Felix On Beating Federer: ‘I Was Locked Into The Moment’

Felix Auger-Aliassime has long idolised Roger Federer. And on Wednesday afternoon, the Canadian defeated the Swiss legend 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in their first ATP Head2Head clash at the NOVENTI OPEN.

“It was pretty cool. When we got to the court, when the match started it was a pretty cool moment. But then as the match went on, I was just really zoned in and locked into the moment and the match,” Auger-Aliassime said. “At the end of the third set, even though I was up by two breaks and I felt like things were going [my way] — he was missing a little more — I still had to maintain my focus.

“Against players like him and other top players, you never know how quickly things can turn around, so I had to really maintain my focus.”

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This wasn’t the first time they have spent time on the same court together. When Felix was younger, Federer invited him to train together in Dubai. But that did not play a role in the #NextGenATP star’s victory.

“When we just started to play points together in practice, we were at 3-3 and I got hurt, I twisted my ankle,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I played six games with Roger a couple years ago in practice, so it wasn’t much, but for sure a match is completely different.

“I think I just understood how good he was and how much he can make players struggle against him. [It was good] to just face him face-to-face, [see] how he serves so precisely and how he mixes up the spins. It was good. It was a good experience to see that and I think with the win I’ve also learned a lot facing Roger.”

Auger-Aliassime has spoken about watching Federer when he was younger. Earlier in the week, he recalled recording the 2008 Wimbledon final between the Swiss and Rafael Nadal, which he watched repeatedly. So what was different about actually playing the 39-year-old in a match?

“You feel the pressure that he puts on you with his movement, with his shots,” Auger-Aliassime said. “When he serves and comes in behind his serve to volley, whenever he comes into the net, you feel that pressure way more than when you’re on the outside. [When you watch on television] you just think, ‘Oh, the player could have played there, or he could have played there.’ It seems so easy.

“But when you’re facing him, things change quickly. Things are much more difficult than they look from the outside, but I was able to really deal with that well today and I think that’s one of the reasons why I was able to get the win.”

It was a confidence-boosting victory for the 20-year-old, who is into the quarter-finals in Halle. Auger-Aliassime, who made the final last week in Stuttgart, will next play American qualifier Marcos Giron.

“I had a good time [on grass] two years ago. Again, the past few days have been good,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I have to keep going that way, but for sure I feel confident in my chances of winning more matches in the weeks to come.”

Team guide: Star riders, memorable moments, which icy refreshment are they?

The Tour de France is right around the corner, so it’s important to refamiliarise ourselves with the 23 teams taking part.

Along with the 19 WorldTeams from the sport’s top tier, there will be four invited wildcard teams, drawn from the next tier down.

Along with star riders, memorable moments and racing style of each team, we’ll also be telling you which icy refreshment they most resemble…

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Ah, refreshing! De Clercq, Cavgana, Gaviria and Serry enjoy some icy refreshmemts

Image credit: Getty Images

AG2R La Citroën

  • Star Rider: Golden Greg van Avermaet
  • Memorable Moment: Bardet’s breakthrough in 2016 when he notched second overall. In retrospect, it was all downhill from there but at the time it all felt so hopeful.
  • Racing Style: These days they’re a classics team good at getting top tens but not-winning. Hard to see much success for them this year in Le Tour.
  • Icy Refreshment: Cherry Coke – always sort of ‘there’ in the off-license chiller cabinet, but you never choose it.

Alpecin Fenix

  • SR: Mighty Mathieu van der Poel
  • MM: This is their debut year, would you believe. They are auto-invited as the top-ranked ProTeam.
  • RS: Bag a few stage wins with van der Poel then, when he bails early for the Olympics, who knows!
  • IR: Fizzy Vimto – not an immediate top tier choice, but a reliable winner.

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Astana PremierTech

  • SR: Jakob Fuglsang, on paper at least.
  • MM: Contador dropping his own teammate Lance Armstrong in 2009. If you haven’t seen The Armstrong Lie, go watch this immediately.
  • RS: The sooner they abandon their GC hopes this year, the more productive their Tour will be. Lutsenko, Fraile and even Aranburu can all deliver stage wins.
  • IR: Pepsi Max – you think it’s bad but actually it’s quite good.

Bahrain Victorious

  • SR: Mikel Landa
  • MM: Landa’s panicked face last year as he realised his last domestique was about to pull off and he was about to have to try and drop Pog & Rog.
  • RS: They’ve started winning, recently. A lot, actually. It all depends how Landa’s GC goes, but there are a lot of stage wins in this for them.
  • IR: Original Magnum – dependable but ultimately a little disappointing.

Bora Hansgrohe

  • SR: Peter Sagan. You know, Peter Sagan.
  • MM: Sagan’s seven swashbuckling green jersey wins on Tinkoff, which then morphed into Bora.
  • RS: Win the green jersey in the mountains. Intermediate sprint points for days. Also, Wilco Keldermann?
  • IR: Lilt – used to be totally dominant in the summer time, but now a slightly fading force?

B&B Hotels p/b KTM

  • SR: Pierre Rolland / Bryan Coquard
  • MM: Last year at the height of ‘the BLM summer’ Kevin Reza became the focus of cycling’s own grapple with racial inequality.
  • RS: Breakaway fodder, with Bryan Coquard for the sprints.
  • IR: Appletiser – dark green, kinda tasty, but you’re never going to pick it as part of your meal deal.

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Cofidis, Solutions Credits

  • SR: Guillaume Martin, philosopher, athlete, sneaky GC candidate.
  • MM: They are and always will be the team after which the sport’s most notorious doping scandal was named.
  • RS: Prove we’re 100% clean now by absolutely never winning anything.
  • IR: Fab lolly – old school, low-budget, red and white.

Deceunick-QuickStep

  • SR: Julian Alaphilippe, but also, maybe – whisper it – Mark Cavendish!
  • MM: They’ve had some corkers, but Mark Cavendish crashing out of the grand départ in Yorkshire during his first stint with the team takes some topping.
  • RS: Stage wins, the green jersey, but also at least six days in yellow with Julian ‘The Last Musketeer’ Alaphilippe.
  • IR: Cornetto – various flavours, but all reliable winners

EF Education First NIPPO

  • SR: Rigoberto Uran, coming in hot for a GC tilt after strong Suisse showing.
  • MM: That time in 2017 when Rigo won a stage despite only having two gears for the last 10km.
  • RS: Super-strong Colombians backed by a phalanx of cheerful North Americans. Fun!
  • IR: Panda Pop Cherry flavour – bright pink, absolutely buzzing with EF numbers.

Groupama FDJ

  • SR: Fastman Arnaud Démare, good shot at the green jersey.
  • MM: Thibaut Pinot climbing off in 2019, when he was absolutely 100% gonna win – what a sickener…
  • RS: Latterly GC, but this year without Pinot you’d imagine sprintin’ and stage huntin’.
  • IR: Orangina – bicycle racing teams simply don’t get Frencher than this..

Ineos Grenadiers

  • SR: Throw a stone in the team bus and you’ll hit one. Richie Porte, Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas… even Tao Geoghegan Hart could win.
  • MM: Gosh. Wiggins in ’12, or one of the other six years they’ve won the bloody thing?
  • RS: Crush. Kill. Destroy.
  • IR: Feast Ice Cream – your dad’s favourite.

Intermarché Wanty Gobert

  • SR: Louis Mientjes, South African former starlet who has struggled to reach his potential.
  • MM: Guillaume van Keirsbulck’s solo, 190km breakaway in 2017. Memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.
  • RS: Since stepping up to WorldTour, they might be less inclined to act as pack-filler, but it’s hard to see where a win will come from.
  • IR: Twister ice lolly – green and white, surprisingly good

Israel StartUp Nation

  • SR: Until quite extremely recently, Chris Froome.
  • MM: They signed Froome on a mahoosive contract to help them try and be competitive at Le Tour, and that has not gone well for them.
  • RS: Up until this year, stage hunting, but the team says they are putting their weight behind Mike Woods for the GC, after Froome failed to make the grade in time.
  • IR: Tap water – plain, functional, ultimately uninspiring.

Jumbo-Visma

  • SR: Primož Roglič, he used to be a ski jumper.
  • MM: Losing the Tour in 2020 on the very last day may just become this generations unforgettable ‘Lemond-Fignon’ moment.
  • RS: Tenderise the enemy with Wout, obliterate them with Primož. Big money, serious faces.
  • IR: Fruit Pastilles lolly – simple, effective, conservative, gets the job done.

