It has been an interesting year for Felix Auger-Aliassime – but how could it not be when you’re a super promising 17/18-year-old out on the professional tennis tour?
He began 2018 ranked No. 162 and dropped to No. 189 during a stretch when he lost in the first round at six of his first nine tournaments. But he has come on strong and, with his win at the $75,000 Challenger event in Tashkent last Saturday, now stands at a career-high No. 109.
The title run in the Uzbekistan capital (left with co-coach Fred Fontang) began in the first round of qualifying where he barely survived – winning 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 over No. 388-ranked Asian Karatsev of Russia. He won two more qualifying matches and then eked out a squeaker over another Russian in the second round of the main draw – beating No. 176 Alexey Vatutin 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(7).
By the time he got to the final, including a 7-6(4), 6-3 win over second seed (No. 87) and hometown boy Denis Istomin in the quarter-finals, he was rolling and outplayed No. 178 Kamil Majchrzak of Poland 6-3, 6-2 last Saturday.
A day later and travel of almost 5,000 kilometres from Tashkent to Antwerp, he saved two match points in beating wild card No. 399 Zizou Bergs of Belgium 5-7, 6-3, 7-6(2) before a foot blister forced him to retire on Monday trailing 6-2, 3-0 in his second-round qualifying match against No. 150 Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine.
He now plans to play the ATP 500 event in Vienna next week and then hopefully the qualifying for the Paris/Bercy Masters 1000 the following week.
So far in 2018 the Montreal native has played each of his top-100 compatriots – defeating No. 75 (at the time) Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 7-6(4) in Indian Wells before losing 6-4, 6-4 to No. 38 Milos Raonic in the next round. Then in the first round at the US Open he faced great friend Denis Shapovalov, No. 28, and lost 7-5, 5-7, 4-1 ret. when a racing heart rate forced him to stop.
Auger-Aliassime has a goal of reaching the top-100 this year and he’s very close to attaining it – but maybe more important is that he’s even closer to getting directly into the main draw of the 2019 Australian Open. There’s something extra for players from the Northern hemisphere about being main draw at Melbourne Park. Coming the long trip home after losing in the qualifying is always frustrating, not to mention disappointing as a start to the new year.
The entry cut-off for the 2018 Australian Open was No. 100 but the last direct entrant ended up being No. 103. It varies depending on the balance between players who withdraw and those who enter using a ‘protected ranking.’ To be safe No. 100 at the entry deadline six weeks before the start on January 14, 2019, would be desirable.
Auger-Aliassime’s only trip to Australia was in 2016. Later that year at just 15, he would go on to reach the French Open junior boys final and the Wimbledon quarter-finals before winning the US Open title at 16. But he played poorly in a third round match in the Aussie Open juniors, losing 6-3, 6-1 to Kenneth Raisma of Estonia.
After Shapovalov won the Wimbledon junior championship and Auger-Aliassime did likewise at Flushing Meadows that year, both made those victories their swan songs in junior tennis.
The kinship between the two (above as a winning junior doubles team at the 2015 US Open) somewhat mirrors previous Canadian junior pairs who matured together, pushing each other. That goes back to Glenn Michibata and Martin Wostenholme in the 1970-80s, Andrew Sznajder and Grant Connell in the 1980-90s, Daniel Nestor and Sébastien Lareau in the 1990s and then Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil in more recent times.
Frank Dancevic, after Nestor and Lareau, is really the only top-70 Canadian to have broken through without a contemporary who was also doing well.
Inevitably there are comparisons between Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime. They played in the Canadian outdoor under-18 junior final in 2015 when Shapovalov (the winner) was 16 and Auger-Aliassime (above) was 15, and they led Canada to a junior Davis Cup title in Madrid later that same year.
Sixteen months older than Auger-Aliassime, it was not surprising that Shapovalov broke through first at the pro level – winning a round at Queen’s Club in 2017 at age 18 and then going on to reach the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup and the round-of-16 at the US Open.
With Auger-Alassime at No. 109 in this week’s ATP rankings, he is actually ahead of Shapovalov who was No. 193 on June 19, 2017, at the same age. But last year within three months of that June date, Shapovalov’s results in Montreal and New York vaulted him up to No. 67.
There have been a couple of injury interruptions in Auger-Aliassime’s career that have slowed his progress – something that has not happened with Shapovalov.
In June of 2017, Auger-Aliassime injured his right wrist at a Challenger in Blois, France. That kept him out of action for two months and ruined a highly-anticipated Tuesday matinee double-bill at the Rogers Cup in Montreal showcasing the two promising young guys. Ironically, after saving four match points in his opening match against unheralded No. 64-ranked Rogerio Dutra Silva, Shapovalov went on to have his big breakthrough at Auger-Aliassime’s hometown event. He memorably had wins over Juan Martin del Potro and then-World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.
There was also a knee injury that Auger-Aliassime suffered while he was practicing with Roger Federer (above) in Dubai last December. That prevented him from going to Australian Open in January where he would have been able to play the qualifying.
As is inevitable in tennis, and other sports, fans like to speculate about whom of Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov will end up being the better player in the pros.
Shapovalov is a more skillful, complete-package type of player while Auger-Aliassime has more of a well-rounded power game.
It may come down to this juxtaposition – would you rather be six-foot tall, be left-handed and have a big game (Shapovalov) or would you rather be 6-foot-4 and have a big game (Auger-Aliassime)?
Auger-Aliassime is listed as 6-foot-3 on the ATP World Tour website but he’s taller than that. In the picture here, he stands beside 6-foot-5 Milos Raonic last month and is not shorter by any more than an inch – his hair notwithstanding.
Canada is spoiled to have two outstanding prospects and, if Auger-Aliassime can break the top-100 soon, he and Shapovalov, 19, will be the only teenagers along with 19-year-old Aussie Alex de Minaur, in the top 100. Needless to say Auger-Aliassime would be the only 18-year-old.
Like Shapovalov he’s no stranger to the tennis cognoscenti around the world. But unlike his pal, who has pretty well managed to widely have his name pronounced correctly as ‘Shapo-VAL-ov,’ Auger-Aliassime still hears a lot of awkward versions of his name in English.
Felix himself, perfectly bilingual, understands the difficulty with the first of his hyphenated names – Auger. It’s often pronounced ‘OH-GUR’ when its proper French pronunciation is ‘Oh-ZHAY.’ But he’s more baffled by why Aliassime – correctly pronounced as ‘Ali-ah-SEEM’ – seems to still be a problem.
If he climbs as high as Shapovalov has, both sides of his surname will become more familiar and mispronunciations should be a thing of the past.
The left-hander on the left in this ping pong exchange is the future 42nd President of the United States – Bill Clinton. Leaning over the table making that ambitious attempt is his (future?) wife – Hillary Rodham Clinton.
WIMBLEDON VLOG outake: Cameraman Mauricio Paiz and I had fun doing vlogs this summer at Wimbledon, the US Open and Davis Cup between Canada and the Netherlands in Toronto in September. Here's our favourite Wimbledon outtake that didn't quite make the cut. It's priceless! pic.twitter.com/dYxbndJFx4
— Tom Tebbutt (@tomtebbutt) October 16, 2018
Over the next two months we will include our favourite vlogs done at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Canada-Netherlands Davis Cup tie in Toronto in September.
But before we begin with a complete vlog – here’s cameraman Mauricio Paiz and my favourite out-take from the summer. It’s from Wimbledon High Street in Wimbledon Village and is guaranteed to raise a smile.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)