MELBOURNE, Australia — Growing up in Quebec City, Felix Auger Aliassime learned to play from his father, a tennis instructor who had emigrated from Togo in West Africa. It wasn’t until he saw Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play their classic Wimbledon final in 2008, though, that he fell in love with the game.
"I was like, yeah, this is what I want to do, that’s where I want to be — a professional tennis player," he said. "That inspired me a lot."
Auger Aliassime is well on his way. Now 15, he is playing in his second Grand Slam junior tournament, seeded fourth in the boy’s singles at the Australian Open.
It’s a big moment for him — and his country. Canada, a growing hotbed for tennis, also has several promising juniors in the girl’s draw, the result of a new approach by Tennis Canada to develop talent through a system of national training centres across the country, increased investment and the recruitment of elite coaches.
Eight years after the first — and largest — training centre opened in Montreal, the program is starting to show results. Not only have Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard established themselves in the pro ranks, there’s also a group of talented younger players rising through the ranks.
Two Canadian girls are ranked in the top 10 in juniors — 15-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who is the top seed at Melbourne Park and through to the third round; and 17-year-old Charlotte Robillard-Millette, who was seeded third but lost in the first round.
And last year, Auger Aliassime became the youngest player ever to win a match at the Challenger level on the ATP Tour and the first player born in this millennium to hold an ATP ranking (he’s now No. 737 in the world).
"We were known for hosting great tournaments," Sylvain Bruneau, the Canadian Fed Cup captain, said of his country’s old tennis reputation. "But we were a poor nation at the elite level and in our representation at Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Grand Slams and stuff like that."
"So we really wanted to change that and put the structure in place," he added. "There was a change in philosophy in how we were going to go about things."
Auger Aliassime, who is 6-foot-2 (1.88 metres) and still growing, is one of the products of the new system.
Formerly coached by his father, Sam, Auger Aliassime now works full-time with Guillaume Marx, who used to coach at the French Tennis Federation under Louis Borfiga, the man behind the success of top players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils and now a top development official at Tennis Canada.
Auger Aliassime idolizes Tsonga and plays a little like him, too. He has a powerful forehand and booming serve that reaches about 180 kmh (112 mph) — or at least, this is the fastest he’s served at the Australian Open, the first time he’s been able to clock it.
He has so much power in his game, in fact, he had trouble keeping the ball in the court against Italy’s Andres Ciurletti in the first round, sending one over the fence on Court 14 into the shrubs. He won the match, though, and plays for a spot in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
"He’s a very intense and complete player overall. Doesn’t have much weakness," Marx said as he watched Auger Aliassime warm up before the match.
"His attitude and physique and technique sometimes on the serve remind me of Jo Tsonga," he added. "But more the attitude and the game reminds me a little bit more like (Andre) Agassi. He likes to take the ball early and he’s starting his career with a strong backhand."
Auger Aliassime, who shares a birthday with Federer (his other favourite player), saw how much he needs to improve when he played in a few lower-level professional tournaments last year.
"It’s a whole different game and you have to be ready for that," he said. "These guys are intense from the first point to the last one."
On the girl’s side, both Andreescu and Robillard-Millette have also shown a lot of promise.
Andreescu lived part-time in her parents’ native Romania as a young child before being accepted at the national training centre in Toronto when she was 10. She now works with Nathalie Tauziat, a former French pro who reached the Wimbledon final in 1998.
While she looks up to Bouchard, Andreescu’s favourite player is a Romanian, Simona Halep, whom she met at Wimbledon last year.
"I feel like we have similar game styles so I really look up to her," she said.
Robillard-Millette, meanwhile, trains in Montreal under Ralph Platz, who formerly coached Bouchard. A left-handed baseliner with a fiery demeanour on court, she credited the program with giving her everything she needed to develop her game.
For Tennis Canada, the investment could pay off soon because all the young Canadians have big ambitions.
"I want to become No. 1 in the world," Andreescu said, "And win as many Grand Slams as possible."