WIMBLEDON – The lovely people in Winnipeg, Manitoba no doubt were looking forward to two of the hottest prospects in men’s tennis gracing the fair Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club for a Challenger next week.
Unfortunately, neither 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov nor 16-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime will be there.
There’s been some wear and tear as the two teenagers have taken on the grownups in recent weeks.
In Shapovalov’s case, after his effort at Queen’s Club and his Grand Slam main draw debut Monday, it’s a matter of recovery and adjusting back to the hard courts.
Here is what he is quoted as saying by Tennis Canada:
“The past few weeks have been busier than I had initially anticipated and I have had to slightly alter my plan. I will take a few days off in order to recover and to prepare for the upcoming hard court season. I would like to wish the fans in Winnipeg a very successful tournament and I hope to see them next year.”
It’s not exactly shocking news. And Shapovalov is expected at Challenger events in other Canadian cities – Gatineau and Granby, Quebec – the following two weeks.
Air Felix has a wrist issue
For Auger-Aliassime, still only 16, the news is more concerning.
“I am obviously very disappointed to have to stay on the sidelines for a few weeks, especially since I always enjoy playing at home. However, I have to listen to my body so that I can get back to 100 per cent for the final leg of the season. I wish great success to the various organizing committees and I hope to be able to come back and compete in these tournaments next year.”
(Unlikely the two kids actually said those things. But it sounds good).
Both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime have singles wild cards into the Rogers Cup, which is a Masters 1000 event held in Montreal the second week of August.
Both also are entered in the qualifying of an ATP Tour event in Washington, D.C. the previous week.
Tuesday afternoon, he will play his first-round match against French wild card Gianni Mina at a similar event in Blois, France.
Notwithstanding the time he spent on a conference call with Canadian media Monday, there don’t seem to be any flights between these two cities. And they are some 300 miles apart. So the options were a five-hour drive, or a five-hour train ride.
The 2017 summer is beginning with a bang for the 16-year-old from Montreal. And a jam-packed schedule over the next 2 1/2 months will make him – or maybe break him.
Here’s a look at the last 2 1/2 years of Auger-Aliassime’s very busy tennis life.
He watched his good friend and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov, 16 months older, win the $100,000 Challenger in Drummondville (about an hour outside Montreal) last March after beating him in the semifinals. Auger-Aliassime had already beaten No. 3 Canadian Peter Polansky in straight sets in the second round. Seeing that he had the level, it really pushed him to fully commit himself.
“Things are moving up really quickly. I started the year on the ITF pro circuit, playing Futures, building my ranking up. I guess things moved up a little bit faster than I thought they would,” Auger-Aliassime said during the call.
Big rankings jump
Auger-Aliassime’s ATP Tour ranking rose 105 spots with his win in Lyon, which made him the seventh-youngest player ever to win a tournament at the Challenger level. On the youth list, he’s right behind Rafael Nadal – and right ahead of Novak Djokovic.
With his ranking at No. 231 after the victory in Lyon, he can certainly aspire to playing the qualifying at the US Open at the end of August.
His first dip into the top 250 also puts him in pretty great company.
It will have been just a year since he won the junior boys’ title, at 16.
It’s all happening a little more quickly than he imagined.
“I haven’t talked to my coach yet, haven’t set any new objectives. Winning a Challenger was one of the main goals when we started the season in January, and that has been reached,” Auger-Aliassime said. “After this week, the tournament in Blois, we’re going to set ourselves new ones. But overall, I don’t set any limits. Just trying to win as many matches as I can, and If I win them all, that would be great.”
Feeling right at home in Lyon
Auger-Aliassime, who is a Quebec francophone, said his first title will stay with him forever.
“It was pretty incredible. A week – two weeks – I’ll never forget. I got there the Wednesday before the start of the tournament. And I had a chance to spend lots of time in that magnificent city,” he said. “I’ll remember how they welcomed me. The crowd was supporting me; even when I played a French player in the final, they were split.
“That’s really something incredible. It’s a first; you can’t replace it,” he added.