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Lotto Soudal

  • SR: Caleb Ewan, the pocket rocket.
  • MM: Thomas De Gendt on the Ventoux in 2016, and Thomas De Gendt in every Le Tour breakaway since.
  • RS: This is fundamentally a sprinting team that’ll try and take opportunities when not protecting Ewan.
  • IR: Diet Coke – a zippy caffeine hit, always in and around the top three.

Movistar

  • SR: Marc Soler, finally emerges from the shadow of the infamous ‘trident’.
  • MM: Big Mig Indurain won five Tours in a row when this team was called Banesto. That was in the ‘90s.
  • RS: Internecine leadership squabbles. Dominate the team classification.
  • IR: Bitter Kas – very popular in Spain but not appreciated much elsewhere, very bitter aftertaste.

Team Arkea Samsic

  • SR: Somehow, inexplicably, Nairo Quintana…
  • MM: 2020’s odd couple pairing of flatland bodyguard Brit, Conor Swift, and diminutive Colombian climber, Quintana, really warmed the heart. Beyond that, there aren’t many memories to choose from.
  • RS: Top names like Warren Barguil and Quintana might be able to deliver a result in the mountains. It’ll be interesting to see if Nacer Bouhanni is selected given his travails this year.
  • IR: Fanta Lemon – ignore at your peril, it low-key slaps but never gets the plaudits.

Team BikeExchange

  • SR: Simon Yates.
  • MM: Back when the Aussie franchise was known as Orica, they got their team bus stuck under a finish gantry. Also that time an inflatable kite fell on Adam Yates.
  • RS: We’re led to believe Simon Yates will be stage hunting as he prepares for the Olympics, while Michael Matthews might have a shout at the green jersey.
  • IR: A good old 99 ice cream – tasty, but can be a bit flaky.

Team DSM

  • SR: Romain Bardet, but they have a real gaggle of strongmen to pick from.
  • MM: Had a purple patch in 2013 and 2014 when Marcel Kittel won eight stages of Le Tour, including two wins on the Champs Elysees.
  • RS: One of the standout teams of 2020 with their voracious attacking style, which garnered eight podiums, of which three were stage wins.
  • IR: McFlurry – one pot, but filled with many swirling and delicious flavours.

Team TotalEnergies

  • SR: Anthony Turgis, a fierce competitor who could thrive on the toughest classics-style days.
  • MM: Way back when they were known as Europcar, Thomas Voeckler’s unbelievable ten-day stint in the maillot jaune in 2011 sent France into raptures. It’s never got as good since.
  • RS: Put a man in the breakaway, erry damn day. Change the kit right before the race and annoy some print journalists.
  • IR: Irn Bru – a little bit nostalgic, and passionately loved by its devotees.

Team Qhubeka Assos

  • SR: Have been very coy about exactly who they’re sending, but Fabio Aru is on their team roster and who could forget his iconic, short-lived surprise attacks of yesteryear?
  • MM: Hard to look past Steve Cummings on Mandela Day in 2015. Pure goosebumps, the very best of sport.
  • RS: Operating on a fraction of the other WorldTeams’ budgets, they continuously manage to deliver the results.
  • IR: Mini Milk – they don’t cost much and everybody loves ‘em.

Trek-Segafredo

  • SR: Vincenzo Nibali, one of three past-winners of Le Tour on the start list.
  • MM: After John Degenkolb’s win on the Roubaix stage in 2018 there weren’t many dry eyes in the house.
  • RS: After a magical year in which Richie Porte rode to the podium, the team is now Porte-less – and looking down the barrel of a threadbare month in France unless they can magic up some reduced-bunch finishes for Stuyven & Theuns.
  • IR: Amaretto & Coke – classic American, with a big slug of Italian flavour.

A Coca-Cola support vehicle in the 2002 Tour de France. Amaretto not pictured.

Image credit: Getty Images

UAE Team Emirates

  • SR: Tadej Pogačar, the champ.
  • MM: Oh I don’t know, how about winning the Tour de France?
  • RS: Last year Pogačar kinda snuck under the radar a little, but he won’t get the chance to do that twice. They’ve spent big to bolster their Tour squad.
  • IR: San Pellegrino Aranciata flavour – more money than they know what to do with.

