Saturday, September 23

Felix Auger-Aliassime: ‘I’ve shown great things. I’m closer and closer to my goal’ | Wimbledon 2022

EITHEROnly a few weeks ago, in the final days of May, Félix Auger-Aliassime put himself within touching distance of history. For four grueling hours, I have faced Rafael Nadal in his temple, Court Philippe Chatrier, and matched him all the way. Unafraid at the beginning then unmoved as he trailed by two sets to one, Auger-Aliassime became only the third man ever to force Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros.

But he could not finish it. Nadal did what he always does there, elevating his level of him precisely when he most needed to. It was an immense effort from the challenger, but afterwards, he says, he was emotional. He felt so close to victory. It had also come four months after losing to Daniil Medvedev in five sets at the Australian Open quarter-final, which he had accepted with a smile on his face even after holding match point. It hurts.

“I felt like victory was not so far and when you feel that and you lose, it’s never easy to swallow,” Auger-Aliassime, 21, says in an interview with the Guardian in the days before Wimbledon. “But it’s alright. At the end of the day, these last two grand slams have been very positive for me. I’ve shown great things. And I think it just means that I’m closer and closer to my goal.”

The healthy, mature perspective that guides Auger-Aliassime is more promising than any single win. Three years ago, after blazing up the ATP rankings as an 18-year-old and standing on the brink of the top 20, he rounded on the first senior Wimbledon of his career as the young player of the moment.

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In the end he was unable to perform under the pressure and expectations. He lost in the third round, in a performance that he has called embarrassing. Auger-Aliassime always had a tremendous serve, a vicious, heavy forehand and a well-balanced game threaded together by his elegant athleticism, but in those big moments he often struggled to keep his nerves in check. If the double faults weren’t flowing freely, he would sometimes look out of ideas when his serve and forehand bombs weren’t landing.

Félix Auger-Aliassime congratulates Rafael Nadal after their epic French Open encounter. Photograph: TPN/Getty Images

Instead of immediately flying to the top, the past three years have been a tale of steady growth and patience as Auger-Aliassime has matured and come to understand his strengths and weaknesses, something he seems to appreciate. Unlike athletes in team sports whose trajectories are determined by coaches and suits, tennis players have full control of their destiny and the period in which Auger-Aliassime finds himself, as he grows into an adult and tries to take full ownership over his career, is essential.

“Growing up, my dad was coaching me. I would just listen to what he had to say and I would just execute,” he says, laughing. With time and age alongside his current coach, Fréd Fontang, he has become more self-sufficient. “From the ages of 17, 18, time after time I was able to think more about what I want to do with my game and what I need to improve and actually have an idea myself of what I need to work on even when we go. to practices.”

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An essential moment of growth came for Auger-Aliassime when he opted to split with his former longtime coach, Guillame Marx, at the end of 2020. Most 20-year-olds do not have to concern themselves with hiring and firing, but as an employer this is part of the job. He sat down with his coach and explained his decision: “It was probably the toughest decision I had to take so far in my life,” he says. “I was only 20 and I’ve been working with him since I was a teenager. He was like a second father to me.” In Marx’s place, Auger-Aliassime hired Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Rafa, as a second coach.

Under the guidance of Fontang and Nadal, the improvements have been clear. Last year at Wimbledon, Auger-Aliassime achieved one of his first big-time, big-match victories, defeating Alexander Zverev to reach his first grand slam quarter-final. He followed it up with his first semi-final at the US Open, then a quarter-final at this year’s Australian Open. I have ended last year by finally reaching the top 10.

These days his problem-solving ability has improved and he has introduced more variety to his game. Against Nadal his drop shots and net play were supreme. “I think there’s just more order in my game,” he says. “It’s more structured. I always had really high quality shots. But I think now I’m just more precise, more consistent.”

The mental obstacles Auger-Aliassime faced were most clearly reflected in his performances in finals. Between 2019 and 2021, Auger-Aliassime reached eight finals, losing in straight sets every time. Reaching so many endings was a lofty feat for such a young player, but every time a trophy was on the line he would freeze. After losing 16 consecutive sets, in February he finally defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas to win in Rotterdam. Immediately after the match, as he spoke with his father through FaceTime, he cried.

“The ones from second, third to eighth that I lost, it was really difficult,” he says. “To the point where it was always on my mind, thinking just putting myself in that position is not easy, at any tournament, and to eventually win. So when that win finally came this year, it was just the biggest relief to check that box to be able to move on to something else.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime
Félix Auger-Aliassime is aware of being a role model in a sport that still lacks black representation at the top level of the game. Photograph: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images for Laver Cup

During the interview we strolled around the Wimbledon grounds as he navigated a busy half day that included a brief magazine photoshoot. He dealt with every person on the shoot with a smile, he was apologetic when a fan interrupted us and he posed for a photo. He spoke thoughtfully throughout.

There are very few things that everyone agrees on in tennis, but it seems that a commonly held belief among players, journalists and fans alike is that Auger-Aliassime is one of the good people in this sport. With the recent retirement of his idol of him, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gaël Monfils’ advancing age, he is also well aware of his position of him as a role model, particularly to aspiring black players who still have relatively few figures to look up to at the very top of the men’s game.

At a time when many younger players have struggled to adjust to grass-court tennis, his game, his growth and his comfort on the surface make him a threat. He has a brutal first-round draw, the Eastbourne finalist Maxime Cressy, but he begins Wimbledon with an opportunity to demonstrate exactly what he is capable of: “I think more and more, my vision is more clear,” he says. “And I have more clarity of the player I want to be and the improvements I need to do on the court in order to reach my full potential.”

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