IIn professional tennis, comebacks are as present as the air we breathe. Players return to competition on a whim, coaches inevitably find their way back to the circus, and no one seems to be gone for long. Still, few returns have had as much resonance as last week.
Four years after his tearful final stage as coach of his nephew, Rafael Nadal, when they achieved their 10th Roland Garros title in 2017, on Monday Toni Nadal returned to the ATP. However, when he took his place in the stands at Monte Carlo, it was not in his old seat. Now he will try to help guide 20-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime to the top of the sport.
Auger-Aliassime has long been touted as a potentially defining talent of his young generation. Six years ago, he hit the tour in Granby, Canada, as fully formed as a 14-year-old has ever been and became the youngest player to win an ATP Challenger main draw match. Auger-Aliassime’s game in 2015 was surprising on all fronts. Her athleticism, fueled by her slim 6-foot-4 frame, was undeniable. His serve was already fierce and he harnessed such easy power on his forehand, generated with smooth and efficient technique. As he recorded his surprising initial results, he seemed to play within himself, with a cannon of space that he could grow into.
Even more remarkable than that first glimpse was how Auger-Aliassime maintained its momentum so easily. He became a French Open junior finalist at age 15, US Open junior champion just after his 16th birthday, and, at that same age, marked himself the youngest ATP Challenger winner in a decade. At 18, he had reached an ATP 500 final in Rio and the semifinals of the 2019 Miami Masters 1000. A sustained breakthrough from spring 2019 on three surfaces culminated in a career-high 17 and, as he has risen in the classification, has shown passion, drive and kindness.
Few have narrated Auger-Aliassime’s precociousness as well as Stefanos Tsitsipas after losing to Auger-Aliassime at Queen’s in 2019: “It’s annoying, obviously, that he’s better than me. I have to accept that he is better than me. I may never beat him, but if I think that way, I just have to wait, maybe years, for that opportunity to come. “Tsitsipas didn’t have to wait long. He has suffocated Auger-Aliassime the last three times, perhaps a reflex. of its progression, as the Auger-Aliassime game has briefly stalled.
During his sustained presence at the top of the game, Auger-Aliassime’s weaknesses have become increasingly visible. He has developed one of the heaviest groundstroke pairs on the tour, and in mid-flight he’s supreme, but his game is heavily dependent on his offense and is less varied than anticipated. He has won just 19.6% of return games over the past year, which puts him 68th on the ATP, limiting his game, and during tense moments, both his second serve and his forehand can miss. Perhaps most notably, his game seems too stiff and rehearsed. When a game strays from him, he struggles to solve problems and make the small adjustments within the game that underline much of the success of the best players. Matches can drift away from him at a worrying speed.
Still, looking at your career from a slightly different angle can yield a radically different conclusion. Auger-Aliassime is ranked 21st in the world at just 20 years old, which is an incredible achievement in itself, and progress is often non-linear – he has a long career ahead of him. Your resistance counts in your favor. For example, after a disheartening 6-3, 6-2 final loss to Dan Evans in Melbourne the day before the Australian Open began, he responded admirably with a run on the second week when a tired Evans fell in the first. round. The defining stat of his career thus far is his 0-7 record in ATP finals, after failing to win a single set in any finals. The fact that you are continually challenging them is a reflection of your ability in and of itself.
What seems clear is that Auger-Aliassime has acted swiftly to tackle any stagnation in his game and resume his rise in the rankings. After finishing last season with four consecutive losses, he parted ways with his longtime coach, Guillaume Marx, and hired a renowned Canadian coach, Fred Fontang. His stint at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor last December provided another connection when he announced his partnership with Toni Nadal last week. Hiring such a prominent name is a statement of your ambition in itself.
As this story unfolds, it will be one of the most fascinating of the year. Having molded one of the greats almost single-handedly, Nadal will now try to make a difference for a young and top-tier player in a much more subtle way alongside another coach, Fontang, who travels with Auger-Aliassime. At some point, your nephew will get in your way.
Their first match together reflected the work to be done. On Tuesday, after the first day of the Monte Carlo Masters rained, Auger-Aliassime fell 7-5, 6-1 to No. 24 Cristian Garín. He had led 5-2 in the first set, only to lose confidence in his forehand and then, not for the first time in recent months, went 50 minutes without it back. Work begins to ensure such events are in the past and you will surely enjoy it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism