“Yes, I get frustrated sometimes.” A child tennis prodigy – having won his first game at Challenger level at 14 years old and been ranked 33rd in the world four years later – Félix Auger-Aliassime had grown accustomed to overcoming obstacles, like a 110m hurdler set on breaking records. But as he neared the summit – ranked in the top 20 by October 2019 at age 19 – the gradient became a lot steeper and the ascent naturally slower. “I have been lucky since I was a child, by working hard, to have quickly achieved the results I wanted,” he continued during the live Instagram with Nicolas Mahut for We Are Tennis last Tuesday evening. “One of the main things I’ve learned over the past few years is that you don't always get what you want. Even working hard, I sometimes had difficult times, losing more games, and I felt like I wasn’t really improving.”
Currently ranked number 21 in the world, the Canadian has failed to deliver a particularly flashy performance since the start of the clay court season. From Monte-Carlo to Lyon, via Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, he has “only” notched up four victories, compared with five setbacks. However, two of those wins were against top 15 players: Denis Shapovalov (14th) and Diego Schwartzman (10th). In terms of defeats, he yielded to three formidable masters of the clay court – Cristian Garín, Casper Ruud (one of the top names on the circuit) and Stéfanos Tsitsipás – and two players at the top of their game in recent weeks – Federico Delbonis and Lorenzo Musetti. So certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But to reach the very top and assert himself as a serious contender for Grand Slam titles – his long-term goal – he knows he needs to improve his consistency with a string of outstanding performances.
Developing a winning attitude
There is only one way of achieving this – to work hard at it. And harder. And harder still. Without ever being discouraged, no matter the obstacles. “I had to accept that everything doesn't always go the way you want it to,” he continued. “No matter how hard you work, it doesn’t always guarantee an immediate result. So you have to keep persevering until you get there.” Ahead of the Monte-Carlo Masters 1000 tournament, “FAA” announced that Toni Nadal would be joining his team, in addition to existing coach Frédéric Fontang. After a month and a half of official collaboration, the Canadian has been able to get more of a taste of the Mallorcan’s style. “His philosophy is commitment,” explained Auger-Aliassime. “He wants total commitment with every shot, with a lot of intensity as well as great focus. He also wants consistent accuracy on every ball. It's a lot more technical than you’d think.”
And Rafael Nadal’s uncle does not restrict his attention to the quality of the shots. To become much more than an underdog, Félix Auger-Aliassime needs to develop an alpha mind-set capable of taking on the leaders of the pack. “He (Toni Nadal) believes in developing this winning, conquering attitude which I need to reach the highest level,” explained the Montreal native. After training at home in Monaco, he set off for the French Open on Wednesday. Last year, for his main draw début, he lost to Yoshihito Nishioka in his first match. Having reached the Round of 16 at the 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open, he is aiming for his first Grand Slam quarter-final in Paris – perhaps, on the way, encountering one of his childhood idols, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
“It would be nice to play against him before he stops (his career),” said the Canadian, again during the Instagram live. “The idols for my generation were Roger and Rafa, but part of me was also a real fan of Jo. I've always loved watching him play, with his charisma, his explosive style, his serve, his forehand. As a teenager, there were even times when I developed my game by copying him. He’s always been a hero to me. And it was fantastic when I got to chat with him. Sometimes when you meet a childhood hero and you end up disappointed. With Jo, it was the exact opposite. I was delighted. He really is a top guy.” Off the court, he also identified with “JWT” through his family heritage. “He has a similar story to me, coming from a diverse background. Like Jo, I have an African father (Sam Aliassime was born in Togo, Didier Tsonga in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and a Western mother (Marie Auger is Canadian, Evelyne Tsonga is French).”
“I will be at the Olympics”
African roots he has never forgotten. “When I went to Togo at 13 years old, I saw tough things, even though it's a very stable country with lots of good things,” he said. “I told myself that if I was successful in my career, I would help young people achieve their dreams by allowing them to have the opportunities I had in Canada.” A promise to himself that he was able to keep even before he turned 20. Since early 2020, for each point he has won in an official match, he donates $5 to the EduChange programme set up by the NGO Care, to help educate and protect children in Kara, a region where his father was born. As a partner of the #FAAPointForChange initiative, BNP Paribas adds $15 per point. The project is making progress despite the health crisis.
“The money goes to renovating schools and sports fields. We will provide school kits for children, things like that,” explained the player. “And that gives me a boost on court. Even when I’m tired and reaching my limit, I give it my all to win one more point. Because I know $5 can make a difference there.” That motivation will be joined by another this summer – representing his country. Félix Auger-Aliassime officially announced to We Are Tennis that he will be taking part in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which fits in nicely between the Paris Open-Wimbledon and the US Open. “The Olympics are really important to me. I'll be there. I think I'm giving you the scoop on this live,” he smiled. “It really is a childhood dream. And if I could win a gold medal for Canada during my career, that would be amazing.” A medal that would be fitting around the neck of this man with a heart to match.
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Felix Auger Aliassime