When your son becomes a card-carrying member of the world elite, a front-row seat is practically a given. For Sam Aliassime, that seat, which happens to be right next to coach Frédéric Fontang’s, is indicative of the respect the team has for him.
From March 8 to 18, Sam was in Indian Wells. What was the experience like for a tennis superstar’s dad?
Here’s a peek at his father–son week in the Coachella Valley.
For this next installment in our series, Sam agreed to document his time in Indian Wells, where he set foot for the first time since Félix turned pro. He also shared a glimpse into the family’s tournament routine.
After landing in LA from Lomé, Sam headed for the affluent enclave of Indian Wells, nestled in the California mountains, just outside Palm Springs.
On top of running his tennis academy in Québec, the elder Aliassime is spearheading a program to support tennis development in his native Togo and neighbouring West African countries.
Still, he was right on time to proudly watch Félix and Leylah Fernandez team up for the Eisenhower Cup mixed doubles charity tennis event.
The friendly showdown isn’t the only initiative to which he and Félix have pledged their time. “I also had to be here for the launch of Team BNP Paribas Young Talents Aliassime—an initiative that’s already underway in Europe and the US and is now being introduced in Canada. It was made official right after Félix’s opening match,” Sam explains.
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Along with the Aliassimes, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in France, Justine Henin in Belgium and Patrick and John McEnroe in the US are all part of the program.
On March 11, Sam and Félix hit with the McEnroe brothers and some of the kids enrolled in the initiative.
“The project helps parents who don’t have the means to cover the training and travel expenses of the talented Canadian kids who want to go far in the sport. You know, often the only way kids can access high-level competitions is by taking them out of their home clubs and bringing them to the National Tennis Centre. This project supports the federations, so kids can stay at home and still access funding to pursue their training and compete in tournaments around the world,” says Sam.
Once again, the Aliassime name is tied to a project dedicated to supporting and improving the lives of others. The difference is that this particular initiative has an angel investor: “The BNP project alleviates things for me financially, since the Team Africa project was funded by the academy and our family. Now, we can even open the door to young African players so they can join the team.”
House and home
So how do things work for family members? Do they have to wait for an invitation to a tournament or can they just show up?
“I go whenever I want and so does his mother,” says Sam. “For me, it depends on my schedule and the academy’s needs.”
During the two-week Slams and tournaments like the Sunshine Double, players and their teams have two choices: a hotel or a rental.
In Indian Wells, Félix rented a house, but when his sister Malika and his girlfriend Nina Ghaibi couldn’t make it because of school, Sam and Félix ended up by themselves in the spacious rental. They made the most of it by hosting a lot of team meals.
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“In Miami, we’ll be at a hotel. And then in Monaco, we’ll stay at Félix’s place. Same thing at Roland-Garros: we’ll all be together in a house we rented in Paris. Everyone’ll be there, but I might not. My schedule this summer is really full,” he says.
Even though he hasn’t been his son’s regular coach for several years, Sam was there for every step during the first decade of Félix’s tennis career. Today, when he travels to a tournament, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“I go to all the training sessions, but I’m not on the court like I used to be. If he’s there with a hitting partner and his coach, I stay on the sidelines. Same with this pre-match sessions. But if he’s alone, then I’ll go out there. It’s like when we’re at his place in Monaco during training camp. Then, I’m always on the court,” Sam says.
There’s no doubt that the team gives Sam a prominent place alongside Frédéric Fontang. Even so, he doesn’t intervene or comment: “So, when he goes to Fred for advice, I’m right there. And while I may have an opinion, I don’t share it. I’m not the coach. Within the team, we’re disciplined: everyone has their own part to play.”
“Fred’s like the captain of the team, and he’s the one who talks tennis. But when it comes to education, I speak up and they don’t have a say!” says Sam with a laugh. “I also take care of the meals and the house for our team meetings. I ask them what they want to eat, get their suggestions and then prepare things.”
Do the Aliassimes talk shop after a match or on their days off?
“Often. All the time. I always remind him of his identity and his DNA so he never loses sight of who and what he must be. But I don’t talk to him right after a match, win or lose. That’s the coach’s job.”
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And that’s especially true after a loss like the one Félix suffered to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz in the quarters in Indian Wells, when it just wasn’t the time for him to share his thoughts.
“But later, the next day and over the following days, we talked a lot. For example, Fred, Félix and I sat down together the next day to go over the whole tournament—what we liked and what we didn’t like. It’s our way of setting the record straight,” Sam says.
A tip for tennis parents
There’s one point Sam is adamant about getting across, in an educational and positive way, to the tennis parents who may not always take the right approach with their kids.
“The worst thing you can do is go into the locker room and talk to a kid who’s just lost. No one likes losing, so do they want to talk to you? No. When your child wants to talk to you, they will. Let them process things. When Félix loses, we know he’s not happy,” he says, and rightly so.
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“The old saying about sleeping on things is true. Let them sleep on it, and the next day, at the right time, you’ll often get real answers and solutions rather than going into the locker room and saying whatever’s on your mind to a kid who’s too angry to listen anyway.”
Sam speaks from experience.
“I’ve made that mistake in the past. I used to go to tournaments with the kids and just talk about anything. Teenagers will either stay quiet or keep repeating negative things about how badly they played. But if you wait until the next day to talk about the match, they’re more relaxed because the approach is different and they’ll have moved on.”
Sam believes it’s the coach’s job to be with the player in the locker room after a match, and it was a lot more complicated back when he was coach and dad. “I remember when he was a junior. We went to compete in Toronto, and Félix lost to Denis [Shapovalov] in the final. We didn’t talk at all on our way back to Québec. The only thing I did was get us pizza. I ate and he ate, and neither of us said a single word,” Sam remembers with a laugh.
Sam thinks some parents just want it too much. Waiting for their child to ask for their opinion makes for a better parent–child relationship.
In addition to the humanitarian project in collaboration with BNP Paribas, Sam Aliassime was front and centre when Félix and Denis teamed up in doubles.
In the first round, they disposed of Holger Rune and Ben Shelton in three sets.
“I was there, for sure. It was a good match between youngsters—the four youngest players in the tournament. He and Denis have played doubles together since they were 14, so they get together whenever they can at team competitions and on Tour, but that’s more complicated because their priority is singles.”
Since the start of Félix’s career, Sam’s travelled extensively and visited countless tennis facilities. Among his favourites is the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
“It’s a beautiful place, and the fans know tennis and are very respectful of the players. Very classy!” he says. “It reminds me of the Australian Open: a vast and stunning site where the players are shown a lot of respect and have more freedom to move around. Oh, and I forgot: there were so many Canadian flags in Indian Wells that I felt like I was back in Canada! That was great for Félix.”
“Well, there’s New York. And New York is New York! The tournament is a reflection of the city itself,” he adds with a smile.
Sam’s also been to Roland-Garros. All that’s missing from his own personal Grand Slam is a stint at Wimbledon. He’s hoping that’ll happen this summer, but the projects he’s undertaken with the academy and Team Africa are going to take up a lot of his time and energy.
Sam had barely unpacked that he was off again.
After just a couple of days in Miami, he was already back in Québec, at the academy, by the time Félix played his first match at Hard Rock Stadium. Also on the calendar is another trip to Africa and perhaps a stop at one of the stadiums on the clay court swing, where a front-row seat will be waiting for him.