention, as she displayed in knocking out Swiatek, one match after defeating 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

Swiatek was not at her best, and Rybakina had a lot to do with that. In the opening game, Swiatek led 40-love but got broken. In the next, Swiatek held two break points at 15-40 but failed to convert either. So early on, while it ended up being 2-2, it very well could have been 4-0 in Swiatek's favor, and she termed that sequence "a little bit disturbing."

Rybakina wound up serving out that set at love, capping it with a 113 mph (183 kph) ace, and her dangerous backhand was quite a help, too: She produced six winners off that wing in the first set, compared with zero for Swiatek.

In the second set, Swiatek appeared to have gotten herself back on track, going up 3-0. But that surge didn't last long, and Rybakina took six of the match's last seven games.

With files from The Associated Press

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