Canada’s Félix Auger-Aliassime, who (finally) turns 18 in three weeks, may not yet be at the level of the highly-promoted “Next Gen” that includes his friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov.
But after spending the better part of three months grinding it out on the red clay in Europe, he’s gaining ground quickly.
Auger-Aliassime lost a heartbreaker Thursday night at the Croatia Open in Umag to 20-year-old Andrey Rublev of Russia.
Ranked No. 35 to Auger-Aliassime’s No. 144, Rublev – another member of the Next Gen – came out the winner 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3 after exactly 2 1/2 hours.
The match featured some dazzling, high-powered groundstroking.
And the Canadian gave as good as he got – until the last five minutes.
Rublev has been out three months, since Monte Carlo in mid-April, as he dealt with a back injury.
He won his first career ATP Tour title a year ago in Umag.
And so it was both a perfect place to return but also a risky place to return, with all those points to defend.
An early loss, and Rublev would have dropped out of the top 50.
Clay tested, Umag approved
Auger-Aliassime, who had received a wild card into that Monte Carlo event, was playing in his 11th tournament since then.
With a brief pit stop at home after the French Open, he piled up eight Challengers, the Estoril ATP event and the French Open qualifying.
The Russian, surprisingly, didn’t look rusty or tentative. And Auger-Aliassime was right there with him.
He was even up a break early in the third set, before Rublev broke him back to tie the match at 3-3.
But the Canadian was broken at love in the 3-4 game, which included a couple of angry racket tosses. And Rublev (not without difficulty), served it out.
Rublev was pretty emotional about it. And Auger-Aliassime shook umpire Damian Steiner’s hand before crossing over to the other side of the court to hug Rublev.
The kid turned very 17 after that, punching his fist repeatedly towards the stands, and throwing down his gear once he returned to his chair.
(That’s Auger-Aliassime’s mother, Marie, above his right shoulder).
Auger-Aliassime had a full Tennis Canada support crew in Umag, in addition to his mother.
The two coaches he works with, who usually trade off travelling with him, both were on hand: Guillaume Marx, who is the head coach for the national program boys, and Frédéric Fontang, longtime coach of Vasek Pospisil who is now a coach with the Canadian Davis Cup team.
No grass – and now to hard courts
The teenager’s clay spring and summer meant that he passed on playing any grass-court tennis at all.
And, assuming he takes a well-deserved rest after playing the last six weeks straight, he will be short of hard-court match play with two of the biggest tournaments of his career coming up.
Auger-Aliassime missed all of the Canadian Challenger events and his Rogers Cup debut in his hometown of Montreal last summer, because of a wrist injury.
You would expect him to make that debut this year, as the men’s event is held in Toronto. That’s in 2 1/2 weeks.
After that, he will head to the US Open, where he won the junior event in 2016 and reached the second round of qualifying a year ago.
Auger-Aliassime’s ATP Tour ranking, after this clay swing, could stand inside the top 140 although there are five players still alive this week who would jump ahead of him by winning their next match.
There is no one younger than Auger-Aliassime ranked higher. There aren’t even any 18-year-olds ranked higher. Three 19-year-olds (Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur) are in the top 75.
The next 17-year-old in the rankings is Germany’s Rudy Molleker, at No. 275.
Auger-Aliassime may well end up being seeded in the US Open qualifying.
(All illustrations TennisTV screenshots, except the exhibition photo and the feature pic)