Building blocks fall into place
The key to Auger-Aliassime’s success in June is two-fold.
First was all the hard work put in during the last off-season with coach Guillaume Marx and Tennis Canada physical trainer Nicolas Perrotte. The effort was both mental and physical. Auger-Aliassime’s increased calm and maturity was in evidence in Lyon – especially during the semifinal, which was played in a gale-force wind that might have cause him to lose his cool even a year ago.
Because it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The Australia trip in Jan. 2016 didn’t go well at all. The kid never got his bearings and his frustration on the court – as agents crawled all over him and his father and anyone who knew him – was evident. He told Tennis.Life upon returning home, a few weeks later, that he might have been burning out a little. But it didn’t last long.
Challenges in 2016
As well, the attitude when Auger-Aliassime lost was something that needed tending to. Because as he jumps up each level of the pro game, there are going to be a more losses than wins as he adjusts.
After losing both the French Open junior singles and final and the US Open doubles final last year … well, let’s just say the winners will look back on those photos years from now and remember how the kid they beat wasn’t quite as gracious as he could have been, needed to be, when it was all over.
A gruelling five-week tour of Asia over April and May was a bit of a game changer. It was a trip that took him from Qingdao and Anning, China (on red clay reportedly imported straight from Roland Garros), to Gimcheon, Seoul and Busan, South Korea on hard courts.
Auger-Aliassime played 16 matches – 11 of them in qualifying.
It was such a long trip that his coaches even passed the baton halfway through. Longtime coach Guillaume Marx handed it off to Frédéric Fontang, who coached Auger-Aliassime’s countryman Vasek Pospisil for four years and now works on assignment for Tennis Canada. Fontang also is assistant coach for the Davis Cup team.
“It’s kind of an adjustment. You’re not used to paying at a high level constantly with those guys. But after my five-week tour in Asia, playing the qualifying and main draws of ATP Challengers, I kind of got more used to the level of these guys. And this week, it kind of paid off,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I was pushing myself to the limit in almost every match. But at the end of the week I found the little edge to get over these guys.”
Busy Canadian summer circuit
Auger-Aliassime has a total of six ATP Tour points to defend until the first week in November when, in 2016, he won his first Futures-level event on the Har-Tru in Birmingham, Alabama.
After the Challenger in Blois this week, comes a flurry of hard-court events back home in Canada.
First up will be the $75,000 Winnipeg Challenger the week of July 11, followed by a similar Challenger in Gatineau, Que. And then, a $100,000 Challenger in Granby, Que.
That’s where Auger-Aliassime won his first Challenger-level match two summers ago, and caught the attention of many by reaching the quarter-finals out of the qualifying before running of gas. He was still a couple of weeks away from turning 15.
Auger-Aliassime lopped some 500 ranking spots off his ranking that week; he had been at 1,237 going in.
He didn’t get a wild card into the Rogers Cup qualifying in Toronto, as he hit the junior circuit again.
A lot of tennis, not a lot of time
Now 16, he played a big US Open juniors warmup event in Repentigny, Que. – and then went to New York and not only won the boys’ singles title, but reached the final of the doubles as well with Shapovalov.
Despite having played 11 matches in a week in New York, Auger-Aliassime was only home a few days before he had to head right back out again, and switch surfaces in a hurry.
He played a Futures event in Hungary on the red clay before playing another 10 matches the following week, as he was called into service to represent Canada in the Junior Davis Cup finals.
Despite his Herculean efforts. Canada fell to Russia in the final.
It was far too much tennis for a growing kid although in the end, Auger-Aliassime doesn’t appear to be the worse for it.
First Rogers Cup appearance a cinch
After Granby this summer comes the Rogers Cup, which is in his hometown and for which he quite likely will receive a wild card into the qualifying.
There are a few factors at play. Vasek Pospisil will in all probability need a main draw wild card. Shapovalov is still ahead of Auger-Aliassime on the depth chart. And then, there are veterans Frank Dancevic and Peter Polansky (both of whom have long represented Canada in Davis Cup) to consider.
On the plus side, the Montreal men’s event doesn’t need to sell tickets, with the stellar field it boasts every year. So Tennis Canada doesn’t need to use the kid as a marketing tool. (If they did, they’d have given him a wild card into the qualies in 2015).
They can make the decision based on the other factors, as well as the step-by-step plan they have followed for the kid so far.
But that’s still nearly two months away. A lot can change.
After that, Auger-Aliassime plans to play a $100,000 Challenger all the way across country in Vancouver.
Grand Slams await
But … if Auger-Aliassime makes the cutoff for US Open qualifying – it seems impossible he won’t, at this point – you’d have to think the Vancouver plan would be altered. To cross the continent just for one tournament after four straight weeks on the hard courts, then come right back to the East Coast for your first appearance in a Grand Slam? That makes little sense.
You can certainly hope that the powers-that-be at Wimbledon – with Canadian Michael down the head of the British Tennis Association, and returning to Canada to take up his old job there July 1 – might see fit to give him a wild-card into the qualifying at Roehampton. He was, after all, a singles semi-finalist and a doubles finalist in the junior event a year ago.
With his current ranking, Auger-Aliassime would have made it on his own merit.
But where would he fit it in?
However it shakes out, Auger-Aliassime could be setting the stage for a breakthrough summer. And even compared to his first baby steps at 14, when so many were calling him “the next big thing”, even more eyes will be upon him.
More new career highs this week, especially amongst the veteran set as the likes of Paolo Lorenzi (35) and Gilles Muller (34) set new marks.
Muller’s late-career surge continues to impress as he adds the Ricoh Open title, his second of the season – and second of his career.
Young Americans Frances Tiafoe and Jared Donaldson continue their march to the top 50 with new career bests.
There will be no changes at the very top after this week. But No. 6 Milos Raonic has finalist’s points to defend at Queen’s Club, so he has to watch out for Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem right behind him.
On the veteran side as well, 39-year-old Tommy Haas has finally cracked the top 300. With his effort in Stuttgart, he’s nearly into the top 250.
There aren’t many 16-year-old players making a move on the men’s side these days.
But Montreal’s Félix Auger-Aliassime made a huge move on Sunday.
The 2016 US Open junior champion, into the Lyon, France Challenger on a wild card, won it.
He crushed 23-year-old Frenchman Mathias Bourgue 6-4, 6-1 in the final, just as he crushed 30-year-old Aleksandr Nedovyesov 6-0, 6-3 in the semifinal.
It is the first Challenger-level title for Auger-Aliassime, who reached the French Open boys’ junior final a year ago.
He entered the week ranked No. 336. When the new list comes out on Monday, he will vault more than 100 spots in the ATP Tour rankings. It’s too bad the entries for the Wimbledon qualifying are closed. He would have made it.
The Canadian is the seventh-youngest to ever win a Challenger-level title. He’s just two weeks older than Rafael Nadal when the Spanish star won his first, in Barletta, Italy all the way back in 2003.
Novak Djokovic was two months older when he won his first, in Budapest, Hungary in 2004.
15 years,7 months
Las Vegas, USA, 1997
16 years,0 months
Montauban, FRA, 2002
16 years,4 months
Melbourne, AUS, 2009
16 years,7 months
New Ulm, GER, 1984
16 years,7 months
Durban, RSA, 1989
16 years,9 months
Barletta, ITA, 2003
16 years, 10 months
Lyon, FRA, 2017
That’s not a guarantee of superstardom, of course, although every single player on the list above has “made it”, by any definition.
Carlsson reached No. 6 in the world in 1988, at the age of 20. Unfortunately, major knee problems knocked him out of the game just a year later.
The South African Ondruska also reached his career high (No. 27) at the age of 20, in 1993. He never won a singles title, but he won four in doubles and reached No. 34. He was still playing doubles as recently as 2005.
The jury is still out on Tomic, still only 24. But he reached a career best of No. 17 last year and already has three titles.
The rest, we know about.
(Tennis.Life will have a full piece on Auger-Aliassime’s rise later today. As it happens, it’s a particular area of expertise. 🙂 )