In the first set of the first match of the next step in his professional career, 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime looked like he was feeling the nerves.
But it passed. And while the Canadian teenager fell just short of pulling off an upset against world No. 38 Filip Krajinovic of Serbia, he could leave the court with his head held high.
Krajinovic, eight years older at 25, pulled off a 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 victory that puts him into the second round of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Auger-Aliassime gained some valuable experience. And he also showed how much his on-court maturity has skyrocketed over the last 12 months.
As disappointed as he was, he managed a smile for his opponent at the net, something he had trouble doing earlier in his career. And he applauded the fans as he walked off the court.
And above all, he kept his cool when he found himself in a fix.
The Montrealer also showed how much stronger he has become, with first serves regularly landing in the 210 km/hour (130 mph) range.
It was almost, but not quite, enough.
Early nerves led to slow start
“The nerves got to me a little bit in the first set. I started not bad the first two games, but still I felt tight. I felt my ball wasn’t going as it usually does, playing pretty short, not serving so well. The plan was to just hang in there mentally. It was in my control to stay tough mentally, and that’s what I did,” Auger-Aliassime told the media in Rotterdam, as reported on the ATP Tour website.
“That’s why I was so close to winning the match, but he did great. I think he did great on the important points, saving break point. I think he was a little bit tougher than me on those points,” he added.
The crucial seventh game
Auger-Aliassime’s shot came in the seventh game of the third set, with the score tied at 3-3 and Krajinovic always serving first and putting the pressure on.
Auger-Aliassime had love-40 on the Serb’s serve.
He did very little wrong; Krajinovic did everything right, including getting in some strong first serves that, even if they didn’t approach the velocity of his younger opponent’s delivery, were highly effective all the same.
After that, Auger-Aliassime held serve once to stay in the match. But he couldn’t do it a second time and force a decisive tiebreaker; he was broken at 5-6. And that was it.
Auger-Aliassime wasn’t helped by the fact that, in that last game, he broke a string on the 30-all point, losing the point and setting up Krajinovic’s first match point. He saved that one, but the momentum was all with the Serb from there; it felt as though Auger-Aliassime was swimming upstream the rest of the way.
Forehand giveth, and taketh
There were 198 total points in the match. And nearly a third of them (61) were wholly dependant on Auger-Aliassime’s heavy forehand.
He earned 24 winners with it; he also made 37 unforced errors with it.
Auger-Aliassime went 12-for-20 at the net. And had he made even a couple of the tougher volleys he missed, he might be playing again on Thursday.
The kid won’t have to wait long for his second attempt at the ATP Tour level. He has received another wild card next week, into the 250-level event in Marseille, France.
“I think we’ll start from here. I’m just starting my season, second tournament, and it’s exciting. A lot of new things around. I think I’m dealing with them pretty well, but we’ll start from here. It’s really encouraging the level that I played at the end of the match,” he said.
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.