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Home   News   Tebbutt: Félix has arrived

Tebbutt: Félix has arrived

Jun 25, 2019
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

In the picture here Félix Auger-Aliassime is 15 years old and playing the qualifying at the 2016 Rogers Cup in Toronto. His ATP Tour ranking was No. 597.

As of today – Tuesday, June 25, 2019 – Auger-Aliassime is 18 and ranked No. 21.

He has been a prodigy – qualifying for the ATP Challenger event in Drummondville, Que., in March, 2015 when he was 14 to earn his first ATP ranking point and then winning a round in the ATP Challenger in Granby, Que., in July later that same year while still 14.

The brain-trust at Tennis Canada’s National Tennis Centre in Montreal – headed by vice-president elite athlete development Louis Borfiga – has purposely been careful about protecting their prize prospect. They were aware of his exceptional talent and did all they could in the early days to make sure he wasn’t distracted or overwhelmed by too much outside attention.

It worked for a while but when, at 15, he was the runner-up (after having three match points in the final) in the 2016 French Open junior boys event, it was getting harder to keep a lid on things. Then he won the US Open junior boys title later that summer a month after his 16th birthday – putting him at the forefront of the most promising young players in the world alongside good friend Denis Shapovalov, who was 2016 Wimbledon junior boys champion.

By the next summer – 2017 – he and Shapovalov were to be the teenage feature attractions for the Tuesday afternoon session at Rogers Cup in Montreal. A left wrist injury prevented Auger-Aliassime from playing in his home tournament, a tournament that turned into the coming-out party for Shapovalov, who upset Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to the semi-finals.

So Shapovalov became the golden boy and overshadowed Auger-Aliassme, giving the latter even more time to mature out of the main spotlight and away from the pressure. For more than a year it was Shapovalov receiving the bulk of the buzz.

That started to change in February of this year when Auger-Aliassime, who began 2019 ranked No. 108, reached the final of the ATP 500 event in Rio de Janeiro on clay.

Here are the main signposts of his rise in 2019:

January: He loses 7-6(4), 6-3 to 6-foot-7 Christopher Eubanks of the U.S. in the second round of Australian Open qualifying while having a bit of a knee issue associated with teenage growing pains (see picture above).

February: He wins the decisive match in Canada’s 3-2 Davis Cup Qualifiers round victory over Slovakia in Bratislava and also got to his first tour final – losing 6-3, 7-5 to No. 90-ranked Laslo Djere of Serbia at the ATP 500 in Rio de Janeiro.

March: He reaches the third round at Indian Wells, scoring his first top-10 win, 6-4, 6-2 over No. 10 Stefanos Tsitsipas.

March: He earns his biggest haul of ATP points so far – 376 – by getting to the semi-finals of the Miami Open as a qualifier before losing to 7-6(3), 7-6(4) to John Isner.

May: Beating Shapovalov 6-2, 7-6(7) in the first round, he then loses in the second 6-3, 6-3 to Rafael Nadal on clay in Madrid.

May: He reaches his second ATP Tour final and, diminished by a groin issue, is beaten 6-4, 6-3 by Benoit Paire in Lyon (above).

June: He makes his third ATP Tour final of the year before losing 6-4, 7-6(11) in Stuttgart on grass to big-hitting Matteo Berrettini of Italy.

June: He continues to play excellent lawn tennis, making the semi-finals at the ATP 500 at Queen’s Club in London – beating Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tsitsipas before losing 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-4 to grass-court maestro Feliciano Lopez.

Auger-Aliassime was impressive at Queen’s Club. Playing in just his second career tournament on grass, he showed a mastery of the surface that can sometimes take years to acquire. His performance on a major stage was so polished that it now seems impossible to label him as anything but a future World No. 1 and Grand Slam event champion.

It’s dangerous to make that kind of bold assertion but he has shown that he has a complete game and an excellent temperament. It was interesting to hear one experienced observer wryly point out last week – after Auger-Aliassime, 18, defeated Kyrgios, 24, – that the most mature of all the young players all had just beaten the least mature.

There was startling praise for Aliassime from the 20-year-old Tsitsipas, who’s almost exactly two years older, after he lost 7-5, 6-2 to the Canadian in the Queen’s Club quarter-finals. The Greek is now 0-5 versus Auger-Aliassime – losing three times in the juniors as well as twice in the pros, at Indian Wells and Queen’s Club this year.

“It does worry me,” Tsitsipas declared with brutal candour after the loss. “It’s upsetting obviously that he’s better than me. I have to accept that he’s better than me. I might never beat him. But if I think that way, (I) just need to wait, years maybe, for that chance to come.”

Tsitsipas, the No. 6-ranked player in the world, seems almost mesmerized by Auger-Aliassime. “He has one of the best (service) returns on the tour,” the Greek said. “He has a really powerful, accurate serve, which is tough to read. He’s really quick and fast, which is rare to find all of those together. Big forehand – big backhand. He can create a lot of opportunities from his backhand, but also at the same time he can be very aggressive from the forehand side. There’s not much to come up with when you play against him.

“He has the whole package to play big. I’m sure if he ever gets the difficult chance to play Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer, he’s going to beat them for sure. I will not be surprised if he gets wins over those guys.”

Reacting to Tsitsipas’ comments, Auger-Aliassime said about his rival: “If you just look at the results he’s had – I mean I think he has, what, three titles already on different surfaces? He’s beaten all the top players, Rafa, Novak, Roger. So I think objectively he’s a better player. He’s better ranked but maybe the matchup, one against each other, I have a bit of an advantage. I don’t know…”

Auger-Aliassime’s maturity is something the tennis world marvels at. The interview below – with Prakash Amritraj on Tennis Channel – is a good example of how well he handles himself in public situations.

Along with Borfiga, Auger-Aliassime’s coaches – Fred Fontang and Guillaume Marx – deserve credit for mentoring him. Both are low-key, approachable individuals from France, guys who played on the tour and get along well with ‘FAA” – although it’s tough to find anyone who doesn’t find him a sympathetic individual.

Fontang is pictured here on the left with fitness trainer Nicolas Perrotte, also from France.

Last September, the evening following the end of the Davis Cup World Group Playoff tie in Toronto against the Netherlands, Auger-Aliassime and Milos Raonic went out to dinner together, with Raonic offering whatever advice he could to his promising, young compatriot.

“Sometimes you don’t see it on court or he doesn’t show it,” Auger-Aliassime said about Raonic last week during Queen’s Club, “but he’s a really cool person and he’s very smart as well.

“Every time I was wondering about things on tour or off tour, you know, or anything I should do or about medical stuff, then I would talk to him for advice. So I think he’s a smart person, a very professional person.”

It’s almost scary how many of the boxes Auger-Aliassime ticks in terms of potentially becoming a great champion. He has the game, the maturity and the intelligence to handle the increasing attention and responsibilities that lie ahead. Losing to Lopez in the Queen’s semi-finals may not have been a bad thing. If he had gone on to win Queen’s Club – and he beat eventual finalist Gilles Simon 7-5, 6-4 the previous week in Stuttgart – there would have been even more hype about him going into next week’s Wimbledon. As it stands, the Ladbrokes legal betting firm in London has him tied with Marin Cilic as the sixth favourite at 28/1 to win outright. Raonic is eighth at 33/1 and Shapovalov is way back (questionably) in the pack at 150/1.

Statistically, it’s noteworthy that Auger-Aliassime has already beaten 12 top-50 ranked players in 2019. Also that he has achieved a No. 21 ranking with a measly eight points (second round qualifying at the Australian Open) at the two Grand Slam events played so far. A groin injury kept him out of Roland Garros.

Auger-Aliassime has not hidden his disappointment about not yet succeeding in winning his first ATP Tour title. He has been in a total of three finals and two semi-finals so far. Way back in 2000 and 2001, Roger Federer had been in two finals and three semi-finals before finally winning his first tournament in Milan in February, 2001, at age 19½.

At the moment, Auger-Aliassime, who turns 19 on August 8, is No. 10 in the Race to London to qualify for one of the eight spots at the prestigious year-end ATP Finals in November.

With all the positives about him, one attribute that’s rarely mentioned is the way he grunts on court. It’s kind of a gruff but brief and muted sound – with none of the excessive volume of some players. Of a type it’s sort of perfect – just enough to underscore his determination but nowhere near in any way being offensive or distracting.

A COOL DECEPTION

Last week Gael Monfils lost to Pierre-Hugues Herbert on the grass in Halle. As for crazy, casual shots – you’ll have a hard time finding any better than this one by the peerless French showman during that match.