– – –

You can watch the Tour de France live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk. Download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now. You can also watch the most comprehensive live & ad-free racing on GCN+. Go deeper and get interactive with live polls & quizzes, plus rider profiles, race updates, results & more – plus stream exclusive cycling documentaries.

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Canadiens hoping to build off another strong start in Game 2

The sold out T-Mobile Arena crowd did not affect the Canadiens early in Game 1. In their first game outside Canada and in front of way more than the 2,500 fans that have been inside Bell Centre for playoff games this postseason, Montreal owned the first 15 minutes against the Golden Knights Monday night.

If there’s one thing you don’t want to do against a team like Vegas, it’s not capitalizing on your chances. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens led the Golden Knights at 5-on-5 in unblocked shot attempts (14-10), shots on goal (11-5), high-danger scoring chances (7-1), expected goals for (1.65-0.28) and possession (53%-47%) in the first period. An impressive start for a team that had four more days off between rounds than their opponents.

“We liked our first period in the series-opener,” said Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme. “We want to be more consistent in the way we play. We want to repeat what we did in the first period for the entire 60 minutes tonight (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN). We want to be more effective with the puck, and we want to be more active and dynamic in terms of supporting the puck carrier. Those are the kinds of details that will help us be more consistent for 60 minutes.”

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That period was Montreal’s chance to get ahead, but they failed to do so. Vegas withstood the Habs’ start and got the opening goal via Shea Theodore‘s blast from the point.

Theodore’s goal was the turning point in the game. It allowed Vegas to settle down while also putting the Canadiens on their heels and playing from behind. The Golden Knights coaching staff knew exactly how much things would swing in their favor if they could grab the lead.

“We talked in our pre-scout meetings that they would be uncomfortable in their structure playing from behind,” said Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer. “No one made them play from behind for a while. The goal was huge and at the right time with how we were playing.”

Prior to Monday night, the last time Montreal trailed in a game was Game 4 against the Maple Leafs in the First Round, a stretch of 447:08.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 schedule, TV info]

The Canadiens are 8-1 this postseason when scoring first and 0-3 when falling behind 1-0. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, have five wins after allowing the opening goal. It’s not the decisive factor in victories, but it’s an area of the game that both teams have focused on.

“When you’re playing with the lead, it obviously makes the game a lot easier,” said Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli. “We definitely had some really good opportunities. The entire first period, I thought, that was our best period. [Marc-Andre] Fleury made some, some big saves for them. But, playing with the lead is huge – especially to be on the road. 

“I think that’s going to be one of the key things for [Game 2], is to have another good start and just capitalize on our opportunities.”

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (VGK leads 1-0) – series livestream link

Game 1: Golden Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Wed. June 16: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. June 18: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
Game 4: Sun. June 20: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 5: Tues. June 22: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 6: Thurs. June 24: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sat. June 26: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 8 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)

*if necessary

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Former Champ Murray, #NextGenATP Alcaraz Lead Wimbledon Wild Cards

Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is among the five players that have received a wild card into this year’s Championships, the All England Club announced on Wednesday.

The former World No. 1 delighted fans on Centre Court in 2013 when he became the first British man to win the singles title since Fred Perry, ending the country’s 77-year wait for a home champion. His last appearance in singles at Wimbledon was in 2017, and he played men’s doubles (w/Herbert) and mixed doubles (w/S. Williams) in 2019.

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Murray, who lifted the singles trophy again in 2016, will be joined by three more British men in the draw after Liam Broady, Jay Clarke and Jack Draper also received wild cards. 

#NextGenATP Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz will make his Wimbledon main draw debut after receiving the last of the five initial wild cards announced. The 18-year-old has turned heads in his previous two Grand Slam ventures, qualifying for the Australian Open and Roland Garros and reaching the second and third rounds, respectively.

There are three more singles wild cards still to be announced ahead of the start of The Championships, set to begin on 28 June. Five doubles teams were also awarded wild cards.

Men’s Singles Wild Cards
Carlos Alcaraz (ESP)
Liam Broady (GBR)
Jay Clarke (GBR)
Jack Draper (GBR)
Andy Murray (GBR)
To be announced
To be announced
To be announced

Men’s Doubles Wild Cards
Liam Broady (GBR) / Ryan Peniston (GBR)
Jay Clarke (GBR) / Marius Copil (ROU)
Lloyd Glasspool (GBR) / Harri Heliovaara (FIN)
Alastair Gray (GBR) / Aidan Mchugh (GBR)
Stuart Parker (GBR) / James Ward (GBR)
To be announced
To be announced

Did You Know?
Wimbledon wild cards have been awarded since 1977. Only one wild card has ever gone on to win the men’s singles title, Goran Ivanisevic in 2001, and no wild card has won in women’s singles.

