To reach the top, you need to climb in stages. The closer you get to the summit of Everest, the scarcer oxygen becomes. Félix Auger-Aliassime is climbing at his own pace. One of the fastest there is at the moment. At 21, ranked ninth in the world, there is only one younger player ahead of him – Carlos Alcaraz, 19 years old and sixth in the rankings. Since the start of the season, the Canadian has been edging closer to a new milestone in his ascent – bringing down one of the giants of the circuit at his best level during a top-flight competition. Although he has found the holds and the route to take, he hasn’t yet managed to climb high enough to achieve his goal.
The Australian Open, the Masters 1000 in Rome and the French Open. These three tournaments have one thing in common for Félix Auger-Aliassime. His journeys there ended against the only three men to hold Grand Slam titles since Dominic Thiem’s coronation at the US Open in 2020, although he pushed them to their limits. In the quarter-finals in Melbourne, the Montreal native forced Daniil Medvedev to play his very best tennis in an epic five-set, 4 hour 42 minute duel. “He (Félix Auger-Aliassime was playing at a crazy level!,” said the Russian after the match. “I’d never seen him play so well, though obviously I haven’t seen all his matches. It was unreal.”
Nadal, Medvedev and Djokovic pushed to their limits
He went on to shore up his position with a first singles title on the main circuit at the ATP 500 in Rotterdam and a final in Marseille. Then the opportunity to take on a mountain presented itself again two months later. In the quarter-finals at the Italian Open, he took on Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career. Just like on the hard court of the Rod Laver Arena against Medvedev, he was able to repeat the avalanches of powerful shots combined with taking the ball early, successfully much more often than not. Although beaten 7/5 7/6, he forced the Serb to play his best tennis.
“I think it was high level tennis,” commented the then world number 1. “He (Félix Auger-Aliassime) is a very complete player. He forced me to raise my level.” Two weeks after this performance, the Canadian managed an even more breathtaking feat by attempting an ascent of what is considered the riskiest mountain in tennis: Rafael Nadal, on the Roland-Garros side. Impressive both defensively and offensively, driven by the desire to impose his pace and move forward – 54 net points or 18.9% out of the bout’s 287 total – he came close to one great exploit. And achieved another.
“If you can’t get Felix to move back, it’s very difficult to control him” – Rafael Nadal
Although it was the 112th match and the 109th victory for the pope of clay and his 18th attendance at the high mass in Paris, Auger-Aliassime became only the third player to take him to a fifth set. Previously, only John Isner in 2011 and Novak Djokovic two years later, had succeeded. But, like them, he lost in the final round. Defeated 3/6 6/3 6/2 3/6 6/3 in 4 hours 21 minutes. “Félix is playing better and better,” observed the 22 Grand Slam-titles holder after the clash. “If you can't get him to move back, it’s very difficult to control him, he’s very aggressive. He has a huge serve and is very strong with his forehand on the follow-up shot.”
Capable of being more than a stone in even the biggest shoes, the protege of Frédéric Fontang and Toni Nadal has so far lacked that little extra to topple them at the biggest tournaments. “It is an ongoing task, you need to constantly try to become a better player, every day in training,” he explained in Paris. “I know I have some very good shots, but they could still be more precise, more powerful, more consistent. But it’s good to play these four-hour battles on these big courts, it allows you to test yourself mentally, physically, and to learn. You have to experience these difficult situations to eventually find a solution.”
Stay constant at high intensity to reach a new milestone
“At times, even though he (Rafael Nadal) raised his game, I had some dips, physically, mentally, and lost my game strategy,” he continued. “For me, the aim is to maintain my intensity at a very high level throughout the length of a game, including in five sets. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of focus, but I think I’m on the right track.” Crossing swords so regularly with the best in the world while pushing them to the max is often a sign of promise. It’s probably only a matter of time – let’s hope – before Auger-Aliassime goes all the way by tripping them up on a big stage. And why not in July?
Last year, he showed himself to be very comfortable on grass, with a semi-final in Stuttgart and a final in Halle – taking Roger Federer in the process – followed by his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon. To launch his 2022 season on grass, FAA kicked off with a semi-final at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he lost in the third set tie-breaker to kill-joy Tim van Rijthoven, who went on to win the tournament after a dream week that included a crushing victory over Medvedev. Close to the 14,000-point mark for the #FAAPointsForChange project, Félix Auger-Aliassime is competing in Halle this week. A last encampment to sharpen his ice-picks before tackling Wimbledon – where he can hope to gain a little more altitude.
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Felix Auger Aliassime
Tim van Rijthoven