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Next Gen ATP Finals Allianz Cloud, Milan | 9-13 Nov. 2021
How Did Felix & Co. Handle Not Having Fans?
Felix Auger-Aliassime

Felix Auger-Aliassime wears a mask before heading on court for his first-round match at the Western & Southern Open. © Ben Solomon

#NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime finished off his 6-4, 6-1 victory on Saturday afternoon in the first round of the Western & Southern Open when his opponent, big-hitting Nikoloz Basilashvili, smothered a forehand return into the net.

There was no loud eruption of cheers from the Court 17 crowd at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. There was no crowd at all. Auger-Aliassime typically throws the ball he has in his pocket to a fan, but not this time.

“It was weird… I actually threw a ball at my coach,” said Auger-Aliassime, who was the first player to advance to the second round.

Auger-Aliassime briefly looked around as he normally would, seemingly ready to wave to the crowd. He then changed course and gave the on-court camera a quick thumb’s up and a fist pump before walking to the corner of the court to retrieve his towel.

“I was looking around because when there are so many people you don’t really look around… Whenever I saw one or two players coming to look or people that I knew, I was like, ‘Out of the 15 people here, who do I know? Who came to watch?’” said Auger-Aliassime, who walked onto the court wearing a mask and put it back on after his win. “The smallest noise or the smallest movement was even more of a distraction because there was no noise and you just heard every noise or every movement around. It was weird.”

But the show must go on at the first ATP Tour event since play was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players certainly notice that there aren't fans, but they are excited to be back competing. Jan-Lennard Struff was the second player to advance on Saturday, earning his first ATP Head2Head victory against Alex de Minaur 6-2, 6-4.

“[It was] quite a different feeling to be out there competing in a real match, being back on Tour,” Struff said. “[But] I’m very happy with the win… I’m pretty happy with my performance.”

On the match’s stream, you could see 2019 Roland Garros men’s doubles champion Kevin Krawietz sitting alone, watching Struff, his countryman, compete on Court 11.

“There were not many fans, so you recognise guys. I think Dennis Novak was sitting there, Kevin Krawietz. Some other guys were sitting there. But for us, it’s much better to play with fans for sure,” Struff said, before noting the perks of emptier grounds. “For us it’s nice [to have the ability to walk around]. Like this we can explore the site a bit more… you can [always] go for practice, but you cannot [normally] watch a match. Once you sit down somewhere [and] someone recognises you, it’s not that easy. For me it was quite okay, but for the top guys it must be impossible to walk around the site.”

Not all players are walking around the venue to watch their friends or potential opponents play, though. American Reilly Opelka got his Tour resumption off to a good start with a 6-3, 6-4 triumph against qualifier Cameron Norrie. His close friend, Taylor Fritz, was still on court during his own first-round win against Lloyd Harris. But Opelka wasn’t in a rush to get out there.

“I’ve seen Fritz play enough,” Opelka said cracking a laugh. “I’ll watch from the air conditioning and that’s about it. I’ll watch in the air conditioning from the locker room on my phone and that’s only if there’s not a tight [NBA] game on. The [NBA] playoffs get all my attention.”

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  • felix-auger-aliassime-ag37
  • 2020
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