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Mercedes postpones Grosjean Paul Ricard F1 test

Grosjean was set to get two outings in a Mercedes W10 car, as offered by team boss Toto Wolff, after the former Haas driver’s crash at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

Grosjean was originally due to hold a demo of Mercedes’ 2019 car at the French Grand Prix on 25-27 June, but that outing had to be cancelled after the Paul Ricard race weekend was brought forward to this weekend, meaning the event clashes with Grosjean’s IndyCar commitments at Road America.

The Frenchman was still set to travel to Le Castellet for an opportunity to undertake a private test with the Mercedes on 29 June.

But that test has now been postponed due to France’s current COVID-19 countermeasures, which stipulate Grosjean would have had to quarantine after travelling to France from the United States.

On Wednesday Mercedes announced on social media that Grosjean’s Mercedes test “has been postponed because of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.”

 

The team added it would seek a new test date later this year to give Grosjean a fitting end to his F1 career, stating “we’re committed to giving Romain his chance in a Mercedes F1 car and we’re working to reschedule the test later this summer.”

Grosjean, who last month took his first pole and podium in IndyCar, said the idea to hold a final F1 test came up while he was recovering in hospital from the burns he suffered in Sakhir’s fiery accident.

“Well it was all Toto,” Grosjean said on F1’s Beyond the Grid podcast. “You know, when I was in my hospital bed in Bahrain, someone was helping me to open the things on my mobile phone, because I didn’t have any fingers to use.

“And then friends told me ‘Oh, Toto says you could have a test in a Mercedes if you don’t make it back to Abu Dhabi’. And I’m like, oh okay, that is super cool.

“Obviously, at the time, I really liked it. But I wanted to come back to Abu Dhabi until the day it wasn’t going to happen. And then I went back home, had a bit of recovery and then eventually got a call from Mercedes.”

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He also added: “It is an incredible chance. Just for few things. I’m still a Formula 1 fan. I still watch the races. I have been driving it, but now I get to drive the 2019 world champion car, which at the end is not too far from the 2020, which was probably the fastest Formula 1 car ever built.

“And I drive it without pressure, without having a test day to complete few test things and go through a programme and so on. Yes, we can have a programme, but it’s more [like] let’s go and have some fun.”

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Norrie and Draper set up all-British quarter-final at Queen’s

Cam Norrie booked his place in the quarter-finals of the Queen’s Club Championship with a straight sets win over Aslan Karatsev on Wednesday afternoon.

Norrie’s Russian opponent has enjoyed a stellar year to-date, rising to 24th in the ATP rankings. But Karatsev showed none of that form and confidence in a disastrous service game late in the first set to give Norrie a chance to serve for the lead – one he duly took.

And any chance of a comeback dissipated when Karatsev fell awkwardly early in the second set, picking up a knock that he never recovered from, with Norrie winning 7-5 6-2.

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“I felt very comfortable,” Norrie said after his win. “He started strong and I managed to hold my serve and stay with him. A huge win for me and definitely a big step up from my first match on Monday.

“It was pretty tricky midway through that second set and I managed to hold tough. He’s having a great year, he’s won a lot this year. It’s another match on the grass so it’s all invaluable stuff.”

Norrie will face fellow Brit Jack Draper in the last eight in west London.

The 19-year-old survived an onslaught of aces from big-serving Alexander Bublik to win in straight sets – despite his opponent rocketing down 21 aces in the match.

Both sets went to tiebreaks, with Draper edging the first 7-5 and then running away with the second 7-0 to set up that mouth-watering tie against Norrie.

Fellow Brits Dan Evans and Andy Murray could make it four home representatives in the quarter-finals, with the pair due to play on Thursday, weather permitting.

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Federer out of Halle Open with defeat to Auger-Aliassime

Roger Federer slipped to a round-of-16 defeat to Felix Auger-Aliassime at the Halle Open on Wednesday in a setback ahead of Wimbledon.

Federer has won the title at Halle ten times in his career and had never previously lost earlier than the quarter-final stage on the German grass courts, but was second-best for much of the match against his young Canadian opponent.

The 39-year-old edged a close first set 6-4, but four unconverted break points for Auger-Aliassime hinted at things to come.

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And Auger-Aliassime turned on the style in the second and third sets, racing to a 4-6 6-3 6-2 victory.

Roger Federer beim ATP-Turnier in Halle

Image credit: Getty Images

As he turns 40 this year, the All England Club is likely Federer’s best chance of adding another Slam to his collection. And his withdrawal from Roland Garros raised concerns about his fitness ahead of Wimbledon, having only this season returned from two operations on his knee.

Following on from his earlier round win in Halle over Ilya Ivashka, Federer said that he is in decent shape going into Wimbledon.

The back’s good, I feel fine, it’s really just the legs and the match fitness that I’m looking forward to and getting through here breakers, like I did in Paris as well, and getting through here on a different surface, staying calm, taking the right decision when it’s most important – that’s what it’s all about for me right now.

But the nature of his defeat to Auger-Aliassime will raise fresh questions over Federer’s ability to win at Wimbledon.

Federer does not have much competitive tennis under his belt this year, but has still taken part in the early season hard court and clay swings, before moving on to grass.

“You can’t compare to the clay courts,” he said about returning to grass.

“You’re not going to get those rallies that you’re maybe looking for, you might get those service winners, aces and get your opponent guessing a lot more on the return games than on any other surface.”

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‘I’ve missed it’ – Federer returns to grass with a win

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Euro 2020: Turkey v Wales – Follow LIVE

Follow the Euro live Football match between Turkey and Wales with Eurosport. The match starts at 18:00 on 16 June 2021.
Who will come out on top in the battle of the managers: Senol Günes or Robert Page? Find out by following our live matchcast.

Catch the latest Turkey and Wales news and find up to date Football standings, results, top scorers and previous winners.
Football fans can find the latest Football news, interviews, expert commentary and watch free replays. See detailed profiles for Turkey and Wales. Catch all the upcoming competitions. Make Eurosport your go-to source for sports online from Football to cycling, F1, winter sports and more. Enjoy live streaming of this season’s top sports competitions.

How Lukaku became the complete centre-forward

It doesn’t feel long ago that many were questioning whether Romelu Lukaku could do it at the highest level. It doesn’t feel like it because it wasn’t. Lukaku’s time in English football – first at Chelsea, with a loan to West Brom, then more prominently at Everton and Manchester United – felt a case of ‘almost, but not quite’. He didn’t become a first team starter at Chelsea. He wasn’t able to propel Everton into a regular European side. United didn’t become a title-winning side with Lukaku leading the line. He only once broke 20 league goals in a season. It seemed a little anticlimactic.

But the moment he set foot in Serie A, everything just seemed to click for him. The goals are the headline, with 23 and 24 in the last two seasons. Unlike at United, he’s taking the penalties, and that obviously helps. But he’s become a much more rounded player, causing defenders all sorts of different problems in a way he couldn’t quite before. Antonio Conte seemed to just get how to help Lukaku thrive from day one. And he brought his Inter form to the Euros in Belgium’s first game against Russia, and surely has a strong case as the best individual performer in the tournament so far. So how has he become so dominant now when his Premier League form was patchy?

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A big part of the story has been understanding just what he is. Standing at 6’3 and being so well built even as a teenager, he brings with him certain preconceptions. His managers in England – Steve Clarke, Roberto Martinez (now of course at Belgium), Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – all responded to that in different ways. Clarke – strangely – got the best out of him at West Brom. Lukaku was clearly a cut above his teammates, so the gameplan would at times be ‘give it to Romelu’. He’d have to be the complete striker, doing the lot, and he thrived at it. Martinez, too, wanted Lukaku to offer a range of skills. He’d run in behind, hold the ball up, link well and obviously score goals. Everton’s struggles under Martinez often meant he would have to carry the side, which he did excellently in his final season if less well the year before.

But it was Mourinho who had other ideas. United had just come off a season with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line. What Mourinho wanted was another target man who could hold the ball up, then bring runners into play. We saw him bulk up physically to try and become this all focal point in the mould of Didier Drogba. He did a solid job of it, but never looked entirely comfortable in the role. So much of what made him tick was deliberately stripped out of his game.

Lukaku might look like a target man, but he’s in many ways a very different profile of player. The player he is most reminiscent of is Ruud van Nistelrooy. Like the Dutchman, he has great body strength and a deceptively good dribble on him. Van Nistelrooy’s famous goal against Fulham, in which he took the ball all the way from the halfway line, feels like the kind of strike Lukaku would love to score. But what they both share the most is an instinctive understanding of space. He’s arguably the best striker in the world right now at recognising which channels to run into every time. Both Inter and Belgium have understood this, and play directly to his strengths. His goal in the Milan Derby last February summed up his trademark move. The Belgian drove forward with the ball at his feet, sees the space open to his left before the opposition defenders, and is able to drag the ball into that area to open up a great shooting opportunity.

We saw those exact qualities against Russia. His first goal was a classic poacher’s finish, being more alert to the situation than anyone else and capitalising on a defender’s mistake. The second was one where he ran in behind to great effect, showing the quality Manchester United wasted by attempting to convert him to a target man. But it was in between where he nearly pulled off his trademark. The ball broke to him into space and he dragged defenders wide with him, opening up room for Leander Dendoncker to break into the box. Lukaku played Dendoncker in well, but the Wolves player blasted his shot over the bar. It was classic Lukaku, but this time in service of someone else, showing he can offer more than simply goalscoring.

Fortunately, he has a manager who understands these qualities and how they have developed over time. “He’s not the same player he was three years ago,” Martinez said recently.

Now he is able to create many more spaces for his teammates and we need to make the most of that with the national team too

Martinez has given Lukaku licence to link more and use his ability to drive into space to help others.

This has taken on more importance as Belgium have lacked key stars. Kevin De Bruyne missed the opening game through injury, and it’s unclear when he will return or if he will do so at 100%. Eden Hazard was also short of fitness against Russia, and that speaks to his ongoing troubles since joining Real Madrid. It doesn’t look like we’re going to see the Hazard of old at this tournament. This means Belgium need more from Lukaku, not just as a point striker but a rounded threat. He’s certainly started off by doing that.

This does change the way Belgium play. A side built around De Bruyne and Hazard is by necessity one of lots of little cute passes. That would be a team that wants to play possession football and attempt to create chances through eye-of-the-needle passes. This Belgium is slightly different. The Belgium built around Lukaku has to be more about transitions and opening up space to break quickly on the counter. While Hazard might be a problem, De Bruyne can slide back in as a complimentary piece here pretty naturally. The Manchester City man has always been the one who quickens the tempo, so linking with Lukaku should be closer to his natural speed than the work Pep Guardiola has him do.

What Lukaku won’t be doing is standing with his back to goal looking to bring down long balls and play in wingers running past him. Doing this is as unnatural to him as it would have been for Van Nistelrooy. Lukaku needs to be running into space in order to do what he does best. This can involve playing a better style of football to find him than simply hoofing the ball up the pitch, which isn’t a problem for Martinez’s attacking instincts. Belgium are here to play good football, which suits the modern iteration of Lukaku down to the ground.

Lukaku’s next opponent is Denmark, and that’s sure to be an emotional affair. After Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, Lukaku was first to lend his voice in support of his club teammate, shouting “Chris, I love you” at the TV cameras. It was obvious playing after seeing Eriksen’s incident affected him. “It was difficult to play because my mind was with my team-mate Christian,” he said after the Russia win. It’s certain to play on his mind on Thursday. As much as Eriksen is a good friend of his, Lukaku has a job to do.

The key thing for Denmark will probably be staying in a compact block and denying the space in behind. If Lukaku is forced to have everything in front of him, he won’t be able to use his now signature move and find a channel to attack. This would force Belgium’s attack to become more static and predictable. But you’d have to back Lukaku to find the space in the end. Staying concentrated in a low block for 90 minutes isn’t easy work, and the striker will be there to pounce the exact moment anyone makes a mistake.

Is there anyone at Euro 2020 in a better moment right now than Lukaku? After two excellent years in Italy and a slightly tweaked Belgium team built more around him, he’s here to get serious. While he’s been dominating Serie A, recognition across the continent and, especially in England, has sometimes eluded him. If he keeps up this form for the next month, it is unlikely anyone will ever doubt him again. It’s Lukaku’s world, and we’re just living in it.

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